Miller Time
Firehouse Museum
By Grady Miller
Jun 1, 2013 - 5:05:32 AM

HOLLYWOOD—If these yellow-brick walls of the Los Angeles Fire Department Museum could talk, what awesome tales they would tell. For a brief window, between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. every Saturday, this local treasure, a block south of Sunset on Cahuenga Blvd., just below the CNN building, opens its doors and these tales of lives saved and sacrifices remembered are voluminously told by relics displayed and cheerful volunteers, mostly retired firefighters.

 

A true time machine and a tribute to all those who protect and have protected the City of Angels from flames, this, the largest fire department museum in the US housed in a one-time firehouse is really five museums in one. Miniature enthusiasts, history buffs, car aficionados, kids (they take away a red fire helmet) and Hollywoodphiles will all be rewarded by a visit.


"I liked the life net," enthused 7-year-old Anthony who journeyed from North Hills to Hollywood to see the museum with Mom and Dad.

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Firefighters frozen in bronze.


Today airbags that catch people leaping out of burning buildings, instead of life nets. Many more such changes are depicted throughout in the musem. On display are quaint noisemakers, the muffin-shaped bells to alert people about a blaze back when men went around in knee breeches and powdered wigs. A collection of red utility pole call boxes (“break glass and press button”) brings back my old street corner. Los Angeles, whose fire department dates from 1871, had its own unique warning system early on. 

 

 “You’d be surprised how violent Los Angeles was in then,” says Don Dodd, a veritable horse’s mouth of Fire Department history. “To give you’re an idea how violent it was: one or two shots fired from a gun was ignored as a run-of-the-mill shootout. Five or six shots signaled there was a fire and help was needed.”

 

You can appreciate the phenomenal advance in ways to handle when fire—a great ally of civilization—when it gets out of hand. From when Romans revised pump devices the size and shape of an Estes toy rocket to squirt water, through the bucket brigades when every colonial citizen of Philly or Boston was required to have two buckets, to helicopters now that drench the California brushfires.

 

Old Firehouse 27 was retired in 1992 after 62 years of service, when the new firehouse went into operation next door. After a few years of neglect, the stately yellow-brick building crowned by Spanish tile was home to dozens of cooing pigeons, the ceiling had failed in two places, the roof leaked, the building sustained damage during the Northridge Quake.

 

In 1997, the historical society first met, just months after Don Dodd proposed turning it into a museum.

 

“All I did was write a letter,” Dodd, a third-generation fireman, modestly says. The letter was addressed to the fire chief and the chief liked the idea.

 

And in no time badges, helmets and memorabilia, much of which had been gathering dust in drawers and storage spaces, started pouring in. Luck had it that Griffith Park’s Traveltown was getting rid of all vehicles not trains or trolleys. That’s how a jaunty 1913 Seagrave ladder truck that originally belonged to Disney animator, Ward Kimball, landed in Tinseltown. On October 11, 2001, a month to the day after the World Trade Center collapsed killing 367 New York firefighters (“It was a coincidence,” Dodd says, “The date had already been on the calendar”) opened its doors.

 

In one upstairs corner is a somber alcove, LA firefighters’ memorial to 9/11. The frame containing a picture of Ground Zero is made of metal from the North Tower and a haunting bagpipe intones “Amazing Grace.” Both the note of sacrifice and service are touched in this room and an eloquently sculpted monument to LA’s fallen firefighters is in the outside patio.

 

“Sometimes we’re lucky,” Dodd reflects, “and for a year we don’t lose someone. I cried like a baby when I lost three friends in a copter crash. We’re a band of brothers and sisters. In the department we spend a third of our lives with the people we work with 24 hours a day.”

 

Vintage vehicles crowd the ground floor and it’s easy to lose a few decades here, a couple centuries there. A red Cadillac ambulance “The Pregnant Whale” so named because of the elevated roof in back will take you back to the mid-1950s.  Hollywood is never far away: a horse-drawn ladder truck, now drawn by a pair of fakey looking black plastic steeds appeared in the movie “Old Chicago,” (the truck, not the bogus horses) about the 1871 Chicago fire, then there’s the steamer, one of those fire wagon’s that look like a brewery on wheels. And “Bertha #1,” Big Bertha, “a one of a kind fire truck,” made by Crown of Los Angeles, able to spray 2000 gallons of water a minute that did service in the industrial area on the cement banks of the Los Angeles River.

 

Fireman-themed sheet music, beer steins, commemorative stamps, a room dedicated to scale models of fire engines and ambulances constructed with a watchmaker’s intricacy. Upstairs, a room of toys, a movie memorabilia section, a place for kids to romp. They take home coloring books and red-plastic helmets; don boots and yellow ponchos, get the whole deal just short of wielding an actual fire hatchet. Safety first, folks.

 

The Los Angeles Fire Department Museum, open Saturdays 10 am to 4 pm, a block south of Sunset Blvd.

 

1355 N. Cahuenga Blvd. Hollywood, CA 90028

 

For more information about the Los Angeles Fire Department Museum call 323-464-2727 or visit their website: www.lafdmuseum.org



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