Published: August 31, 2005

The old firehouse narrows as it rises over Knickerbocker Avenue like a church spire, but it's not a church, so the firefighters call it the Ant Farm because it's narrow and crowded and it looks like one of those, too. Sometimes they call it the House of Pain.

The captain of the ladder company has a gray crew cut. He lost his bike to a thief at the corner of Halsey Street and Wilson Avenue where the Monitti Pharmacy used to be. It was a Schwinn Deluxe Hornet, red and black with white racing stripes, and he paid $80 for it in 1956, a lot of currency for a drugstore delivery boy, which is what he was then.

Now, five decades later, he is a fire captain, Ron Carritue of Ladder Company 112, and he says he will not leave Bushwick until he finds the bike.

He can stay, but the firehouse he pedaled past and then worked in cannot. The Ant Farm has been shuttered for three years, and workers took out the boiler last week. Before classes start around the corner at I.S. 291 on Sept. 8, the city plans to knock down the brick walls to make way for a new firehouse, an $8 million one with glass walls.

By rights the Ant Farm has spent its share of luck, outlasting its design, housing two companies in a space built for one and surviving the arsonists who burned most everything around it. New York was tough, and the firehouse was there a while.

"That's probably the best compliment you can pay a man in this job, to say he's a good fireman," Captain Carritue said, "and there were a lot of good firemen in that house."

The city has made landmarks of 17 firehouses, four of them in Brooklyn. Others in historic districts were spared the wrecking ball, too, but the Ant Farm was nobody's preservation project. When it comes down, the men will move into a building they do not much care for and they will get used to it and do their jobs.

For now they wait a few blocks away at a firehouse attached to a police station house on Ralph Avenue. Firefighter Matt Merecka would have preferred a pay raise to a new house. "It was a perfectly good firehouse over here," he said.

His captain related what was good about it. "Bushwick is known for the three-story frames," Captain Carritue said. That's why the Ant Farm's stones and brick worked best, he said, "The historic solid firehouse look, not the tinny modern look, because that's what gave the neighborhood stability."

Stability is like anything; it comes and it goes. The 1913 Brooklyn Daily Eagle Almanac said a new firehouse would be built at 582 Knickerbocker Avenue for an engine company; the job was done with slats in the concrete to allow washing out the manure. The 1914 almanac said Engine Company 277 had moved in under command of Capt. J. Maliband.

Cleaning burned-out basements in the neighborhood, latter-day firefighters would unearth promotional materials from that time, pictures of tree-lined streets with captions in German and Italian saying, "Come to Bushwick." Old-timers would remember people washing their stoops and dancing Saturday nights at Schwabenhall.

Engine 277 never lost a man until May 26, 1940; on the way to a false alarm the rig hit a truck, and Firefighter Patrick Devlin died of his injuries.

In September 1973, new schools were planned for Bushwick, and one of two firehouses had to go. A deputy chief ordered Ladder 112 to back up to the wall of its house on Madison Street, then sent over Engine 277 to park in front, said Captain Carritue, then in his third year on the job.

The engine stuck six inches out the door, so the deputy chief sent both rigs to the firehouse on Knickerbocker Avenue, where they fit front to back with six inches to spare.

In this manner it was decided. The men of Ladder 112 loaded their lockers onto the rig and moved to the Ant Farm. Two days after they were gone, the firehouse on Madison Street burned to the ground, Captain Carritue said.

"People knew how to set fires in Bushwick," he said. "Gallon of gas, flight of stairs."

On Knickerbocker Avenue, a dozen men shared a house built for six, and two rigs parked in a drive built for one, a horse-drawn one. On the third floor the men built tiers and a catwalk to fit in twice as many metal lockers.

Time was passed sitting on the Dumpsters outside the crowded walls, listening to the Jive Five, the Del Vikings and the Moonglows on the Don K. Reed show.

"There were two times you could leave - getting lunch and getting a haircut," said Chief Robert Spellman of Battalion 37. "Getting a haircut" could mean a visit with the wife while on duty. Those out of favor with the captain had to come back with clipped hair in a bag.

"Both companies did so much fire duty, we didn't have time to not get along," said Vincent W. Julius, captain of Ladder 112 in the late 1970's, when they called any fire bigger than three alarms a Bushwick Sunrise. "The men would say, 'When I die, I want a Viking funeral. I want to float down Knickerbocker Avenue on a burning mattress with all the hydrants open.' "

The companies responded when looters rampaged through Bushwick in the July 1977 blackout. Six days later, some of the same firefighters were on duty when three teenagers in a knitting factory lighted a glue bag to destroy evidence they had sniffed its contents.

"We had just finished lunch and the box came in," said Les Satterfield, 71, who served with Engine 277 at the time of the emergency call on the fire box. "Just as the box came in, there were people banging on the windows."

Brooklyn ran out of hands that day. Thirteen units from Manhattan had to come help put out the fire. Twenty-three buildings burned; Schwabenhall was one.

"It had high ceilings and it was all wood, so that went up pretty fast," Firefighter Satterfield said. "We had a good time in there. And when I say 'good,' I mean we had our hands full."

The fire-starters, the high, the angry and the desperate, are mostly gone now. Vinnie Figueroa, 45, who works at the bodega across the street from the Ant Farm, points up and down the block to note the lack of vagrants when he says, "Everybody got their own house over here."

Knickerbocker Avenue is Lola's Hair Designs, the Vasquez Grocery, the Kraupner Pharmacy and the Iglesia Pentecostal Church, where the sign says Cristo Salva y Sana.

The children climb through a hole in the fence on Palmetto Street with a ball and they shoot granny-style at a hoop in the firehouse yard. On the door somebody has written "Holla Back," and the windows are dark and reflective. Captain Carritue and his company are over on Ralph Avenue waiting for something.

"You know how many people are trying to go back to the old days?" asked the captain. He has heard somebody started making furniture out of old Schwinns, and he says that might be something.

Photos: Chester Higgins Jr./The New York Times

1) The Knickerbocker Avenue firehouse in Brooklyn, completed in 1914, has been empty and vulnerable to vandals for three years.

2) The former home of Engine 277 will soon fall to the wrecking ball.

3) Capt. Ron Carritue, below, working at a temporary firehouse on Ralph Avenue, remembers it as the Ant Farm.