Daily Herald - Friday December 16, 2005

A Nod to the Past: City of Aurora Takes Pride in Restored Firehouse Museum
By Ann Piccininni, Daily Herald Correspondent

Easter Sunday 1967 is a day Bob Marks isn’t likely to forget.

That day, the cotton mill in downtown Aurora went up in a blaze that people still talk about.

The conflagration happened not far from where Marks sat perched recently inside the Aurora Regional Fire Museum, a vintage 1894 building near the corner of Broadway Avenue and New York Street that for years served as Aurora’s central fire station.

“Across the river here,” said Marks, pointing to the Fox River, where a riverboat casino is anchored just outside the museum window. “We lost a truck in it. The high (power) lines fell on it.”

He paused before he ended his story.

“Nobody got hurt,” he said.

Marks’ recollections spring from his days as a firefighter. He spent 10 years of his 25-year career in the old firehouse at 53 N. Broadway Ave., a newly renovated building that was converted into a museum 15 years ago.

The freshly refurbished museum, first established in 1990, re-opened its doors to the public in July 2004. The building, along with its contents, recalls a past that is still fresh in the minds of Marks and his contemporaries. By 1967, Marks was a veteran firefighter, having joined the Aurora Fire Department in 1952.

His uncle, Al Burgholzer, had been with the department years earlier. Marks recounted the story of how his uncle responded to a fire in 1934 at a Woolworth’s store on Broadway. The building’s brick wall collapsed, falling inward.

“Instead of going out, it came straight down,” he said.

Firefighters already had entered the building in an effort to snuff out the flames. Burgholzer survived, Marks said, but three other firefighters on the scene were killed, buried under the rubble.

Stories like that didn’t stop Marks from wanting to be a firefighter.

When he heard about an opening with the Aurora Fire Department, he quit his job as a bus driver, took the test and joined the department, capitalizing on his experience.

“I was the driver. I drove a service (ladder) truck,” he said. And he stayed with the job until his retirement in 1977.

“I recommend this job to anybody that can work. It’s just the thrill of it, the people you meet, the people you do business with,” he said. “When you live together several days a week, it’s just like having your own family.”

From 1952 to 1962, Marks worked with his surrogate “family,” his brothers in the fire service, in what is now the museum. He slept upstairs, he said, in the bunk room, where metal frame beds were lined up in rows, efficiently housing the men on an overnight shift. Now the bunk room is an exhibit.

David Lewis, the museum’s curator, said the fire station’s mythology supports the idea that one of the bay windows in the bunk room was always left open, even on the coldest days.

And the newest fire department hire, the man with the least seniority, always took the bunk closest to the window. The reasons for those two traditions, he said, remain murky.

Lewis, who offers colorful commentary and bits of lore and historical fact as he shows off the museum’s treasures, said people like Marks, who possess first-hand knowledge of the station’s past, are not rare.

“We have lots of firefighters who remember working here,” he said.

That could be because the building functioned as a fire station until 1980.

While the old building kept serving its original purpose, efforts to create a fire museum began to brew. In 1966, Lewis said, fire Capt. Charles Goodwin and his wife started collecting and saving items they felt had significant historical value.

“They got tired of a lot of cool stuff getting lost over the years,” Lewis said.

The objects were stored in the basement of Aurora Fire Station Four on Michaels Street, he said.

They were put on display in the station basement in 1968 after then-Fire Chief Erwin Baumann authorized the establishment of a fire museum, according to the museum Web site.

When a new fire station was built in 1981 adjacent the old central station, Lewis said the fate of the old building became a hot topic.

“There was a lot of discussion about what to do with this building,” he said.

The building sat vacant for about seven years while the debate continued, said Deborah Davis, the museum’s executive director.

Current and former firefighters, along with preservationists, spearheaded efforts to rescue artifacts stored in the Station Four basement, Lewis said.

Meanwhile, the concept of turning the old station into a museum began to gather momentum.

With seed money donated by local corporations and service groups, the museum became a reality, opening its doors to the public for the first time in 1990, Lewis said.

In 1996, Lewis said, the museum received a grant from the city for upgrades intended to bring the building into compliance with fire codes and ADA guidelines. Work was started on an elevator, a staircase and a sprinkler system.

Four years later, he said, the museum was notified that a $750,000 state grant issued under the Illinois FIRST program would be awarded to the museum.

The museum temporarily closed its doors and collections were removed so the work could proceed, Davis said. Lewis said the second floor improvements begun earlier, including the elevator, staircase and sprinkler system, were completed with this new infusion of cash.

The grant also allowed for minor improvements on the first floor and the restoration of the building’s facade.

