Lest They Forget
Monica Geran -- Interior Design, 6/1/2002 12:00:00 AM
Reached while planting azaleas in the yard of his new house, Jeff Pickett, recently retired chief marshall of the Memphis Fire Department, speaks proudly of his city's new fire museum. "Our building is the best of its kind in the country," he says unequivocally. After putting in 32 years service at the fire department—and 10 on the founding committee for the Fire Museum of Memphis—Pickett knows whereof he speaks. "Those HBG people were absolutely fantastic," he says of the local architecture and interiors firm Hnedak Bobo Group, founded by Greg Hnedak and Kirk Bobo.
The program began in 1992. In collaboration with Charles Smith, then director of the fire department, Pickett and a group of dedicated civilians developed a plan to establish a monument with a twofold mission: to recapture the history of the city's first fire department, organized in 1846, and to teach fire safety to visitors of any age. A committee was formed and a feasibility study undertaken.
The project director, HBG's Janet Smith-Haltom, joined the committee in 1994, offering fund-raising and financial advice as well as design skills. It had been assumed that renovating the city's old firehouse, built in 1910 and abandoned for a nearby site in '72, would provide the venue. But there wasn't enough money for a proper overhaul, and the place wasn't large enough to accommodate the envisioned scheme. So the committee accelerated its promotion drive, devising ways to increase revenues; even the fire fighters' union contributed $500,000 for the project. The proceeds ultimately paid to rebuild the firehouse and to demolish and replace three adjacent derelict commercial buildings with a second structure, for a combined 25,000 square feet. The new building offers exhibition and meeting space, staff offices, reception areas, a catering kitchen, etc. Built into one of the exterior walls, a memorial of sculpted brick honors fallen firefighters.
Important, too, were the restrictions and rewards inherent to the historic restoration of the 1910 building. To qualify for a tax credit, Smith-Haltom worked closely with the National Park Service and local building officials to determine what in the old building should or could be kept as found and what might be restored or replaced. She cites, as an example, the original herringbone brick flooring, which had been buried under concrete; the drab coating was jackhammered to resurrect the underlay. Several doors and windows, stashed away (by Pickett, of course), could be reused. Code-approved fire stairs were added.
The museum's main draw may well be the interactive "fire room" on the charter building's upper level, simulating—to often intense effect—the experience of being trapped in a room on fire. Along an adjacent corridor are four rooms furnished to suggest typical residences. Each room graphically presents hazardous scenarios and, via monitors, shows how to prevent catastrophes. There are fireplaces (use screens to stop flying sparks), electrical bathroom appliances (keep away from water), space heaters (keep away from linens and draperies). Below are exhibits of restored fire trucks, a steamer (a horse-drawn apparatus that activated water pumps, last used in 1919), photographs, murals, helmets, uniforms, badges, tools, and even a talking horse named Ol' Billy, a favorite among children. Play equipment for kids (no age limit) is another popular attraction. And a slide-down fire pole is said to be irresistible.