The Old Central Fire Station (1894) - Aurora, Illinois

This beautiful former Fire House, has been on my list of buildings to write an article about, ever since March 2015. I passed this gorgeous building for five years. For some reason, I never made it in there, until it finally all worked out, on Thursday March 8.

The stunning exterior of the Old Central Fire House.

The stunning exterior of the Old Central Fire House.

I really wanted to take my boys with me to the Aurora Regional Fire Museum, that is inside the old Central Fire Station right now.  I am glad we finally saw the gorgeous inside of this building too, since it was well worth our time.

They are currently opened on Thursdays and Fridays from 12 pm-4 pm and on Saturdays from 10 am – 4 pm. On First Fridays, the museum is open too. I am very happy to announce that Brian Failing, Executive Director of the Aurora Regional Fire Museum, told me that they are expanding these hours, from Memorial Day until Labor Day. Starting Memorial Day, the museum will be opened from Wednesday – Saturday from 10 am to 4 pm.

Their current exhibits are called:

  • Getting There, Getting Water, Getting Rescued ~ this exhibit explains 150 years of tools and technology used to fight fires and save lives (1st floor).
1850s Lysander Button Hand Pumped Fire Engine.

Lysander Button Hand Pumped Fire Engine.

My boys loved the hands-on approach here. They could try on Firemen equipment, use a horn, look at cool fire trucks, take a look at awesome vintage videos, learn about different kinds of trucks, see the old Fire Alarm Office and the Watch Desk. This was all downstairs. If you go up, don’t forget to take a look at the beautiful stairway that takes you to the 2nd floor (there is an elevator in the back of the building).

1921 Stutz / Pirch Engine. Make sure to take a look at the beautiful stairway in the back as well.

1921 Stutz / Pirch Engine. Make sure to take a look at the beautiful stairway in the back as well.

  • Teamwork. Brotherhood. Change ~ this exhibit is in the words of the Aurora Fire Fighters, dated from 1950-1999 (2nd floor).

My boys liked to read about what happened the first day on the job, the scariest day on the job, the funniest day on the job and the special vocabulary the firemen use. The Firehouse pole was cool to see too, although they thought it was a bummer they couldn’t use it anymore (I get that it’s because of safety, of course!) Don’t forget to take a look at the gorgeous windows up here!

While walking up the stairs, you’ll first see a great Children’s Discovery Room room for the smaller children. They can play here, as if they are in an actual fire house. Although my boys were too old for this, they still enjoyed throwing bean bags at fake fire from a far distance.

The Children's Discovery Room.

The Children’s Discovery Room.

In the beautiful hallway, while walking from the Children’s Discovery Room, to the 2nd exhibition, you’ll see very old framed articles about for example the Woolworth Fire, including a very cool Journal put together by Captain John Petersohn’s daughter.

The Petersohn Family Scrapbook. You can look into it on the Ipad, that is standing next to this Journal.

The Petersohn Family Scrapbook. You can look into it on the Ipad, that is standing next to this Journal.

In the next room there’s an exhibit called:

  • Firefighting, the basics ~ this exhibit explains, in a for kids understandable way, what firefighters do and use in case of fire (2nd floor).

This exhibition learns children about the fire stages, facts on fire, what is fire?, smoke, turnout gear, thermal imaging, flammability, construction, the fire hose, getting water and putting fires out.

Part of 'Firefighting ~ the Basics' .

Part of ‘Firefighting ~ the Basics’ .

There is a Lego-wall, on which children can build their own house (ground plan), to make them think about what to do if there’s a fire at their own house.

Don’t forget to take a look at the beautiful roof here and the fire hydrant that’s split in two here, so you can see from the inside how a fire hydrant works.

The Hayloft Theatre.

The Hayloft Theatre.

In the back of the building there’s the Hayloft Theatre, where 50 people can take a seat, with good audiovisual equipment. This theatre also gets rented out for presentations, workshops, meetings and even children’s birthday parties. Don’t forget to take a look at the wall!

