President’s “State of the Fire Museum” Report – 2015

The past year has been largely a good one for the museum. Your non-profit Board’s grandest ongoing project of late has been pursuit of the purchase from the city of the Milam Street property—the historic firehouse and lot that comprise the museum facility. This project closed on May 6, 2015, so the museum facility is now owned by the non-profit that has run it for more than three decades.

Over the years, many visitors were surprised to learn the museum property was still city-owned, including officials from several potential funding organizations. For almost two decades, your non-profit organization has been a tenant and a manager of the museum facility for the city–not the owner.

As such, donations to the non-profit have largely been directed to the organization’s educational programming and to its exhibit work, not to capital expenditures necessary to preserve the historic structure. Several exceptions have been made, however, when emergency repairs had to be done to preserve the fundamental integrity of the structure, and these were paid for out of your non-profit’s coffers.   Yet, the 116-year-old firehouse quietly continues to deteriorate.

The problems became so pronounced this past fall that staff, trustees, and HFD cadet volunteers spent several days moving all storage items from the second floor of the museum—and there was a huge room full of them—to off-site, climate-controlled storage simply to take the excess weight off of the sagging floor. Unfortunately, this included virtually all of the museum’s archival material, which has basically resulted in a moratorium on research capabilities until the material is either organized off-site or returned to the structure after preservation work is completed.   The latter is a few years off, though.

Now that the sale of the property to this non-profit is consummated, the museum’s Board will select an architectural firm to develop a long-term vision for the museum’s site—i.e. a master plan for property usage–while concurrently engaging the contractors needed to conduct the most critical repairs required on the historic structure before eventually embarking on a full-scale preservation of the old firehouse, top to bottom.

Contractually, your non-profit has more than six years from May 6 to complete these tasks. In an effort to show the city and potential funders we mean business, your Board earmarked well over a million dollars from the non-profit’s capital reserves (generated from the recent sale of nearby land to an apartment developer) to achieve these goals as expeditiously as possible.

The future preservation work at the museum will undoubtedly present cause at some point for the day-to-day operations to relocate to a temporary off-site home, hopefully as close to the Milam address as possible.   That relocation would only last for the period required to do “heavy” work needed for which the safety of staff and visitors would be compromised if they remained on-site. Such a relocation probably would not begin before the end of this year.

It is the Board’s long-range vision that the preserved historic firehouse be one of two buildings eventually on the Milam site. The second building would be a modern addition in the back with two, possibly three, floors to house gift shop, offices, classroom, and storage. This second phase of site development will require its own capital funding from sources not presently evident.

Several retirees have contacted me about the tarp-covered fire trucks sitting behind the museum. One retiree, in fact, voiced a sincere interest in purchasing the old REO salvage wagon that he told me was the first truck he drove after he joined HFD. I had to tell him at the time the trucks were still city-owned, but that they were on a list of old fire vehicles slated for transfer to the museum as part of the sale agreement with the city. So, in addition to the structure at 2403 Milam, nine retired city fire department vehicles from the 1910s to the 1970s are now owned by the museum’s non-profit, too.

This retiree’s passion for the restoration of the old truck prompted me to recommend to the museum’s Board that a comprehensive plan be developed to arrange for the restoration of as many of these old HFD rigs, on a priority basis, as possible, seeking individuals, corporations, and other organizations as partners for specific restoration projects. Your museum’s Board took yet another bold step of earmarking $25,000 of its capital reserve toward just such preservation work. The planning for a truck restoration partnership policy will begin soon after the more immediate need of finding appropriate storage for these incoming vehicles and moving them there is done.

  • Tom McDonald, President, May 2015

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