The nation’s leading Afro-Caribbean cultural center will begin construction in early 2014 on new $5.5 million home in a converted landmark firehouse on 125th St. in East Harlem


The nation’s leading Afro-Caribbean cultural center will begin constructionin early 2014 on an eye-catching new $5.5 million home in a converted landmark firehouse on 125th St. in East Harlem.

Shuttered by the city in 2003 in a cost-cutting move, the crumbling, horse and buggy-era firehouse has been vacant for a decade, creating a dead zone on Harlem’s booming main thoroughfare.

That will dramatically change by the summer of 2015, when the Caribbean Cultural Center-African Diaspora Institute opens its doors in the four-story, red-brick and stone structure at 120 E. 125th St.

The nonprofit CCCADI, founded in 1976, plans to transform the 8,500-square-foot site into a showcase for educational and cultural programs, documenting the African traditions that have been uprooted to the Caribbean and the Americas.

Music, literature, dance, film, visual arts and the sacred religious and tribal beliefs of the global African Diaspora will all be presented in the former home of Engine Co. 36, a Romanesque Revival-style firehouse built in 1888.

Plans call for exhibition and performance spaces, meeting and community rooms, classrooms and offices, a cafe, media center, gallery, pantry and gift shop — all of which will be sandwiched into the narrow, 25-foot-wide building.

With a modest $1.1 million budget, a five-member staff and major fund-raising challenges ahead, the people leading the project say they can dare to dream bigger:

“We hope one day soon we’ll be a line item in the New York City budget so we can receive annual funding — just like the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the American Museum of Natural History,” said Marta Moreno Vega, CCCADI’s founder and president.

“People come to the Met to see the stories . . . but we also have a responsibility to tell our stories — the stories of people of Caribbean descent and African ancestry, and our contributions to the city and the nation and the world.”

Born and raised in East Harlem to parents who grew up in Puerto Rico, Vega, who served as director of El Museo del Barrio from 1969 to 1974, is trying to make sure the story of her forebears is broadcast to the world.

And she says the old firehouse, on the block between Park and Lexington Aves., is the perfect place to promote the cultures of Africa in the New World and connect Diaspora communities to their root cultures.

The saga began in 2003 when Mayor Bloomberg decommissioned five firehouses. Four years later, the city convened a task force to determine how the Harlem facility should be repurposed.

Two city development agencies solicited requests for proposals from nonprofit community facilities, and the CCCADI, then located in a townhouse at 408 W. 58th St., was selected in 2008.

With financing and technical help from the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs, Economic Development Corp. and Department of Housing, Preservation & Development, it launched a capital campaign, sold its townhouse and hunted for cash.

“Folks in the community gave us five bucks and 10 bucks,” said Melody Capote, CCCADI’s chief fund-raiser.

Meanwhile, more than a dozen elected officials and governmental agencies shelled out the big bucks, with the city kicking in $3.7 million and the state $1.5 million.

With most of the money in hand, the cultural center will be able to seek permits and preconstruction approvals later this year — and when the conversion is finally completed, it can buy the firehouse from the city for $1.

“A vacant firehouse is about to become a vibrant cultural space, a major community asset, an economic engine for the neighborhood — and a great bridge-builder between Latinos with African roots and African-Americans,” said City Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito (D-East Harlem).

The center will offer concerts, gallery tours, workshops, performances, conferences, art exhibits, seminars, spiritual gatherings and artists residencies.