This is where you can find the restrooms and the elevator. Going down, you’ll end up in the Hose Tower Gift Shop. Don’t forget to open up the door across from the Gift Shop, that leads to the actual Hose Tower. This is a great view!

The Hose Tower, looking up.

The Hose Tower, looking up.

For the $5 we paid p.p. I would say it was definitely worth every penny.

Now, back to the history of the building itself: 

The building was built in 1894 and operated until 1980 (the year I was born!). The original plans were drawn in the rough by Alderman George James, and his rough drawings were followed by architect J.E. Minott.

J. E. Minott was a carpenter and an architect. He was born on June 20, 1849 in Dorchester, Massachusetts. He passed away on November 19, 1920 in Aurora, Illinois. Mr. Minott was orphaned as a young teen. Nobody knows where he learned his architectural skills. We do know that he loved onion domes, since he placed them on a lot of buildings he designed. 

I must admit that I am a fan of his designs, I love onion domes (visiting Taj Mahal in India is still on my list!). Unfortunately there is not much information to be found about this interesting architect. Onion domes are used by architectures all over the world (for example: Russia, India, Turkey, Iran, Italy, England, Greece, Germany etc.) and they are popularly believed to symbolize burning candles. Onion domes were part of the Victorian Architecture in the U.S. (1837-1901).

The three gorgeous bay windows.

The three gorgeous bay windows.

Onion domes are often used in groups of three to represent the Holy Trinity or in groups of five to represent Jesus Christ and the Four Evangelists. If there’s just one dome, it usually represents Jesus. Of course I don’t know if John Edward Minott meant it that way, maybe it was part of the drawing by Alderman George James. Although I find that hard to believe, since Mr. Minott is the one that designed the onion dome on top of the Hobbs building, a few years before he designed the Central Fire Station.

Nicholas Frisch, an Aurora contractor and builder, built this gorgeous building for about $10,000. Wow, if only that could still happen today. Especially since building an onion dome is pretty hard.

In an article about the building, from The Aurora Beacon News, called: ‘The opening of the Central Fire Station’, the writer describes the building as follows:

The beautiful and commodious building.

If there are any finer structures for the purpose in the state of Illinois, Aurora people don’t know where they are located.

The building is a fine two-story brick structure, surmounted at the front with a mosque like tower, from the apex of which stretches a flag staff,. and on this the national colors floated proudly  in Saturday’s breeze and sunshine.

It seems as if the writer of this article was just as in awe of the building as I am.

The 55 ft high Hose Tower is clearly visible, as seen from the parking lot, behind the museum.

The 55 ft high Hose Tower is clearly visible, as seen from the parking lot, behind the museum.

In 1894 the Central Fire Station consisted of two stories. In the rear there was a tower, 55 feet high, where they could dry and wash the hoses. On the first floor, in the front of the building, there was a small room used by the patrol drivers and police. A few feet behind that was the gorgeous stairway. In the rear of the stairway were ten lockers.

There was a north apartment, that was occupied by the patrol wagon and a hook and ladder truck. On the south side of the building, there was another hook and ladder truck, a hose cart and a chemical engine.

There also were eight stalls for the horses, four on each side, and two extra further in the back of the south side of the building. In the back there was a big boiler room (northeast corner), and opposite of that was a back stairway, leading to the 2nd floor.

One of the two brass sliding poles.

One of the two brass sliding poles.

There were two brass sliding poles going from the upper story, in the front of the building. On the 2nd floor, the chief of the fire department had a room at the front center, with large sleeping rooms on both sides. There were lockers on this floor as well. There were separate bathrooms for the police and the firemen. In the rear of this floor were a hay loft and a oat bin, being able to hold several hundred bushels. There were six skylights on this floor and a big center shaft for both light and ventilation.

On the outside of the building were three front entrances with above them, the letters A.F.D. (Aurora Fire Department). There were three bay windows above the letters A.F.D. Above the middle bay window, they had made an onion dome, with a flag staff.  Above the other bay windows, there were two triangular shaped points, basically next to the onion dome.

