Where There's Smoke The New York City Fire Museum

Where There's Smoke

 These days SoHo is populated by fancy eateries, high-end boutiques, the Apple  store, and of course, the art galleries. On the weekends, the streets are  packed with shoppers and tourists. This neighborhood is characteristic of  several aspects of today’s New York: stylish, modern, hipster, wealthy, trendy.  

 But somewhere tucked away in that same neighborhood is a reminder of New York’s past that highlights an important public service that's often taken for  granted. In fact, if you were in SoHo recently, you might have walked past it  without batting an eye.  

 The spot in question is a renovated 1904 fire station that houses the New York  City Fire Museum. Located at 278 Spring Street, the museum contains old fire  apparatuses, artifacts and artwork from New York’s firefighting past from the 1700s to the present day. Its mission, according to  museum executive director Damon Campagna, is to preserve the history of  firefighting in New York City and promote fire safety. “The collection is owned by the FDNY and the people of New York City,” he says, “and we are the caretakers of that collection.”  

 The original firehouse was active from 1905 until 1959, when its company, Engine  30, was disbanded and the house was turned into the Department’s medical unit. According to Campagna, the FDNY ran its own museum in a spare  bay of a firehouse on Duane Street, but the liquidation of the Home Insurance  Company presented the Department with a unique opportunity. “Home Insurance had one of the most prestigious collections of fire-related  materials in the world and maintained their own museum on Maiden Lane,” says Campagna. “When they faced financial trouble in the 1970s, they sold some of their  collection at auction but turned the bulk over to the FDNY. At that point, the  non-profit which runs the Fire Museum now was created to raise funds to  renovate this firehouse, which was large enough to house the combined  collections.”  

 Drawing about 40,000 visitors annually, Campagna says the museum attracts a  broad mix of people, including foreign visitors. Families make up a large  portion of visitors as well. “The Fire Museum is an exciting place for kids, and for parents, we offer an  inexpensive alternative to other attractions in the city.”  

 From Leather Buckets to Jaws of Life

 The museum’s exhibition area spans two floors. The first floor contains several vintage  fire engines, including an old-style Farnam hand-pumped engine, which has two  arms that are pumped up and down like a see-saw. Among the other fire engines  at the museum are steam engines, such as the 1901 LaFrance.  

 Also on display are a large array of fire alarm boxes, and a wall of patches  representing various engine companies, including one from Antarctica.  Modern-day tools such as the powerful Jaws of Life device are also featured.  Kids and adults alike are even invited to try on firefighter jackets and  helmets.  

 Adding to the authenticity of the experience are the retired New York City  firefighters, such as Wally Malone, formerly of Brooklyn’s Engine 214/Ladder 111, who serve as the museum’s tour guides. During one tour, Malone explains the objects in the museum such  as the buckets, which were first used in the 17th century (when New York was  called New Amsterdam) by citizens in bucket brigades to douse flames.  

 “They were made of leather,” Malone says of the buckets. “They were made by shoemakers because that was the only material that they had.  They hired eight men in the village of New Amsterdam as firefighters, and the  furthest north they went was Wall Street. If they saw a fire, they raised the  alarm and everybody had to come out with their buckets—every family was required to have two.”  

 The museum’s second floor serves as a gallery to 19th century firefighting, made up of more  vintage artifacts—including old fire helmets—and artwork, including a portrait of Harry Howard, chief engineer of New York’s volunteer fire department. “Howard was one of the most courageous and well-respected of the old guard,” Campagna explains. “After a particularly courageous rescue the Board of Aldermen commissioned this  enormous painting of him, and it hung in the City Council Chamber for decades.  He’s also known for implementing the ‘bunk system’ where firemen slept in the firehouse, rather than returning home at night.  Howard also created the Firemen’s Home upstate so that volunteer firemen would have a place to retire to. It’s still around today.”  

 Memorial To Heroes

 Without question, the most poignant aspect of the museum is the permanent  exhibit on firefighting during the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. It  elicits the most feedback from visitors, according to Campagna. “The 9/11 memorial room is a solemn place in the museum,” he says. “There are other memorials, but this one is devoted to the FDNY and active duty  and the members lost that day. Firefighters everywhere understand that  sacrifice and make it a point to pay their respects when visiting New York. It  also provides a tangible place of remembrance to the families of the fallen.”  

 In the center of this exhibit is a display that carries the tiled photographs of  each of the 343 fallen 9/11 firefighters. Additional photographs displayed on  the walls show the devastation and aftermath of the attacks. Remnants of  firefighting equipment, such as the Ladder 4 sign taken from a fire engine that  was destroyed, are preserved in the exhibit.  

