words and images: Dwain Hebda
There’s seemingly nothing about firefighting that Johnny Reep doesn’t know. Holding court in Little Rock’s Firehouse Hostel and Museum he’s a backdraft of data on the honorable, vital and sometimes deadly profession. As we talk, one fact leads to another, the conversation fanning out like a Zippo in a hayloft.
The evolution of the fire engine? Check. The etymology of the term “hook-and-ladder”? Double check. Deciphering the buzz and chatter of antique street-mounted fire alarms as they alerted central dispatch? Johnny knows it all.
“I’ll even slide down this thing if you want me to,” he says, halfway through a dissertation on the origin of the brass fireman’s pole.
Johnny comes by his encyclopedic knowledge honestly, having spent thirty years with the Little Rock Fire Department. His attachment to the hostel has grown over the past twelve years, as he and others who believed in the project, counted each dollar that was raised and each inch that was restored.
“It was in such disrepair,” Johnny says. “It had multiple layers of wallcovering and ceiling, and to put it into the use that you see today took many, many Dumpster loads and many volunteers stripping it out.
“Now, it’s part of the preservation of the neighborhood just like these old beautiful houses downtown. We feel so blessed to have this facility here, and we wanted to enhance it, and we think we have. We’re keeping it alive.”
The extraordinary story of the Firehouse Hostel and Museum begins near the start of the twentieth century. Commissioned for service in 1917, the Craftsman-style Fire Station 2 served the city for forty years until modern firetrucks became too large for it to handle. A new station was built just across MacArthur Park to the north, officially ending the old firehouse’s first glory days.
From there, the structure was used for whatever miscellaneous tasks the city had including storage, housing a children’s meals program and, unintentionally, shelter for squatters and trespassers, one of whom nearly burned the place down.
Along about 2006, a group of citizens formed the nonprofit Hostelling Arkansas, Inc., and approached the city with the novel idea of turning the two-story fire station into a hostel with a museum display on the main floor. After some negotiation, the nonprofit agreed to raise the money to refurbish the building—roughly a half-million-dollar proposition—and lease the structure from the city to operate as a hostel. Today, Firehouse receives no public appropriations, although the city still picks up the tab on utilities as owner of the property.
Johnny, a board member with the nonprofit, remembers the city being more confused than opposed to the original idea, a posture he could appreciate considering hostels are largely foreign concepts in these parts.
“I was still on active [fireman] duty when they [Hostelling Arkansas, Inc.] called me about being involved,” he remembers. “They called and said, ‘How would you like to put a museum inside a hostel?’ I didn’t know what a hostel was.”
The Little Rock venture isn’t the first hostel in the state—one operated in the White River community of Gilbert for years—but at present, it’s the only one open in Arkansas. Fellow board member Anncha Briggs said while hostels aren’t as numerous in America as in her native Sweden and throughout Europe, they’re becoming much more common.
“You go on the internet and look up hostelling, you find that every major city has one, two, three, four hostels,” Anncha says. “And I really felt like Little Rock did need a hostel.”
For the uninitiated, a hostel is a lodging option that more resembles a bed and breakfast than a motel. Typically much cheaper than a hotel room, accommodations are shared among guests in the way of dorm-style bunk beds and communal bathrooms. In Firehouse’s case, there are two sleeping units upstairs, segregated by gender, with a total of twenty-six beds.
The remaining ten beds are on the main floor, which includes the four-bed Captain’s Room and a family/handicap accessible room that sleeps six, both of which are co-ed, for those traveling together. Bunks start at under $30 per night and include a continental breakfast with common areas and shared kitchen set-up for cooking one’s own meals.
The close proximity and relative lack of privacy compared to a traditional hotel room is the biggest culture shock to most American guests. However, considering half of the Firehouse guests are international—to date, representing more than forty countries—most chalk it up to a unique opportunity to mingle with people from around the world.
“You’re going to have to be willing to share, and you have to like people,” Anncha says. “We have a little bit of everything, actually all ages. You know, we don’t talk about youth hostels anymore; it used to be when I was young there would be youth hostels. And then we had something called elder hostel. But those words have totally disappeared.
“People of all ages hostel. We have a nineteen-year-old and a sixty-, seventy-, eighty-year-old sitting next to each other, having breakfast.”
To gain prestige in the hostel community, Firehouse became a member of Hostelling International, which requires its members to maintain certain standards, criteria backed up by periodic inspections. Firehouse has also benefited from being listed on Airbnb, Expedia, and other travel websites. Still, having been open to guests for about two years, the modest number of beds don’t sell out often.
“We’re in flyover country, and I think that’s been part of the challenge getting people interested to come to Little Rock,” says John Hedrick, a Texas retiree, and board member. “But then again, we’re between Nashville and Dallas and Oklahoma City so for people going west, it makes a good natural stop. I think everybody who’s stayed has been quite impressed with Little Rock and all the amenities that we have here.”
Having the museum on the ground floor made sense given the building’s history, and it provides a nice diversion for guests, as well as being an attraction in its own right. John said the lure of the museum is the key to the project’s future. “The future here is, we talk about expanding the museum, so you can get trucks in there,” he says. “If you’re going to have a fire museum, you really have to have some early fire trucks in here and expand it on into the parking area for that.”
Johnny adds, “This building was damaged by the 1997 tornado, and when the city remodeled it, they bricked in the front entrance where the fire trucks used to go in and out. So, if somebody gave us the rarest, beautiful fire truck and said display it, we can’t get it in here. An annex would be a dream come true with more hostel beds upstairs, a glass wall on the west side facing Commerce Street, well-lit at night.”
Johnny pauses at the thought of it while the others nod. “We have our dreams,” he says.
Our time at an end, Johnny invites me to partake in a Firehouse tradition, ringing the station bell by a firm yank on a rope. The massive brass bell sings sharply, the clear tone carrying into the Arkansas air like smoke and steam and days gone by.
Firehouse Hostel and Museum
1201 Commerce Street, Little Rock