|photo by Alice Lum|
Until 1865 the homes and businesses of New York City were protected by a group of unrelated volunteer fire companies. But by the time of the Civil War, the sheer amount of structures and residents in the rapidly-growing city demanded an organized, paid fire department. The Metropolitan Fire Department was formed and the volunteer system abolished.
Among the new fire stations was that of Engine Company 30, located at No. 253 Spring Street. The company remained here for nearly four decades, conveniently across the street from the headquarters of the Sailors and Firemen’s Union at No. 278. But in 1902 the need to replace the old structure was evident. The report of the Superintendent of Buildings Branch for that year noted “The Board of Estimate and Apportionment has been requested to acquiesce in the acquirement, at private sale for the sum of $50,000, of the site Nos. 278-284 Spring street, borough of Manhattan, upon which to erect a new house for Engine Company 30, located, since the inauguration of the paid Fire Department, at No. 253 Spring street, and it is believed that it will do so and that the transaction will soon be consummated.”
Indeed the transaction was consummated and on October 3, 1903 The American Architect and Building News announced that architect Edward P. Casey had filed plans for a “three story brick and stone engine-house” with a projected cost of $75,000. The New York Times predicted it would “be one of the largest fire engine houses in the city,” covering a frontage of 72.5 feet.
The new house was completed in 1904. Casey deeply incised the rusticated limestone base, rounding the edges of the massive stones. The two-toned brick of the upper two stories was laid in a diamond pattern, creating a tapestry effect inlaid behind the stone window framing. Above the cornice, the brickwork continued in a handsome balustrade.
Firefighters from Engine Company 30 paid an unintentional visit to a saloon when responding to a false alarm on August 7, 1905. As the horse-drawn steamer sped into the intersection of Bedford and Barrow Streets, a second engine from Engine Company No. 24 ran full speed into it. “The impact carried the engines over to the southeast corner, and the horses became wedged in the doorway of a saloon kept by Albert Herdtfelder,” reported The New York Tribune.
Herdtfelder had the bad luck of standing in the doorway at the time and was knocked off his feet, suffering severe injuries. Although the saloon owner was taken to St. Vincent’s Hospital, none of the fire fighters received any injuries and the horses were only slightly hurt.
Only four days later, however, one of the first tragedies for Engine Company 30 in its new location occurred. On August 11 the soap factory of W. H. Daggitt’s Sons at Nos 383-385 West 12th Street caught fire. The building blazed for 10 hours while chemicals created deadly smoke. By 1:00 in the afternoon when eight members of the company were working on the first floor, 20 firemen had already been injured, removed unconscious from the blaze.
Hours of pouring water on the building had resulted in seven feet of accumulated water in the cellar. Fireman James Clancy was working with Captain Martin Mahoney feeding a line of hose into the building. The men braced themselves against a large safe when, without warning, the floor collapsed. The eight firemen were plunged into the deep water, “buried under a tangle of beams and flooring,” as described by The Evening World.
The firemen of Hook and Ladder No. 5 formed a human life line, pulling the men out of the cellar one-by-one, when it was realized that Clancy was pinned below the water by the heavy safe. After repeated tries, a concerted effort of several men dislodged the safe and Clancy was pulled free.
The fireman did not survive.
In 1946 the announcement was made that the fire house would share space with a proposed out-patient clinic for NYFD members and their families, similar to one already in place in the New York Police Department. On April 3, Fire Commissioner Frank J. Quayle announced that the third floor of the building “will be rearranged so that the equipment, including X-ray machines, a cardiograph, physiotherapy and diathermy devices and a dental office will be set up with soundproof walls and ceilings, casement windows and air conditioning.”
The Fire Department’s Honor Emergency Fund contributed $125,000 for the equipment and Quayle had requested an annual appropriation of $25,000 from the City to cover the salaries of clinic personnel. The Commissioner anticipated that “in addition to the equipment installed, there will be established a blood-donor station, also oxygen equipment, not only for the relief of members of the Fire Department who suffer from smoke inhalation at fires, but likewise the members of their families who are in need of such treatment.”
The clinic was formally opened on February 3, 1948, replacing the departmental medical offices in the five boroughs.
After half a century of service, the end of the line for Engine Company 30 came on April 6, 1959 when Fire Commissioner Edward F. Cavanagh, Jr. announced steps being taken to save the Department $1.645 million, including the elimination of four companies. The fire house at No. 278 Spring Street was on the list.
The outpatient clinic with the impressive title Oxygen Therapy Unit Headquarters remained in the building serving the medical needs of the firefighters and their families for decades. In the meantime the FDNY’s small museum on Long Island was moved to Manhattan in 1959, taking space in a working firehouse at No. 100 Duane Street.
But when the Home Insurance Company donated its wide-ranging collection of firefighting memorabilia to the Department in 1981, a larger, permanent space became necessary. The Friends of the New York City Fire Department Collection was established—a non-profit organization whose sole purpose was to raise funds to renovate Engine Company 30 as a state-of-the-art museum.
Six years later Edward P. Casey’s Beaux Arts beauty was reborn as the New York City Fire Museum opened its doors to the public. The museum—which even includes a mock apartment with smoke machine and black-lighted fire hazards for the education of school children—receives 40,000 visitors annually.