“I have no ambition in this world but one, and that is to be a firefighter The position may, in the eyes of some, appear to be a lowly one; but we who know the work which the firefighter has to do believe that his is a noble calling."
-Chief Edward F. Croker FDNY circa 1910
If these walls could talk- there are many buildings that have been around since before the paid Fire Department of the City of New York was organized that are still being used today. Then, there are some, no longer firehouses but still hold it's history inside the 4 walls. 1 building in particular at 155 Mercer Street, still shows signs of what it once was, 'Fireman's Hall'.
Present day 155 Mercer Street is a clothing store with bright lights, but if you look beyond that, on the front facade, you can still see 'Fireman's Hall' carved into the building, spelling out it's rich history. January 6th, 1854, construction contracts were signed to build a new Fireman's Hall to replace the old building. A box was placed into the cornerstone containing the history of the New York Fire Department since 1816, a history of the old Fireman's Hall, a bible, a copy of the US Constitution & a score of other documents including copies of the local newspaper.
The ground floor would house New York Hose Company 5 & Ladder Company 6 of the Volunteer Department. Each company is to have 15x90ft, which will be divided in 3 rooms. The front room for the apparatus, the centre room for their meetings & the room in the rear for sitting & reading.
The 2nd floor would contain a large meeting room, 38x71ft for meetings of the representatives, engineers & foremen, & the Exempt Firemen's Association. The 3rd floor held an identical sized room used as a library & reading room & smaller rooms for the librarian & committees.
The front of the building is to be Connecticut brownstone, cut in the best manner. The style of arcitecture is Italian, or composition of Greek & Roman details applied by the Italians to modern buildings.
An over-the-top example of Victorian exuberance, Field & Correja's Fireman's Hall exploded with decoration. Fireman's Hall was carved above the central 2nd floor window. The pilasters flanking the centered entrance were adorned with "emblems of the fire department, such as hook & ladders, torches, axes, trumpets, ect & tops of these antaes are to be surmounted with a fire hydrant".
The architects salvaged an old fireman statue from the old fireman's hall. "On the top of the cornice is to be a blocking course with 3 pedestals. The 2 side ones surmounted with a cluster of torches & the center one with the full size statue of a firemen-- the same one that has stood sentry so many years in front of the old hall."
A tympanum above the entrance doors contained bas-relief carvings of Protection & Benevolence & on it's keystone was carved a full-sized fire helmet.
|from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York|
The volunteer fire companies were manned by locals called 'laddies.'. The companies gained a reputation as rowdy, boisterous gangs whose fire houses were essentially social clubs. Despite their elegant new surroundings, the men of New York Hose Company 5 & the Lafayette Hook & Ladder Company 6 were no different.
When the Civil War erupted, Colonel Elmer E Ellsworth, a close friend of Abraham Lincoln, organized the 11th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment known popularly as the Firemen's Regiment. The troops were in DC when insurgents attempted to burn down Willard's Hotel in DC on May 8th, 1861. Colonel Ellsworth, fusterated by a laddie's handling of the trumpet, snatched it. "With this he marshaled his forces".
Less than 2 weeks later, on May 25th, it was reported that Colonel Ellsworth has been assasinated. His murder was fearfully & speedily revenged. His memory will be revered, his name respected & long after the rebellion shall have become a matter of history, his death will be regarded as martyrdom." That night, the board of Engineers & Foremen of the New York Fire Department met at Firemen's Hall to discuss participation in the Colonel's funeral.
January 1865, there was a bill introduced in the State Senate to establish a paid professional Fire Department. A meeting of the Board of Representatives at Firemen's Hall resulted in a unanimous resolution to use "every honorable means to defeat the bill for a paid Fire Department".
Their efforts failed. July 6th, 1865, the board met 'for the purpose of making a final close of their business". 2 weeks later the Commissioner of the new Metropolitan Fire Department met in Fireman's Hall to arrange for the transfer of property from the old volunteer companies to the new department. Fireman's Hall will be used as a Fire Department Headquarters.
One of the 1st steps to modernize & consolidate the department was the installation of the 'Fire Alarm Telegraph' boxes, the predecessor of today's ERS boxes. The Central Station was located in Fireman's Hall.
|Firefighters race to a fire in 1881. etching from the collection of the New York Public Library|
In 1887, Fire Department Headquarters moved to it's new building on West 67th Street. Fireman's Hall continued to operate as a firehouse. Ladder 20 organized March 30th 1889 here. Ladder 20-2 organized March 1st, 1900 until June 1905, then reorganized December 1905 until July 1939. Division 1 moved in January 30th 1894 until March 1, 1900. Division 2 was here from December 1914 until June 1917. Battalion 3 was here January 1894 on and off until 1922. Battalion 5 was here April 1959 until April 1974. Engine 13 moved in November 1948 until April 1974, when both Engine 13 & Ladder 20 both left for their new firehouse on Lafayette Street. At this time, the Victorian facade had been shaved flat, leaving only side quoins as any indication of the 1854 design. The fireman statue was salvaged.