Behind Red Door No. 5 everything old is recycled anew by metal artist Dominique Martinez.
The French-born Martinez is a master of welding and melding other people’s junk into out-sized and fanciful sculptures. His early signature work featured very large swooping dragons, up to 35-feet across.
His figures often pop up outdoors in public spaces in Tampa and around the Tampa Bay region.
He frequently drives his truck around town carrying his latest creations to test for wind resistance. Don't be surprised to see a robotic-like dog with floppy ears or a bald eagle in the truck’s bed. One of his dragons landed on the roof of Associated Watch & Jewelry on Kennedy Boulevard. Then, there is the giant Lightning hockey player and a “rogue rhinoceros” that appeared in the Tampa Heights’ community garden, all of them eye-catching to motorists and pedestrians passing by.
Martinez is a daily hunter for the elements of his artistic palette. Computer boards, kitchen utensils, conveyor belts, and caulking guns are among his prized treasures.
“I see it on the side of the street, I pick it up,” he says.
For years Martinez forged most of his art at Rustic Steel Creations, his studio on the northern edge of Tampa Heights just north of downtown, on a triangular spit of land at Highland Avenue and Tampa Street.
Entrance at the Red Door No. 5.
These days Martinez is living and working in a new domicile at the former Tampa Fire Station No. 5, at 1910 N. Florida Ave. The converted fire station is the new Red Door No. 5, a gallery and second studio.
And, a premier event venue for romantic weddings, receptions, corporate parties, holiday parties, and assorted shindigs at which guests mingle amid metal artwork, paintings by local artists, antiques, and vintage furniture from around the world.
Among the venue's patrons are Oxford Exchange, and Taste on the Town, where guests enjoy special “pop-up” dinners in unexpected places. A commercial kitchen is available for caterers.
“It’s very intimate, very charming, eclectic, and extremely unique in design,” Martinez says. “My objective when I started, is I want them to say, ‘Wow, I don’t feel like I’m in Tampa anymore.' ”
The decommissioned firehouse is a Tampa Heights’ landmark built in the Mediterranean revival-style. A five-story bell tower, original to the building, still jabs skyward.
It’s a prime example of how old abandoned buildings are being creatively repurposed across the nation.
For old fire stations everywhere, there is a growing renaissance.
Reenvision, rebuild, repurpose, restart
The Silverking Brewing Co. is in the former Tarpon Springs Fire Station No. 169, located on Lemon Street in Tarpon Springs. The original structure served as a jail in the early 1900s and nearly 50 years later became a firehouse.
In 2013, the nonprofit Firehouse Cultural Center opened in Ruskin in a 1900s fire station selected as the centerpiece for a master-planned revitalization of the Ruskin community in Hillsborough County.
Tampa’s old fire station became Martinez’ obsession.
He is a man willing to take risks for his passions and to take a chance on the future.
In the 1990s he arrived in Tampa via Salt Lake City on the whim of a dart tossed at a map of the United States.
The dart landed somewhere between Orlando and Tampa, and Tampa won him over. He worked in the corporate world by day but started dabbling in art and sharpening high school-taught welding skills by night.
His first efforts were mirrors and picture frames at a shop owned by a friend.
“I always wanted to work with metal,” he says. “I’d draw these doodles.” At 2 a.m. he would wake up with ideas in his head and go to the shop.
He finally walked away from the day job, not quite sure if he could make a living as an artist.
“It’s not all about making money to me,” he says.
Martinez found success on his first job making an ornate railing for a home in Harbor Walk. His early bread-and-butter work was in creative, functional gates, staircases, mirrors, and frames.
The more whimsical metal artwork followed.
He became a force in the burgeoning arts community in the Channel District and moved into a converted warehouse on 12th Street. But what seemed like never-ending street construction, with noise and dust, drove him away.
He headed to Tampa Heights and a new space for Rustic Steel, where he still works. Red Door #5 expanded his options.
“By living here, I could get a lot more work done,” he says.
Creating a unique experience
In daylight Florida Avenue traffic whizzes past the white stucco façade of Red Door #5, with the wide red fire doors, and the thin-bodied metal soldiers standing guard at an entry on Ross Avenue.
A 1966 Volvo in the courtyard at Red Door No. 5.
Sometimes a 1930 Model A Ford is parked outside, or even indoors.
Three skeletal apparitions sometimes stand watch in a courtyard patio.
Lights pinpoint the station and the tower at night with a red glow. The bell tower is manned by a lone female mannequin of department store origins -- one of Martinez’s more whimsical decorative choices.
For Martinez, the journey to his new home and studio took more than a decade.
But it was love at first sight -- by flashlight -- when Martinez walked around the exterior of the building in the dark. He had climbed an outer staircase earlier only to discover a false door.
The flashlight peeks inside fascinated him.
“Wow, this is incredible,” he thought. “I want to find out about this.”
The city of Tampa retired the station in 1984 but occasionally allowed various organizations to use the building before putting it on the market in 2006.
Three bidders, including Martinez, seized the opportunity. Martinez won out over proposals to open a French consulate with a restaurant and loft apartments with retail, possibly including a dry cleaner.
“I want to live, work in a place that can be open to the general public,” he told city officials.
The building needed major structural work including new plumbing, electrical, sewage, and repairs from termite damage.
Martinez didn’t pick an auspicious time to finance a major rehabilitation. The Great Recession nearly stopped him.
“I never give up on my dreams,” he says. “If I tell people I’ll do something, I do it.”
Slowly, he began the long process of restoration. He moved into the fire station in December 2015 but still had work to do, including turning on water and heat.
His first wedding reception didn’t happen until April 2017.
Martinez salvaged wood trusses from the old roof and made a polished wood floor for a raised, step-up lounge area.
Ceilings rise nearly 15 feet; exposed pipes create an industrial chic ambiance. A fireman’s pole rises from ground level to Martinez’ loft apartment above.
Nooks and corners offer surprises everywhere.
A scrap metal angler fish “bicycle” with buggy eyes is off to the side at the gallery entrance, behind two massive, salvaged barn doors.
An American flag hangs in an alcove. Paintings and vintage furniture from around the world are intriguing conversation pieces.
A replica of an angler fish made by Dominique Martinez, owner of Rustic Steel.
Ornate ox cart frames are paired to make bookshelves. Another curio display case is crafted from part of a more than 300-pound dugout canoe from India.
Translucent “ghost” chairs encircle an antique dining table. Martinez says ghosts that once haunted the fire station are gone. Years ago, a team of ghost hunters reportedly snapped photographic proof of an apparition.
The courtyard is paved with bricks donated by the city of Tampa. Strings of lights crisscross the patio. Bushes carved into faces, with dark vacant orbs, gaze on the party scenes.
Planning for the future
Like everything at Red Door No. 5, the patio is a work-in-progress awaiting Martinez’s next idea. Artwork changes.
So far this year, 11 couples tied the knot and celebrated at the gallery.
For wedding couples who ask, Martinez climbs an indoor ladder to the mannequin’s bell tower and rings the 150-pound brass bell hanging above.
With a 360-degree view, Martinez says on clear days the Sunshine Skyway bridge can be seen.
“This showcases what Tampa does,” he says. “It’s a labor of love.”
To learn more about Red Door No. 5 visit their website or follow them on Facebook.
Here are links to additional organizations mentioned in this 83 Degrees story: Rusitc Steel Creations, Oxford Exchange, Toast on The Town, Silver King Brewing, Firehouse Cultural Center, and Associated Watch & Jewelry.