Tuesday, February 24, 2015

TV/Movie Set : Herbie Rides Again ( 1974 ) - The Firehouse

Situated on a hilltop overlooking the city of San Francisco is the home of Mrs. Steinmetz. On the outside, it appears to be a vacant ramshackled tower, but on the inside it is a cozy home tastefully decorated and filled with happy memories.

Alonzo Hawk ( Keenan Wynn ) a ruthless real estate developer, wants to demolish this structure to plough the way for the foundation of his grandest building to date - Hawk Towers. He offers a generous buyout for Mrs. Steinmetz ( Helen Hayes ) but she will not sell her home to anyone, least of all to Hawk, who is simply intent on destroying it. Rallying around to support her is Nicole ( Stephanie Powers ) and Hawk's own nephew Willoughby ( Ken Barry ) but it is Herbie who saves the day when the firehouse becomes the target of Hawk's wrecking ball.

This is the plot to Herbie Rides Again, the 1974 Walt Disney sequel to its smash hit, The Love Bug. Unlike most sequels, the principal characters do not return in this film and so a new story had to be written around its one and only returning star - Herbie. Gordon Buford and Bill Walsh teamed up to weave this plot which made the Victorian firehouse the focal point of the film. 

It is in The Love Bug that we first see Engine House No. 3 as the garage where Herbie, the living Volkswagen, is kept and repaired on. Tennessee Steinmetz ( Buddy Hackett ) lives above this converted garage and, when he is not repairing on cars, he practices Buddhist spiritual enlightenment which contributed to his belief in the life of inanimate objects. 

Living with Tennessee is his friend Jim Douglas, a down-in-his-luck racer who later finds success on the track with the help of Herbie. To fulfill a long held dream of driving foreign race cars, Douglas eventually leaves San Francisco to tour Europe as a circuit racer. Tennessee journeyed off to Tibet to further his studies in Oriental philosophy but not before leaving his beloved Herbie and the engine house to his aunt, Mrs. Steinmetz. 

In its glory days during the late 1800s the firehouse was an operating branch of the San Francisco Fire Department. During the 1940s this Victorian painted lady was home to one of the city's finest firefighters - Captain Steinmetz. It was also at Engine House No. 3 that the Captain wed his beloved, Mrs. Steinmetz. 

We can assume that later, when the firehouse is about to become abandoned, Captain Steinmetz buys the engine house for nostalgia and it eventually passes into Tennessee's hands. 

The kitchen & dining room
The engine house is a lovely Victorian stick design and it was situated in a thriving community until Alonzo Hawk bulldozed the neighboring buildings. Living with Mrs. Steinmetz in the engine house is Nicole, her displaced neighbor, and a collection of other living objects that Herbie befriended over the years. These include an orchestrion and Old No. 22, a retired trolley car. 

The open foyer
Walt Disney's resident art director, John B. Mansbridge, was put in charge of redesigning the interior of the engine house that he had designed six years earlier for the making of The Love Bug. With the help of legendary art director Walter H. Tyler, he created a simple and cheerfully bright interior suitable to a fire chief's widow. 

Light wood paneling is abundant in Mrs. Steinmetz's abode and the floor is covered in old bricks. The stalls which most likely originally stored a chemical wagon, and later a fire engine, remain intact and act as a partition between the dining room and the living area.

Nicole resides with Mrs. Steinmetz at the firehouse but we are not shown her bedroom, however a brief glimpse of Mrs. Steinmetz's upstairs bedroom is seen when she is giving advice to Nicole on how to fetch a man. Note the brass firepole....it's a good thing Mrs. Steinmetz doesn't walk in her sleep! 

Handling the set decoration is Hal Gausman who also had a prolific 19-year career at the Walt Disney Studios. The set decor is very similar to the Biddles' stable interior in The Happiest Millionaire ( 1967 ) but, oddly enough, that wasn't one of Gausman's projects. 

In reality, Victorian interiors were generally very dark and depressing, but the art directors and set decorators of the Walt Disney films always took these painted ladies and gave them a bright colorful tone. A bold psychedelic poster in the kitchen and a few crocheted oven-mits are about the only elements in Engine House No. 3 that date the interior from being designed in the 1970s. 

The next time you take a gander at Herbie Rides Again, be sure to not overlook the timeless design of this converted firehouse and all the charming details that Hal Gausman included. It will almost make you want to restore a Number 3 engine house yourself! 


  1. My wife still has white wicker furniture. If you know how to help me get rid of it, I'm all ears.

    1. Well, you could always pretend you're the Wicker Man and burn it in your backyard.