HAMPTON — Some girls paint pottery or simple white canvases on their birthday. When Caroline Duncan turned 9, she got to paint a fire hydrant – and help decorate a new local business.
Caroline’s creation, part of an ongoing community art project at Firehouse Coffee on Fort Monroe, is a colorful mix of purple, yellow, white, blue and green splashes against a dark gray background. It’s one of nearly 80 old hydrants that were replaced during the redevelopment of the former military site, six of which the coffee house has taken so far to incorporate into its design.
“I wanted to do a galaxy and unicorns, but the unicorns were too hard so I did a lot of stars,” says Caroline, a Yorktown resident who painted with her father, Jeremy Duncan. “It was really cool.”
Staff at the shop, which opened last October at the property’s historic 1881 Fire Station, plan to link customer-decorated hydrants together to surround around their outdoor seating area. If the project continues to spark interest, they likely will ask for more of the surplus hydrants in storage.
“So much of what Fort Monroe is about is appreciating history but also moving forward,” notes Jordan Keith, a Firehouse employee. “We also want to be a place with a little something for everyone – not just grownups who love coffee.”
A former firefighter’s vision
Randy Pryor, who co-owns Firehouse Coffee with his wife, Jill, got the idea from his mid-1980s stint as a professional firefighter in his native Oregon. There, his department let neighborhoods “adopt” and decorate their local hydrants, which saved money on needed repainting.
“People were really creative and proud to make each one their own,” Pryor says. “I felt like the same type of community spirit could happen here.”
The Pryors operate the shop in conjunction with their Segway tour company, Patriot Tours & Provisions, selling breakfast items, salads, sandwiches, pastries and smoothies in addition to coffee and tea. They got the hydrants for free from the Fort Monroe Authority, with a promise that the old equipment would stay on the former base.
Most of the surplus hydrants date to the 1950s, 1960s or 1970s. The Authority swapped them out for models that conform to standard sizes used by the Hampton Fire Department and also is offering some for sale for $250 apiece.
Customers at Firehouse Coffee haven’t disappointed as artists.
One once-rusty, red-and-white hydrant is now a one-eyed yellow minion with a blue cap; another looks like a black and white lighthouse.
“Anybody who wants to paint can just ask us,” Keith says. “All ages. No experience necessary.”
Building a firewall
Employee Maggie Spencer-Pick kicked off the project when she painted the first hydrant, adding shades of blue, yellow and pink and an orange flower. The growing “fence” of hydrants will mark off the patio at the shop’s front entrance on Ruckman Road, which also should help customers know where to park.
“It will be both a fun accent and have a real practical purpose,” Spencer-Pick says. “There are so many different ways people can express themselves on all the parts and sides of a hydrant.”
Caroline and Jeremy Duncan heard about the project from Caroline’s mother, a regular coffee house customer.
They worked on their hydrant for an hour, while Caroline ate cotton candy ice cream and Jeremy sipped on a strawberry-banana smoothie. As a final flourish, she signed her name on one side and he autographed the other.
For a girl who likes to draw and paint – and a dad who studied studio art in college – the chance to leave a mark at an evolving historic site was a special moment. In fact, Jeremy would love to return for another round of hydrant transformation on Caroline’s double-digit birthday next summer.
“Art is something we share,” he says, “so getting to do something so unique together was pretty cool.”