Monday, September 26, 2011

The New York City Fire Museum

Another fire horn.
The firehouse for Ladder 8 and the Ghostbusters was built on North Moore and Varick Streets in 1912.
19th-century axes, and a very tall, narrow helmet.
Antique company badges.
A nineteenth-century fire wagon.
An antique shield.
Another antique shield.
Since I visited the New York City Police Museum a few weeks back, I thought It would make sense to visit the New York City Fire Museum next.  First opened in 1934 as the Fire College Museum in Long Island City, it moved to a firehouse on 100 Duane Street in 1959.  That same year, SoHo's Engine Company 30 at 287 Spring Street between Hudson And Varick Streets closed down.  By 1981, the Home Insurance Company donated a huge collection of fire memorabilia it had acquired over the years to the museum, making a move to larger quarters necessary.  The 1904 Engine 30 building, which had sat empty for years, underwent an extensive renovation and became the new home of the New York City Fire Museum in 1987.

An ornate wagon from the Astoria company.
Next to this old quilt was a breakdown of the FDNY logo.
North Moore Street in 1919, with the Ghostbusters firehouse to the left. (NYPL)
The Fire Museum, formerly Engine 30, was built on Spring Street between Varick and Hudson Streets in 1904.
So I took the 1 Train down to Franklin Street and got out at the Varick and North Moore Street exit, right across the street from the firehouse built in 1912 for Hook & Ladder 8, also home to the Ghostbusters.  The company dates back to 1865, and its original home around the corner at 153 Franklin Street was recently converted to a luxury condo for Domonique Strauss-Kahn.  There was talk that he was going to be staying near me at about 65th and 3rd, but a story on the news about it reported that the neighbors didn't want him.  It all comes together.

An 1880s banner from the Brooklyn Fire Department.
An 1880s-era fire wagon.
The museum had a great antique toy display.
Another toy on display.
The museum's oldest piece, dating back to 1820.
Anyway, just a few blocks up was Engine 30 on Spring Street.  I was greeted at the front desk by a couple of youngish looking people who were surrounded by the gift shop, displaying your standard stuff for the most part, but I was a little surprised to see a prominent display of t-shirts honoring Father Mychal Judge, with the silhouette of a Franciscan friar blowing a fire horn and a children's book about Father Judge entitled He Said Yes: The Story of Father Mychal Judge.  The Franciscan friar was an FDNY chaplain and is considered the first casualty of the September 11th attacks, dying in the collapse while giving last rights.  I'm sure this book is a favorite in Catholic schools.

A ceremonial fire horn.
An 1860s pitcher honoring Col. Ellsworth, the NYC firefighter who brought zouave regiments to the U.S.
From there I walked up an ornate staircase to the display on the second floor, which was dominated by a number of mid-nineteenth century fire wagons, the oldest dating back to 1820, all intricately decorated and beautifully preserved.  A sign described how in the nineteenth century, the independent fire companies in the city took great pride in their wagons and went to great lengths to give them an eye-catching appearance.  Surrounded by wagons were displays of badges of fire departments from all over the world, and a number of antique helmets, axes, and picks.  There was also a number of decorative ceremonial fire horns.  These long horns, once used by officers to shout orders during fires, remain a familiar symbol of the FDNY despite not being used for almost a century.  There was also an impressive collection of nineteenth-century heraldry.  Back then it was common practice for fire companies to present commemorative shields to each other as signs of friendship, which would be prominently hung up in the recipient's station house.

This truck was in the Ghostbusters firehouse in 1931.
Also on the second floor was a pitcher from the 1860s memorializing the death of Colonel Elmer Ephraim Ellsworth and the zouaves regiments that fought for the Union in the Civil War.  It is considered one of the first pieces of American pottery that commemorated a specific event.  The twenty-four-year-old Colonel Elsworth, who in 1861 personally captured the confederate flag of a hotel owner in Alexandria, Virginia, and was shot and killed by him in the process, is said to be the the first casualty of the Civil War.  Before the war, he was a prominent fire marshall in New York City, and is credited with bringing zouave regiments to the American military.  He was so impressed by the intricate and demanding training drills of the zouaves and by their heroic service to France during the Crimean War, that he created the first American zouave regiment from among the city's fire companies.  Eleven hundred firefighters were said to have volunteered within the first twenty-four hours.

On the first floor was a more modern collection, with a sign encouraging "children of all ages" to try on a couple of coats and helmets open to the public.  There are a number of trucks from the '30s and '40s, and the fire chief's buggy from the early twentieth century is attached to a model of a horse.  To my surprise, the museum wasn't mostly devoted to September 11th, but there was a room in the back with a large display showing each of the three hundred forty-three firefighters who died.  There was also a large display devoted to the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of March 1911.

