The Unforgettable Firemen: Two new museums will commemorate the Chicago Fire Department’s past

Firefighters on parade; Library of Congress

Firefighters on parade; Library of Congress

“This is the city that burned down,” Bill Kugelman says bluntly when asked about the importance of a Chicago fire museum. The former president of the Chicago Firemen’s Union sees little official recognition of fire history in a city famous for rising out of the ashes of the 1871 blaze. But that is about to change. In the next year, two museums dedicated to fire service, the Fire Museum of Greater Chicago and the Chicago Fire Department African-American Firefighter Museum, are scheduled to open on the South Side.

The Fire Museum of Greater Chicago began 12 years ago as a collection of records and memorabilia from Chicago’s firefighting past. For years, it maintained the city’s only exhibits dedicated to fire history in a small library on the third floor of Saint Gabriel Elementary School at 45th Street and Wallace Avenue. When St. Gabriel reclaimed this space in 2007, Kugelman and others involved with the collection spoke to several of the city’s aldermen and eventually secured space in a 1916 vintage firehouse at 52nd Street and Western Avenue. The historic space is currently undergoing serious renovation. Walls are being stripped out and doors replaced, and a huge amount of work remains before the museum will be ready to hold exhibits. The renovation is partially historical, as some features of the station’s original design will be reproduced to evoke an early firehouse. The massive front doors are being replaced, and a fire pole will eventually run through the station, though not for visitor use. While some exhibits will incorporate the building itself, Kugelman is clear: “We’re not restoring a firehouse; we’re using a firehouse as a museum.”

Most of the space will display pieces from the museum’s collection. Planned exhibits include vintage alarms, tapes, and dispatching equipment, as well as wood pipelines from before the installation of metal plumbing. One room will display the helmets of former commissioners and chaplains; another will be filled with uniforms. The museum will also exhibit two antique firefighting rigs, an attraction that Kugelman believes will appeal to the public. Several items commemorate Chicago’s unique fire history. Crosses, religious icons, and a realistic model memorialize the deadly Our Lady of Angels School fire in 1958, one of the Chicago fire service’s most painful moments. Artifacts rescued from the 1893 World’s Fair fires will also appear, including a statue of Columbus that has became a memorial to the firefighters who died trying to put out the blazes.

The collection also comprises an extensive archive, and Kugelman emphasizes the museum’s role in making this history accessible to the community. Thousands of logbooks, some dating back to the 1870s, and a huge collection of photographs will be available to the public. “It’s about memory. If somebody comes in and says, ‘Grandpa was in the fire department in 1892, do you have anything on it?’ We’ll be able to say ‘Yeah, sure.’ We’ll pull out the logbooks and the photographs. We’ll have a copy machine there so people can take all this with them.” If renovations can be completed in time, Kugelman hopes the museum will open on September 11th this year.

The site of the African-American Firefighter Museum lies several miles away in another historic fire station at 68th Street and South Harper Avenue. The project is in its early stages; specific uses of the space are still being considered, and a tentative opening date of February 2010 depends on funding. Abdurrahim Khan, a retired fire captain and the chairman of the new museum’s operations committee, says that the museum’s mission is “to tell the unique history of African-American firefighters and how they contributed to the service.” He emphasizes the museum’s focus on the specific historical challenges that black firefighters faced in a service that was racially segregated into the 1950s. Current plans include a children’s library in the museum, which may allow the museum to serve as a community center.

Everyone seems to know everyone else in Chicago’s firefighting community, but the two museums are distinct projects. At this stage, there has been little communication between them. But they share a commitment to the traditions of Chicago’s fire service, and if all goes well, within a year they will finally be sharing it with the rest of the city.

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