In 1914 the horses were replaced with gasoline motorized tractors. This asked for some changes inside the Central Fire Station: they removed the eight stalls. So instead of brushes the horses, they now had to polish brass and red painted steel.

Two of the horse stalls.

Two of the horse stalls.

On January 1st of 1920 the AFD began using the two platoon system, which meant that the firemen started working in two shifts. The day shift started at 8 am, until 6 pm, and the night shift started at 6 pm until 8 am. Every two weeks the shifts changed, so everyone worked half of the month during the day and the other half during the night. This is when all Fire Houses needed a kitchen, since all meals were eaten in the Fire House. At the Central Fire House they converted the former hayloft into a kitchen and recreation area for the firefighters.

In that same year, 1920, they took out the wooden floor and changed it into a concrete floor, to make sure the floor could hold the motorized fire engines.

In 1933, during the Great Depression, the Aurora City Council fired six firefighters and cut the salaries of the other firefighters back with 30%. The fire department was now seriously understaffed and underpaid.

The Aurora Daily Beacon News - Woolworth Fire The three captains that died in this fire are shown here too.

The Aurora Daily Beacon News – Woolworth Fire
The three captains that died in this fire are shown here too.

On January 10, 1934, a big fire broke out at the Woolworth Five and Dime Store on South Broadway. In this fire, three firefighters passed away (Captain John Petersohn, Captain Herbert Reiss and Charles Hoffman), probably because they climbed the roof to dump water through the skylights when the blaze erupted again. What happened next was that the roof collapsed and the front wall of the building blow out. There were several other seriously injured firefighters as well: Albert Burholzer, Bernard Meisch and Lt. Robert Bauman.

The letter that one of the widows got, with the check of the widows' fund that the community raised for the three widows.

The letter that one of the widows got, with the check of the widows’ fund that the community raised for the three widows.

Right after the fire, the widows of the three firefighters that passed away (and their children), each got their share of the by others raised widows’ fund, which hit a total of about $7500. This money was raised by all kinds of people in all kinds of ways: CWA workers, employees of all kinds of stores, other firemen (also by organizing a Tivoli Ball Room Benefit), Aurora Cribbage Club, Post Office employees, a midnight show at the Paramount theater, donating the Tivoli ball room; the whole staff; and the refreshments (by manager Joe Lohr), Sammy Berk and his ‘rhythm kings’, Bud’s Smoke Shop, singing by Francis Dewey, Aurora Woman’s Club, Joliet, Geneva and St. Charles Fire Departments, S.S. Sencenbaugh Company, Lisberg News Agency, National Brush Company, etc.

They even asked Barbara Hutton (also known as Princess Mdivani), who was the heiress to the Woolworth millions, for help. She was in the South Pacific at that time, bound for Japan. I couldn’t find if she ever donated towards the Widows’ Fund, so I assume she didn’t. 

Following the Woolworth Fire, the City Council brought back the six firefighters that they had fired earlier. They also raised the salaries of all firefighters with 10%.

In 1943 the stunning onion dome and the beautiful bay windows were removed probably by citizens for scrap drives and to modernize the building. Scrap drives were organized by the government. They asked the citizens to turn over items that could be used during World War II (such as: rubber, metal, newspapers, rags and kitchen fat, among other items).

Aurora's Fire Alarm Office in the early 1950's.

Aurora’s Fire Alarm Office in the early 1950’s.

Around 1950 the Fire Alarm Office was moved into a bombproof room, in the south side rear of the Central Fire Station. This room, staffed 24 hours a day, became the base station of the fire department’s two way radio system. This two way radio system made it possible to have contact between the dispatcher at the Central Fire Station and the truck within a 10 mile radius.

In the late 1950’s The Montrol System, a system that controlled all the traffic lights in downtown Aurora, was installed. The switchboard and contract number file (for contract fire calls outside city limits) were also installed at the Central Fire Station.

