Wednesday, October 14, 2020

The 1903 Engine Co. No. 32 House (today Engine 6) - 49 Beekman Street


In the first years following the end of the Civil War the Second Precinct Police station house stood at No. 49 Beekman Street, between William and Gold Streets.  By the mid 1880's it had been converted to city offices, home to the City Public Administrator and Corporate Attorney.

At the time Engine Company 32 operated from John Street, but its facility became obsolete by the turn of the century.  In June 1902 the architectural firm of Horgan & Slattery filed plans for a three-story and attic "brick and stone wagon house for the Fire Department."  The projected cost was $35,000, equal to just over $1 million today.

The Fire Department's official architect since 1880, Napoleon LeBrun, had died the previous year.  The more than 40 structures his firm designed for the department set a high bar, putting handsome design on equal footing with functionality.  

Horgan & Slattery met the challenge with its Beaux Arts style design for Engine Company No. 32.  The rusticated base was decorated with a carved, stylized Greek key frieze, interrupted by a large keystone and two voissoirs.  They upheld an intermediate cornice and entablature which announced the Engine Company's name.  The brick-faced midsection was dominated by a two-story elliptical arch framed in stone.  It terminated in deeply recessed spandrels which overflowed with carved ornamentation.  The flanking piers were decorated with French style cartouches and stone panels.  Above the bracketed cornice the top floor took the form of a copper-clad mansard.

In 1906 34-year Thomas Lennon joined the department.  He lived on Staten Island where he had been a volunteer firefighter.  He had made his living as a stenographer in a bank, but always wanted to be a professional firefighter.  When offered an assignment on Staten Island, he asked to be sent to a Manhattan house instead.  Less than a year later, on January 6, 1907, he was among the nine men of Engine Company 32 responding to fire in a paper warehouse on Roosevelt Street (replaced by the FDR Drive beginning in 1929).   They were joined by other companies as the inferno worsened.

It was a massive blaze, fueled by the enormous stock of paper throughout the building.   Lennon was on the fourth floor when a "back draught of smothering smoke," as described by The Evening Post, forced the men out.  Then Lennon realized that one man, Battalion Chief O'Connor, was missing.  "Lennon climbed back through the window from the fire escape, and felt about in the darkness until he came across O'Connor's prostrate form.  He carried his chief to the ground and helped place him in the hands of the surgeons," said the article.

The firefighters who had been battling on the fourth floor returned there.  At some point Acting Chief Binns, concerned about the stability of the structure, ordered the men out.  The Evening Post reported "They tarried a moment, when the order came, and, as they were groping their way down to the third floor, the floor above, burdened by the water-soaked rolls of paper, suddenly collapsed, carrying them down."

One of the men, Fireman Quinn, caught John J. C. Siefert by the arm.  He held him tightly, but "as the floor fell, Seifert was torn away from his grasp."  A policeman and firefighter were able to find Quinn, now unconscious, and carry him to the street.  When he came to, he insisted on going back into the building.  "I know where Dan is," he shouted, referring to Daniel I. Campbell, "I could hear a voice down in the pile saying 'Thirty-two.'"

When it became evident that some of the Company 32's men had perished, the Chief sent the remaining members back to the station house while the other companies worked on.  Three of their members were not with them, John Siefert, Daniel Campbell and Thomas Lennon.

Somehow Lennon's wife had gotten word of the fire and arrived at the scene.  The Evening Post said "the sight of her urged the firemen to renewed efforts, if such a thing were possible."  At 10:00 the following morning Lennon's body was the first to be discovered.  "They found it on the second floor.  It was evident that he had been killed by a blow on the head."  

As is the case today, the work of the Fire Department was not always about fires.  On the morning of January 26, 1908 a policeman rushed into the firehouse, saying that a man was being crushed by an elevator in the Raymond Building nearby at No. 133 Fulton Street.  Willy Altkin had fallen when getting off the elevator, which then descended, crushing him against the floor.  Five firefighters ran to the scene "with crowbars and axes, [and] tore the framework away from the elevator door, and lifted the injured man out."  Altkin was taken to the Hudson Street Hospital with multiple fractures.

The firehouse was the scene of a somewhat historic ceremony on March 7, 1920.  The Daily News reported "The time-honored ceremony of the New York Fire Department of conferring the 'white hat,' indicative of the rank of battalion chief on each new holder of that office, took place at the headquarters of Engine Co. No. 32, 49 Beekman street, when Joseph O'Hanlon, youngest battalion chief, received the token of rank from acting Battalion Chief George T. McAleer."  

Joseph O'Hanlon (left) receives his white hat in the station house.  Daily News, March 8, 1920 (copyright expired)  

O'Hanlon, who was 36-years old, had joined the department in 1907 when, according to The New York Times years later, "according to legend, 'the men were made of iron and the hydrants of wood.'"  He would go on to a distinguished career, being promoted to Assistant Chief in 1936.  He would devise the departments pension system, the "three-platoon" system, and reduce firefighters' hours from 86 to 46 per week.

It was not his bravery nor firefighting skills that landed Fireman Richard Pecoraro's name in the newspapers in 1960.  It was his political passion.  The 27-year old bachelor was greatly disturbed by the Castro regime in Cuba.  Although firefighters were not permitted to leave the city for more than 72 hours without permission, he secretively traveled to Cuba in August for what he later described to department officials as a "little long weekend."  It was his second trip and he had managed to keep the first one secret.  This time would be different.

He explained to a reporter "It was my hobby or idea to go down and explain to the people my ideas as an American.  I felt it might help to get rid of the government."  That government did not appreciate his efforts.  He was arrested and spent 20 days in jail, unable to communicate with his superiors in the fire department.

On August 30 the Daily News reported "He finally got back to Engine Co. 32 at 49 Beekman St., on August 22, but found he had already been suspended."  He appeared before a hearing during which he "pleaded guilty to making a false statement with intent to deceive, leaving the city for more than 72 hours without permission, failing to notify his commander of inability to report and being absent without permission for almost 22 days."

Ardent political activism cost Richard Pecoraro his job.  photo by Nick Peterson, Daily News, August 30, 1960

Despite the bad experience, Pecoraro was undaunted in his hopes to make change.  He told a reporter he "wants to go back if he can stay out of jail," saying "I feel I can still do something there."  The Daily News reported "Deputy Commissioner Albert S. Pacetta indicated he will get his wish.  Pacetta, who presided at the fireman's hearing, said he will recommend his dismissal from the department."

On November 8, 1972 Fire Commissioner Robert O. Lowery announced that six engine companies would be discontinued, among them Engine Company No. 32.   Its station house of seven decades briefly became home to Ladder Company 10 before Engine Company 6 moved in.  

Still in residence today, Engine Company 6 placed its own number over the 1903 carved "32" and painted the bay doors with a vibrant mural of a tiger, the company's symbol.

photographs by the author

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