No easy pieces: Restoring an 1871 firehouse facade

Work in Progress

May 18, 2008|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun architecture critic

A rare example of Baltimore's architectural history was nearly lost several years ago when an 1871 firehouse on West Mulberry Street was torn down to make way for redevelopment. It was the only firehouse in Baltimore -- and one of the last surviving buildings in the city -- whose first-floor front facade was made of cast iron, a popular local building material in the 1800s, but not in use today.

A quick thinking preservationist saw the demolition work under way and managed to salvage the largest cast-iron pieces before they were carted off for scrap metal. More found their way to an antiques dealer in Fells Point, including the cracked "name boards" from above the front doors. They have since been acquired by the Fire Museum of Maryland, where director and curator Stephen Heaver is re-erecting the cast iron facade inside the museum as part of a new exhibit on the life of paid firefighters in the 1870s.

The museum at 1301 York Road in Lutherville is holding a reception starting at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday to offer a preview of the exhibit and raise money needed to finish the project. Grants and "in kind" donations already have come from Preservation Maryland, the 1772 Foundation in Pomfret Center, Conn., Structural Preservation Systems, Century Engineering and the Whiting-Turner Contracting Co., among others. Heaver, 60, lives in Roland Park with his wife, Melissa, the museum's registrar and Web master; their children, Tom, 16, and Isabel, 13; and a Border collie named Bernard.

IN HIS OWN WORDS --The cast-iron pieces are from Engine Co. No. 8, which stood on West Mulberry Street near Schroeder Street in West Baltimore. The firehouse operated from 1871 to 1912. It had one steam engine drawn by two horses and a two-wheeled hose cart with one or two more horses.

`UNIQUE' HISTORY --The firehouse stood until around 2004. After it was a firehouse, it changed uses several times. It was a boys club and a motorcycle repair shop. Then it became derelict and was abandoned in the 1990s. What makes it unique is that it was Baltimore's only cast-iron fronted firehouse. There were other cast-iron buildings in Baltimore, but this was the only fire department facility with a cast-iron facade.

ACQUIRING THE CAST IRON --The firehouse was torn down under contract to the city, along with a lot of other buildings. When the contractor was demolishing the building, a friend of the museum went by and realized the cast iron needed to be saved. Some pieces had already been stolen by scavengers. This man saved what was left. He would prefer to be anonymous, but he mentioned to a museum staff member that he had these pieces and he offered them to us. That's how we came to have them.

Around the same time, a city firefighter purchased the cast-iron name boards that were over the front doors and read "Baltimore City Fire Department," from an antiques dealer in Fells Point. He later sold them to us. We felt it was important that we reunite the pieces and pull the facade together as much as we can.

READY FOR INSTALLATION --We sent the cast-iron pieces to Structural Preservation Systems in Elkridge to have them cleaned, primed and ready for installation. SPS will also make replicas of missing pieces as money becomes available. Our goal is to erect the facade with replicated parts as required, making it the portal for a major permanent exhibit on the Life of a Fireman in the 1870s and 1880s.

When the work is complete, this will be the only cast-iron-fronted firehouse to be preserved in a museum in the United States.

COMPLETION --We hope to have all the cast-iron parts replicated and mounted within a year. It all depends on our ability to raise funds. The whole project is expected to cost $121,000. We still need to raise about $67,000.

WHAT EXHIBIT WILL SHOW --It will show what life was like in firehouses in the 1870s -- specifically in this firehouse and generally, in firehouses in urban areas in the 1870s. It's an interesting period because it's right after the Civil War, and many experimental things were happening with fire departments at that time.

SKIMPY RECORDS --One of the things that made this exhibit challenging is that there is so little known from this period. We have a lot of conceptions about what life was like, but those are largely based on turn-of-the-century accounts, not the 1870s. The records are very skimpy.

RESEARCH --We can't do oral histories, because no one is still alive from the 1870s. But there are 12 to 15 research books that are useful. We have an annual report from the Baltimore City Fire Department from 1871. We can get information from related fields such as clothing manufacturers, engine manufacturers and horse breeders. We're always looking for letters, correspondence, sketches and early photos that show what life was like.

ed.gunts@baltsun.com

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