On January 1 of 1958 the three-platoon system (which is still used today), got into effect. This meant that three shifts of men working 24 hours on duty and then 48 hours off duty for about 56-hours a work week.

In October of 1961, the emergency ambulance service became part of the fire department. All firefighters received basic first aid courses and two firemen on each shift were assigned to the ambulance.

In the late 70’s the building became too small, probably because of the improvements Chief Bauman made: he established an Arson Investigation Bureau, a Photograph Division and a SCUBA diving team working from the Central Fire Station.

In 1966 Chief Bauman authorized the establishment of a Fire Museum in order to collect and preserve Aurora’s firefighting history. Lt. Charles O. Goodwin (later promoted to Captain), was the curator of the Fire Museum. The first Fire Museum in Aurora, started in the basement of Station No. 4 (800 Michels Ave). It opened to the public in October of 1969, thanks to the hard work of Captain Charles Goodwin and his wife, Georgia, who spend thousands of hours documenting and researching the fire departments history. Captain Charles meanwhile, collected thousands of objects and two thousand photos.

Part of the Gamewell Fire Alarm System.

Part of the Gamewell Fire Alarm System.

In 1974 The Emergency Voice Communication System replaced the Gamewell System. In that same year, a lot of firefighters began Emergency Medical Training at Mercy Center Hospital. These EMT’s (now called Paramedics), were assigned to an ambulance. Those ambulances were equipped with telemetry and a two-way radio connected to the Central Station.

In 1977 a new audio communication system was installed between the alarm operator’s office at Central Station (and each outside station), to replace the old bell-type alarm. This was better, since the alarm operator could now communicate with the fire stations directly.

Dialing '911', even on a rotary phone, was still faster than dialing 897-7821.

Dialing ‘911’, even on a rotary phone, was still faster than dialing 897-7821.

On August 14, 1978, the old emergency number ‘897-7821’ was replaced by the new emergency number ‘911’ in Aurora and surrounding towns. Emergency calls were first answered by the switchboard at the police department, and then later put through to the fire department, if necessary. This way it all went way faster.

In the spring of 1979, they started building a new Central Fire House, since the old one had become way too small. This new building was ready in December of 1980 (my birth year and month, haha!). In this new office there was room for offices, conference and training rooms, a spacious apparatus floor and much larger and more modern living quarters for the firefighters.

I have visited this Fire House with Stef Arends, about three years ago. We went there to ask the firefighters some questions, because we were making a movie about downtown Aurora. They were all very friendly and showed us around the fire house as well.

The 'new' Central Fire House of Aurora - Dec. 1980.

The ‘new’ Central Fire House of Aurora – Dec. 1980.

The old Central Fire House remained vacant until 1987. They tried to sell the building, but it didn’t work out. In 1988, the City of Aurora and the Aurora Fire Station Preservation Corporation reached an agreement to use the old Central Fire House as the new place for the Fire Museum.

The Watch Desk - early 1900's.

The Watch Desk – early 1900’s.

The building first needed extensive renovation work, which took until 1990. The roof leaked, the hardwood floors were covered over, the walls needed coating and safety issues needed to be addressed. Thousands of volunteer hours were put into the building.

In 2000, the City of Aurora received a grant from the State of Illinois to renovate the building. They stabilized the foundation, and restored the beautiful look of the front of the building. The bay windows were put back in place, as was the onion dome. They also hung new apparatus doors to match the 1894 design.

The fully restored Aurora Regional Fire Museum proudly opened it’s doors in the fall of 2004, and has been as ‘beautiful and commodious’ as described in the Aurora Beacon News (1894) since then!

The Fire Museum can always use YOUR HELP, in many different ways: volunteering, donating, becoming a member.

A LIKE at their Facebook page is highly appreciated too.

Take a look at my previous posts about in my series about Aurora, Illinois too.

The Aurora Regional Fire Museum sign and the statue to honor Aurora's dedicated firefighters.

The Aurora Regional Fire Museum sign and the statue to honor Aurora’s dedicated firefighters.

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