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Fire Museum of Greater Chicago settles into new home

Museum of firefighting takes a step forward with permanent site: A firehouse

Steve Johnson

8:44 PM EST, February 26, 2014

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The Fire Museum of Greater Chicago isn't a grandiose thing, looming over a park like the Field Museum or over Michigan Avenue like the Art Institute.

It sits in a long-retired, single-bay Chicago firehouse in the 5200 block of South Western Avenue, just a couple of buildings from a Marathon gas station.

Its collection isn't imposing either, ranging from photos and captions hand-pasted on poster board to lovingly restored antique firetrucks as bright red as the doors they're parked behind. There's a wooden water main that lay beneath city streets in the days before the Great Chicago Fire; a tabletop-sized scale model of Our Lady of the Angels School, where a 1958 fire killed 92 children and three nuns and became one of the great tragedies in city history; old leather fire buckets, a hand-drawn hose cart and dozens of fire helmets of various vintages from city and suburban departments.

"Somebody's got to preserve the history," says Frank McMenamin, the museum's vice president. "Otherwise, this stuff would be thrown out."

The museum has regular hours, but not many of them. For now, visitors can catch it from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on the fourth Saturday of every month (and by special request for groups). But for all its homespun simplicity, there is a special feeling to the place, a sense of toil and sacrifice over decades, an authenticity that epitomizes what any small museum should hope to capture. And even in its current limited capacity, it represents huge progress, said Bill Kugelman, president of the museum and former president of Chicago Fire Fighters Union Local2.

The effort to establish the museum began in the late 1990s, Kugelman said during a recent conversation at the museum. His dog, Katie, was on hand, naturally. And, no, Katie is not a Dalmatian.

"Once people found out there was something getting started, they were happy to clean out their basements," said McMenamin, also a retired city firefighter.

"A permanent place, you know," added Kugelman.

One of the gems in the collection is the helmet belonging to Michael J. Corrigan, city fire commissioner from 1937 to 1955. That was fished out of a suburban crawl space, the men said. Another prize is a bit of an incongruity: the almost floor-to-ceiling Christopher Columbus statue from the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition that seems to watch over the museum from a back corner.

The statue has been in the Fire Department's possession since it was salvaged from a deadly fire in the fair's Cold Storage Building. It passed to the Fire Museum's hands early in the last decade.

The museum's first home was in several unused classrooms of a South Side Catholic school, St. Gabriel.

"This is history waiting for a home," the Tribune's Ron Grossman wrote after visiting in 2001.

History now has its home. The museum's collection was at St. Gabriel for about a decade, the men said, before the city a few years back gave the museum a $1 lease on its current building, formerly home to Engine Co. 123. It was, to hear the men tell it, a gift with strings attached. Kugelman used an expletive to describe its initial condition, then amended himself to say, "I mean, bad."

When the museum got the unused building, there were 18 inches of water in the basement. The firehouse facade had been bricked over, better suiting its more recent use as municipal offices. Vagrants had started warming fires, whose marks remain visible in the wooden floor upstairs. There was graffiti everywhere and broken windows.

A lot of work — some paid, much of it donated — by retired firefighters and other contributors brought the first floor back to its current showroom condition, with the two engines dominating the center of the room and the exhibits arranged on the sides.

The museum installed a black drop ceiling — artsy! — because Kugelman had read that black is better, in a museum context, for keeping the focus on the exhibits.

The group spent $70,000 to restore the hose tower, the full-height interior room at a back corner where hoses would be hung to dry. It isn't part of the museum, explicitly, but it was falling apart, and folks in the neighboring building worried, the men said.

Next on the wish list is restoration of the second floor, where the bunkhouses and officers quarters were, and the return of at least one of the building's three fire poles.

"We have to get the upstairs done. That's the immediate focus," McMenamin said.

"We're anxious to get a lot of this stuff upstairs," Kugelman said, pointing to the first-floor exhibits, which, truth be told, are packed in a little tightly, although nowhere near "Hoarders" level.

Mostly unobstructed is a giant mural of Corrigan fighting a fire, which used to hang in City Hall. There are street-corner fireboxes still capable of clanging with gusto, and there is a wall-mounted wooden-peg fire map of the city.

An old "joker stand" borders on interactive. The communications hub that would route firefighters to blazes — so named because of its early unreliability with addresses — plays through a fire scenario, explaining how crews would be alerted and dispatched.

You can see it in action in a video from a couple of years ago by searching YouTube for "Chicago fire joker stand."

Back issues of the museums newsletter, which McMenamin edits, trace the progress of the museum through the years, run stories on fire history and trivia, and contain notices like this: "Apparatus Committee wants and needs: 6 Ton Floor Jack."

Kugelman said "dollars" are the most pressing overall need, but more space wouldn't be bad either. The museum has a dozen more old vehicles that it pays to keep in storage.

"I drool when I see one of these auto dealerships closing down," he said.

Another desire is some younger blood to help the retired firemen who got the museum going. "At 69, I'm one of the younger guys," McMenamin said.

And then there's the battle every museum faces all the time, the one for attention.

"We need coverage," Kugelman said. "People don't know we're here. Some guys in the Fire Department don't know we're here."

Now, perhaps, they will.

sajohnson@tribune.com

Twitter @StevenKJohnson

Fire Museum of Greater Chicago

When: 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., fourth Saturday of every month

Where: 5218 S. Western Ave..

Tickets: Free; more information at 877-225-7491 and

firemuseumofgreaterchicago.org