All in all, a good visit.  I left my card with them and asked them to check out  Next time you're down on Spring Street, check out the New York City Fire Museum for a little history of the city's bravest.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The New York City Police Museum

The evolution of the NYPD motorcycle.
Badges from the Brooklyn Police Department before 1898.
Old-timey mugshots.
Antique radio equipment.
A typical jail cell.
More pics from 9/11.
Policing a Changed City.
A display of objects from the WTC site on 9/11.
A display on NYPD medals.
NYPD uniforms.
The NYPD Medal of Honor.
Badges of the different branches of the NYPD.
A female guards uniform from 1896.
A display of antique handcuffs.
A display of antique guns.
A picture taken from 9/11.
A 1920s slot machine.
19th-century badges and nightstick.
Antique NYPD motorcycles on display.
A description of the NYPD flag.
The former 1st Precinct at 100 Old Slip, now the NYPD museum.

A door from a truck that was near the WTC on 9/11.
Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig at a 1920s NYPD - FDNY game.
An 1860s recruiting poster.
Another display of artifacts from 9/11.
Prominent 1920s gangsters, including Al Capone.
More police uniforms.
The front door of the former 1st Precinct at 100 Old Slip.
This past Sunday marked the tenth anniversary of the September 11th attacks, and I debated whether or not to take a trip down to the World Trade Center site, but ultimately opted to do it.  It was about five o'clock in the evening so all the ceremonies were over.  There wasn't too much to see -- everything was pretty much fenced off.  Even further downtown is the New York City Police Museum in the former 1st Precinct station on Old Slip.  "Old Slip" is so named because it was an inlet for ships coming into the harbor as early as the 1750s, before being filled in and converted to streets over a century later.  As I walked along the hilly, uneven, mismatched streets of the Financial District, I was reminded that this city started down here, and bustling Midtown remained the country for decades.  The Twin Towers stood across the street from the city's oldest building, St. Paul's Chapel, where George Washington attended services, and St. Peter's, the first Catholic Church in the state, is one block north.  Fraunces Tavern, the Bridge Cafe, and the Fulton Ferry Hotel are some of the city's original centers of business. 

My trip to the New York City Police Museum last week took me much further downtown than I normally venture, to Old Slip, the home of the 1st Precinct from 1884 to 1973.  The current landmarked building was built from 1909-1911 on the foundation of the former one by architects Richard and Joseph Howland Hunt, brothers and partners who designed  the Lotus Club on 66th and 5th and the 69th Regiment Armory on 25th and Lexington, among others.  When built, the city's 1st Precinct was considered by many to be the most important police station in the world, and was visited by police chiefs from all around, who considered it a model in modern architecture and looked to copy some of the buildings features for their own new buildings.  It was built in the Italian Renaissance style in tribute to the palazzos of Florence.

The idea for the museum formed in February of 1998, when police commissioner Howard Safir and the Alliance for Downtown New York donated $5 million in return for a new station in the area, but the plan was quickly abandoned by Mayor Giuliani when New Yorkers claimed that a richer area of the city was buying police protection.  A month later, however, a non-profit organization was created to raise money for the project, and the museum was able to open in April 1999 around Bowling Green.  In January 2002, the museum moved into the landmarked building at 100 Old Slip, which had been abandoned since a police corruption scandal in 1977, seeing it as an opportunity to connect with the Department's past.  Renovation of the building was over $4 million, but exhibit space increased by close to 45%.

I came across the narrow building which had carved "POLICE STATION FIRST PRECINCT" in it over the front door and walked inside to find a little old man sitting at the front desk.  He recommended I start on the third floor and work my way down.  Not surprisingly, much of the museum is devoted to 9/11, but it also has an impressive collection of antiques.  A back room on the third floor displayed the badge of every officer killed in the line of duty, since the first in 1853.  A display case had a history of the departments most prestigious medals, including the NYPD Medal of Honor.  On the other side of the floor was a number of discarded pieces from police equipment that was in the area on 9/11 -- a door from a police truck, sirens from a car, guns, hats, belts, etc., and a 60 Minutes special on how Commissioner Ray Kelly is working to turn the NYPD into a military and intelligence force comparable to the CIA and FBI was being shown.  A number of photographs of the damage of that day and people being helped were shown along with a display entitled "Policing a Changed City". 

The second-floor included a replica jail cell and with a female warden's uniform from 1896, when four women were hired due to public demand after a sharp increase in female prisoners.  There was also a display of Brooklyn Police Department badges prior to 1898 when the borough was still an independent city, and a 1920s slot-machine in front of mug shots of prominent gangsters of the time.  The same room also had a large display of nineteenth and early-twentieth century handcuffs and guns.  The first floor showcases examples of the uniform throughout the decades, and has a great collection of old motorcycles.  Naturally, I asked if they were hiring, and naturally they said they weren't.  But at least I got an enriching afternoon of New York City history for only eight bucks!  If you're in town, I highly recommend it!