Firefighters turn station into very living museum


January 25, 1993|By JACQUES KELLY

There's no plaque outside Engine Company 56 at Harford Road and Fleetwood Avenue, but the 70-year-old firehouse is Baltimore's newest working museum.

The men stationed at this Hamilton landmark have decided quietly that the disappearing world of brass nozzles, life nets and alarm boxes needs a little attention.

In between regular service calls -- mostly to elderly cardiac patients -- they've spent the past 18 months sprucing up the old place and refitting it as a classic Baltimore neighborhood firehouse, circa 1923.

"Watching a fireman slide down the pole is still the biggest attraction," says firefighter Tom Greig, who has been assigned to the house for the past three years.

As he takes a visitor through the building, he points out the efforts made to restore its appearance to the look of a precomputer firehouse. Firefighters have gathered many of their cherished items from firehouses that have been closed in the city.

"This is our brass and oak corner," he says at the location of a roll-top watch desk. Above it is a large brass gong and a fine Seth Thomas wall clock. Everything is varnished and polished, properly seasoned with years' worth of hard, day-to-day use.

"It's a nice neighborhood firehouse that shows how it was in the past," says Capt. Thomas E. Poe, noting that the place has been popular with fire buffs, school groups and people who "just walk in off the street."

Engine Company 56 opened Nov. 15, 1923, under the administration of Mayor William Broening. It possesses a classic Baltimore firehouse look, with a tin ceiling, dark blue window blinds, oak captain chairs, a cast-iron circular staircase and brass pole. There is no pet Dalmatian dog.

It's clearly a neighborhood institution as well, one that takes its place with such nearby Hamilton institutions as the old Northway Theatre (now a drugstore) and the Dutch Mill Lounge, whose neon windmill sign never stops turning.

Compared with the collections of the Box 414 Association (in old Engine House No. 6, Gay and Ensor streets) or the Fire Museum of Maryland (1301 York Road in Lutherville), Engine 56's display is fairly modest.

But 56 possesses something that the other museums lack. It is an actual working firehouse. Any minute the big brass gong might start pealing and send firefighters sliding down the brass pole. Shifts change, firefighters come and go, hauling their gear with them. It's also a place of required waiting and tedium.

The firefighters constructed a display wall (it hides their lockers) for old newspaper action shots of the spectacular, multialarm fires that are not so common today, the kind of blazes that were talked about in the same way people discuss the monster snowstorms that seem to strike only once every decade.

There's a shot of firefighters stripped down to their shirt sleeves at Loyola College, where the Jesuit priests' old faculty house burst into flame on a hot June 25, 1955. Several firefighters were blown off a balcony inside the building.

At 2:22 a.m. on May 27, 1953, a Sunpapers delivery man was carrying a load of sports finals when he spotted flames shooting from the windows of the Shofer Furniture Co. at Charles and Hamburg streets in South Baltimore. The blaze ate through the building in less than an hour.

Captain Poe notes that some tragedies in the annals of the city Fire Department are never forgotten. There's a newspaper tribute to the deaths of the six firefighters who perished downtown in the Tru-Fit Clothing Co. blaze of Feb. 15, 1955.

The framed clipping lists the names of William Barnes, Francis X. O'Brien, Joseph F. Hanley, Anthony Reinsfelder, Randolph Mahovec and Richard F. Melser.

"Some of their sons joined the Fire Department after their fathers' deaths. The names are still with us today," says Captain Poe.

As to fires and rescues in this fairly sleepy part of Hamilton, Captain Poe says there isn't too much action.

He pulls out a ledger book from the 1950s. On a very busy October day, Engine 56 had three runs. They were all for burning leaves.

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