Historic firehouse gets a makeover

New owners of building on National Register turn old station into business headquarters with an eye toward preserving a part of Port Washington’s past

EACH WITH A hand on the scissors, Lake Financial Group Managing Partners Justin Behm (left) and Brian Barber cut a ribbon Tuesday to mark the opening of the company’s headquarters in Port Washington’s historic firehouse. Others on hand were (from left) Tish Hase, Penny Butler, Paul Baldino, Brad Katzer, Julia Behm, Cliff Behm, Andi Barber, Steve Barber, Nicole Depies and Joe Lamb. Photo by Sam Arendt
Ozaukee Press staff

If you look around the new offices of Lake Financial Group in downtown Port Washington, you will see signs of the building’s past as the city’s historic firehouse.

There’s the light fixture in the main conference room made by company managing partners Brian Barber and Justin Behm  that incorporates pieces of an old fire hose found in the building as well as a ladder.

The old concrete floors, original to the building, have been ground and sealed to give them a polished appearance.

Original blueprints have been framed and hung in the offices.

And sitting in the attic waiting for shelves to be built so they can be displayed are pieces of firefighting memorabilia, including an old firefighter’s jacket, mask and helmet as well as a vintage fire hose and extinguisher.

Those are just a few of the interior finishes. Outside, the building has been restored to its glory. The red tile roof has been repaired and copper gutters and downspouts installed. The decorative rafter tails that support the gutters have been repaired and replaced as needed, the building repainted and the landscaping refreshed.

The building — which served as the city’s firehouse from 1929 until 1967 — opened as Lake Financial in September. On Tuesday, the company held an open house to show off their renovation work to the community.

“We’re excited to be here,” Behm said. “It’s been a heck of a journey.”

It was six years ago when Lake Financial opened its office in Port Washington in the Boerner Mercantile Building on Franklin Street, another historic downtown building.

When the partners realized the business was outgrowing its offices, they looked again for a historic structure.

“We grew up here and we’ve put our roots down here. We knew we wanted a building that was significant to Port’s story,” Barber said at the time.

They settled on the historic firehouse and set about making plans to renovate the structure, which is on the National Register of Historic Places.

The fact the building is on the register might have deterred some people, since renovations have to meet specific standards and be approved by the state, but Barber and Behm said the process wasn’t overly arduous.

“It was a bit challenging,” Barber said. “But ultimately they want to make sure you’re keeping the building historic and respecting it.”

“They’re not trying to restrict people from doing what they want to do,” Behm added. “They just want you to do right by the building.”

Sometimes, they admitted, that meant extra expense. For example, they replaced the original copper valleys, gutters and downspouts with new ones instead of replacing them with faux copper pieces.

“It’s an added expense to do true copper gutters,” Barber said. “But now looking at them, I’m glad we were forced to do copper and maintain that historic look. 

“Ultimately, it’s been a blessing.”

The men bought the building in June and almost immediately started renovations, doing as much of the work themselves as they could, aided by family members and friends.

“I never glazed windows before,” Behm said. “Now I have.”

They discovered challenges they never expected, such as the fact that today’s 2-by-4s aren’t the same dimension as those used when the building was constructed in 1929.

“We couldn’t just go out and get a 2-by-4,” Behm said. “They had to be specially milled.” 

The men found themselves doing a wide variety of the work. They removed the vinyl tile flooring and carpeting that had been installed over the concrete, spending about six hours removing the top layer and several days for the rest.

“They put that down with so much glue it was never moving on its own,” Barber said.

When they removed the flooring in the lower level where the truck bays were originally located the men discovered faint yellow lines delineating the stalls where each truck would park.

“That was so cool to see,” Barber said.

Unfortunately, they said, the floor had to be ground to remove globs of glue that stuck and that process removed those faint lines.

The lower level will continue to house a banquet hall that will be operated by Barber’s wife Andi and Behm’s wife Julia.

Behm and his dad Clifford removed the damaged rafter tails, created a template and cut new ones. But when they went to install them, they discovered that the rafter tails on different portions of the building were of slightly different proportions, so they had to trim those they had built.

Along with financial advisor Brad Katzer, who used to work in construction, they did a significant amount of work to supplement that done by the contractors they hired, who took on the sometimes painstaking work needed to restore the building.

Left unfinished are the upper levels of the building and the hose tower, where the fire department used to hang the hoses to dry.

It was there that the men discovered one of the most unique features of the building — the signatures of firefighters from days past.

  One signature, dated Oct. 14, 1929, includes an inscription noting that was the day the hoses were first hung there.

  “It looks they wrote it yesterday,” Barber said. “They’re as clear as the day they were written.”

    The wooden beams from which the hoses hung have worn so much that they’re rounded on the top, he said, adding he would someday like to hang hoses from them again. 

But for a building that has such historic roots, there are plenty of modern amenities that have been incorporated. 

For example, when the first employees arrive in the morning, they only have to say “Good morning Alexa” and the lights go on, music starts playing and they hear a joke. When they leave, they say, “Alexa, good night” and the lights go out and they are told one unusual, fun fact for the day.

That’s courtesy of Barber, the company’s resident tech expert, who said, “You should learn something new each day.”


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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

125 E. Main St.
Port Washington, WI 53074
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