Bay windows and a rooftop onion dome, removed decades earlier, were recreated. Heavy wooden front doors that open inward, replaced decades ago by electronic garage-type doors in a move intended to save space, also were restored.

“Restoring it to its original appearance is important to the city,” said Jan Mangers, director of the Aurora Preservation Commission. “It’s one of the most prominent buildings in Aurora.”

Mangers said the onion dome, a particularly evocative flourish from the past, is similar to one on a building on River Street and was designed by architect John E. Minott. The original dome was removed, along with the bay windows, in the middle of the 20th century, Mangers said.

“At the time, they were trying to modernize rather than preserve,” she said.

The renovation encountered a few problems along the way. Davis said the need for structural repairs, discovered during the course of the renovation, drove up the project’s cost and delayed the completion date. There also was rain damage sustained during construction, she said.

“It became like the movie ‘The Money Pit', " Lewis said. “Whatever you touched, it needed to be fixed.”

Meanwhile, the museum remained closed for business.

“Everything stopped while we figured out what to do next,” Davis said.

For a while, she said, the museum took up the Aurora Historical Society’s offer of a temporary exhibit space.

“It was a wonderful thing,” she said.

But one of the showpieces of the collection, the old station itself, was off limits to visitors during the renovation, which went on for about three years. Finally, the work was complete, with the cost of the renovations totaling more than $1 million, Lewis said. The city pitched in, helping with costs that exceeded the grant amount, he said.

“The city helped with some of the remainder,” said Jennifer Grobe, a preservation planning specialist with the city.

Grobe added that the city, which owns the building and the property, also funneled insurance settlements for water damage and other damage incurred during the rehab work to the museum. In July 2004, the museum reopened.

Lewis said the museum takes visitors chronologically through five time periods.

“It’s very linear. It works well with kids,” he said, adding that school and Scout groups frequently take guided tours.

Just beyond the gift shop at the museum entrance, visitors see an exhibit explaining the beginnings of community fire control: the bucket brigade.

That method, Lewis explained, involved citizens forming a line and passing buckets from the water source to the fire.

There’s an example of a hand pumper, built in the 1850s by the Button manufacturing company. One such vehicle was used when the city’s first fire company was established by the city council in 1856, Lewis said.

“This one, we don’t know where it came from,” Lewis said. “We acquired it from a private collector. It’s identical to what we had — the same size and shape as Aurora’s engine.”

Because much of Aurora’s original equipment was lost over time, the museum’s exhibits include artifacts from area towns that are similar to the ones in Aurora’s past, Lewis said.

Venturing further into the museum, visitors see a horse-drawn vehicle with a steam-powered engine and several motorized trucks, representing various stages in the evolution of fire fighting technology.

A bright red 1921 Stutz fire engine gleams in one section of the museum.

This vehicle, Lewis said, is a genuine, original Aurora artifact. It originally was used by the Aurora Fire Department and was manufactured by the same company that made Stutz Bearcat roadsters. Remarkably, the vehicle was still racing through city streets during the Kennedy administration.

“This truck went out of service in 1964. Forty years is an incredibly long time in fire apparatus,” Lewis said.

The old, restored station also features two fire poles, restored horse stalls and displays of alarm boxes and masks designed to aid breathing in smoke-filled buildings.

Fire poles aren’t typically included in modern station designs, though there is a fire pole in the new station next to the museum at 75 N. Broadway Ave., installed as a nod to the past, Lewis said.

On the museum’s second floor, along with the bunk room, is the chief’s office, where museum officials plan to add a museum library.

At the rear of the second floor is a modern auditorium that seats about 50 and is available to civic and community groups as meeting space, Lewis said.

“The auditorium used to be a hayloft,” preservation specialist Grobe said. “The original fire trucks in there were horse-drawn.”

Grobe said these days the auditorium hosts a range of city and community meetings, including the annual Mayor’s Awards for Excellence in Historic Preservation.

The sleek auditorium is a modern spot in a building that otherwise transports visitors’ imaginations to the dusty past. Almost all of the first floor has been restored to its vintage 19th-century charm.

Aurora Assistant Fire Chief Brad Westrom said he worked out of the old station for about six years during the 1970s.

“It smelled like smoke and you could still slide the poles,” he said, adding that the space that is now the museum gift shop formerly served as an ambulance bay.

These days, Westrom supervises fire department services on the city’s west side and works in Station Three at 600 New Indian Trail.

But his fondness for the old central station remains.

“This is my favorite place I ever worked,” he said. “It smelled like a firehouse, it looked like a firehouse and it was a firehouse. You really felt like a fireman.”

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