 Malone, who served in New York City Fire Department for 33 years, recalls some  of the firefighters who perished on 9/11 as he surveys the photographs on the  display. “The highest ranking man was Pete Ganci. He was the chief of the department—he was a fireman under me in 1975. I’ve been in the New York Marathon with Ray Downey in 1979. This boy, Mike  Esposito, came to our firehouse in 1988.”  

 Educating The Young

 An important mission of the museum, which works in tandem with the FDNY's  Education Unit, is to teach kids between the ages of six and 13 about the  importance of fire safety. The first part, says Campagna, is an age-appropriate  instructional video that imparts such messages as not playing with matches.  Then a New York City firefighter talks about what was discussed in the video.  

 The second part involves taking the kids to a room on the first floor that  serves as a mock apartment, showing a number of potential fire hazards, such as  a blow dryer in a sink. As part of the education session, black lights and  theatrical smoke are used to create a hypothetical fire situation.  

 “We have to do the simulation at the end of the program because the kids get so  excited,” Campagna says. “While they’re in the bedroom portion, smoke fills the mock apartment and the kids get a  chance to display what they’ve learned on the tour, like to get ‘low and go’ and feel the door for heat. The big thing we try to impress is that it’s important to be prepared—to avoid hazards, prevent fires and to have a plan.”  

 Working Towards the Future to Preserve the Past

 The museum's staff includes eight employees and nine retired FDNY volunteers. It  receives funding through admission fees, memberships and donations as well as  grants like one recently awarded by the Lower Manhattan Development  Corporation. Another revenue source is the museum's 3,000-square-foot event  space on the third floor, which can be rented for meetings, weddings, birthday  parties and other special occasions.  

 The New York City Fire Museum also holds its annual firefighter’s cook-off, a fundraising event in which firefighter chefs from other stations  compete against each other to determine who can create the tastiest fare. Its  fourth annual cook-off was held on October 20th to raise money for a Marine  Unit exhibit. Other examples of the museum’s initiatives includes the installation of audio and video interviews of retired  firefighters, as well as a Zouave exhibit, which tells the story of New York  firemen who volunteered for service during the Civil War.  

 “The last few years we’ve used the proceeds for specific artifacts to be restored, like major paintings  for example, but this year our goal was to raise money for a complete display,  which is part of a larger plan to refresh and upgrade the exhibits in general,  some of which are relatively untouched since their installation.”  

 The organization has developed strong ties with the SoHo neighborhood,  especially local businesses, since renovating the firehouse 20 years ago. “Local businesses have been exceptionally generous with providing donations or  services for our fundraisers. We try to reciprocate whenever we can, by  providing family memberships, gift shop discounts or even event space to local  charities and business initiatives.”  

 Campagna hopes that visitors will come away with a few things from their trip to  the New York City Fire Museum. “We really try to show how firefighting has changed over the years, but that no  matter what the level of technology, it still comes down to very brave people  doing a dangerous job,” he says. “Besides, one of the greatest things about the New York’s firefighting history is that it’s completely, inseparably, intertwined with the greater story of New York City,  so visitors here for the fire engines will learn a lot about the city itself.”      n

 The New York City Fire Museum is located on 278 Spring St. Hours are 10 a.m. to  5 p.m. Tuesdays to Saturdays; 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sundays. Suggested admission  prices are $7 adults and $5 for students, seniors and children. For more  information on the New York City Fire Museum, visit www.nycfiremuseum.org or  call 212-691-1303.  

 David Chiu is the editorial assistant of The Cooperator.  

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  • Nebraska Firefighters Museum & Education Cente on Thursday, January 13, 2011 12:54 PM
  • Great Article! once you have put on someone else's shoes you immediately have the respect for the men and women that put there lives on the line everyday. I had a little taste of that experience back in 1964 while in basic training at the Naval Fire Fighting School. The work itself was hard, hot, and tiresome. After reading Dennis Smith's book (Report from Engine Co. 82) it was hard for me to imagine the stress and frustration along with the physical and mental anguish related to the job. I am proud of the dedicated Firemen, the Museum, and of course my #1 son Damon.
  • Terrific article! I will be visiting this museum on my next trip to NY. The article and Damon's comments sparked a deep interest in me to experience the history of the Fire Department in NY. We take so much for granted when we are not a part of the actual work of these most courageous men and women.
  • Was the Fire Patrol exhibit ever restored to the second floor where it originated? Ironically it was removed at about the same time the 203 year old NY Fire Patrol was disbanded.