The Chicago Tribune
Sunday, November 23, 2003
 
'Fire barn' hot property
Museum in Aurora is undergoing $1.5 million restoration
By Hal Dardick, special to the Chicago Tribune

AURORA -- During his 31-year career, retired Aurora firefighter Glenn Zelensek spent part of five years living every third day at Aurora's former Central Fire Station.

"It was a fire barn," he said, recalling how cold it could get in the second-story bunk room, which had no radiators, especially when some sleepers insisted the windows be kept open year-round at night.

But that's no longer the case after a painstaking rehabilitation of the 19th Century building, now home to the Aurora Regional Fire Museum.

"It's beautiful now in comparison," he said.

The structure at 53 N. Broadway--heralded by the local newspaper as "a beautiful and commodious" building when it opened in 1894--long ago fell into disrepair.

The onion dome atop the two-story brick building and three bay widows on the second floor were removed in the early 1940s. When it the building was shut in 1980, firefighters took spindles from the staircase banister as souvenirs, said Fire Museum Curator David Lewis.

Using 200 historic photographs and artifacts, such as the spindles that are in the museum's collection, the building was restored carefully over the last 2 1/2 years at a cost of about $1.54 million.

The initial estimate was about $1 million, but structural problems and rain damage during construction increased the cost and delayed completion by two years. The tab was covered with a $750,000 Illinois FIRST grant, $443,000 in insurance payments for the damage and $346,000 in city funds.

"It's been a long project, but we're delighted with how it ended up," Lewis said, adding that all work is expected to be complete by the building's 109th anniversary on Tuesday.

Six years after the building was closed, city officials considered allowing it to become a restaurant. That's when people like Zelensekstarted lobbying City Hall for a museum.

The not-for-profit Aurora Fire Station Preservation Corp. won the battle, spent $150,000 on the building and opened the Fire Museum in 1990. Before it closed for renovation, the museum, which houses antique firefighting equipment and photographs and articles about local firefighting history, drew up to 4,000 visitors a year.