Thursday, June 24, 2021

Engine Company No. 26 - 220 West 37th Street


The volunteer Protection Engine Company No. 7 occupied the firehouse at 220 West 37th Street until 1865 when the Metropolitan Fire Department was organized.  The house then became home to the Metropolitan Engine Company, No. 26.  In 1870, the Fire Department's Annual Report showed a roster of 10 fire fighters.  Housed within the station was a "steamer second size, built in 1867" and a "two-wheeled tender, improved pattern, with seats."

The city invested invested $4,200 (about $132,000 today) in  1895 to rebuild and modernize the firehouse.  It was at that time that the building acquired most of its present appearance.   It followed the tried-and-true configuration of fire houses--a cast iron base with a centered truck bay supporting, in this case, two stories faced in brick and trimmed in stone.  A tidy Italianate metal cornice--somewhat past its prime in architectural favor--finished the design.

Nineteenth century firefighters faced significant problems--lax building codes, stables filled with combustible materials like hay, and the volatile illuminating gas plumbed into almost every building in the city.   It was the latter that put the members of Engine Company 26 in peril on May 25, 1894.  The men were called to a smoke condition at 217 West 35th Street--a four story tenement with a grocery store at street level.

The tenants all made it out of the building, which had filled with black smoke.  Yet initially there was no other sign of fire.  The Evening World reported, "The members of Engine Company No. 26 finally found a fire smouldering among a lot of coal and wood in the cellar.  They had only been in the cellar two minutes, throwing a stream in the direction the fire seemed to be, when one of the men crept up the stairs on his hands and knees."

That man was Captain Andrew Gaffney.  He made it to the first floor before losing consciousness.   Right behind him was another man who, too, was overcome.  Eventually five fire fighters were carried unconscious to the street.  All were taken back to the station house to recover.

A later investigation found gas had been leaking from a meter in the basement of the baker's shop next door.  The Evening World reported, "In some manner, it is thought, the gas caught fire, and that the combination of gas and smoke was too much for the fire fighters."  That there was not an explosion is nearly miraculous.

Keeping his men in line was not always easy for the foreman of any fire house.  On October 14, 1896 The Evening Post reported, "Patrick J. Brennan of Engine Company No. 26 was fined five days' pay for intoxication, as was also John F. Fitzgerald of the same company, on the same charge."  Simultaneously, James W. Kelly was AWOL.  On October 1 he had been granted a five-day leave of absence, but never returned.  His wife said he went to Boston on October 8, and she had not heard from him since.  "The foreman thought Kelly had debts he was unable to meet," reported The Evening Post.  "The Commissioner decided to dismiss him."

The station got another update in 1906 when the city commissioned architect Alexander Stevens to extend the building to the rear, add skylights, and new toilets.  It was a major interior renovation, amounting to more than a quarter of a million in today's dollars.

It was not lighting gas, but ammonia fumes, which proved dangerous in a fire at the five-story Volunteer Meat Market at 573 Eighth Avenue on February 26, 1907.   The refrigeration plant in the cellar used the gas and when fire broke out there, the lines were broken.  This time the fire fighters were in even greater peril than at the 1895 fire.

Engine Company 26 was the first to arrive at the scene.  Captain Carlocks "broke his way through a huge door into the cellar," reported the New-York Tribune.  "Fireman [Albert] Dann went in after him.  He was overcome at once by ammonia fumes and died a few minutes later in a streetcar which had been turned into a temporary hospital."

One-by-one the other fire fighters were overcome.   And yet, the stalwart men managed to extinguish the fire before it could spread above the cellar.   Nine other fire fighters were transported to hospitals gravely ill, one barely clinging to life.  The article said, "At Bellevue Hospital it was said that Baker could not live much longer."

Motorized fire trucks required upgrading station houses across the city.  In March 1908 architect Edward L. Middleton filed plans for improving Engine Company No. 26, "including the installation of steel and concrete floors to support the apparatus and the building of a new hose loft," reported The Sun.

All fire companies, it seems, had a mascot and Engine Company No. 26 had Kid, "a large coach dog," as described by the New-York Tribune, which came along in 1898.  In 1904 the company's engine driver, Samuel Chapman, was the only member of the company to travel to Baltimore to help fight what would be known as the Great Baltimore Fire.  When he was asked to return to lead the city's parade, he took Kid along.

The New-York Tribune reported, "Before the procession ended Kid fled."  Unbelievably, three days later Kid appeared at Chapman's doorstep in the Bronx.  He never returned to the 37th Street station house, the New-York Tribune opining, "The life of a fire mascot evidently became too strenuous for the old monarch."

The void was filled on May 25, 1913.  The newspaper reported, "Another coach dog, younger and smaller, but otherwise much like Kid, walked into the engine company's home yesterday and acted as if he would like to stay.  In a few hours he was unanimously accepted as mascot, being dubbed Deacy, after one of the men to whom he seemed to take a special fancy."

By the 1920's the neighborhood around Engine Company No. 26 was seeing the rise of business buildings, creating another challenge for fighting fires.   On July 6, 1921 fire broke out in the McCall Company building, almost directly across the street at 232-234 West 37th Street.  It took three companies an hour to extinguish the blaze, during which 15 fire fighters were overcome, four of whom were rescued unconscious.

Similarly, when the men of Engine Company 26 rushed to the eighth floor of a West 39th Street building the following  year in September, they discovered 20 fire fighters from Hook and Ladder Company 21 "stretched out on the floor of the room."  They were all carried unconscious to the seventh floor where doctors from Bellevue and New York Hospitals worked on them, despite the burning conditions above.

New York City's Garment District was fully ensconced in the neighborhood by the second half of the 20th century.  The men of Engine Company No. 26 now had a much different problem with which to contend--traffic.  On May 26, 1983 David W. Dunlap, writing in The New York Times, reported on the worrying issue.  "Fire officials said that, for example, it was not unusual for the members of Engine Company 26, 220 West 37th Street, to go out on foot to avoid garment-center traffic."

The July 16, 1990 Empire State Building blaze was the most notable high-rise fire the company responded to to date .  The four-alarm fire broke out around 6:30 that evening.  While it was confined to the 51st floor, smoke and water affected at least 10 others.  Lt. George Lonergan of Engine Company No. 26 told a reporter, "We are very fortunate this was after business house.  It was a very difficult fire and could have been a real tragedy."  Nevertheless, before it was extinguished, 38 people, including 31 firefighters, were injured.

Of course, the World Trade Center attacks on September 11, 2001 were the most significant event the company would respond to.  Among them that morning were Captain Thomas Farino and 29-year-old Firefighter Dana Hannon.  Tragically neither would return.

In the spring of 2011 the Bloomberg administration was trying to find ways to fill a $600 million budget gap.  A list of 20 fire companies "it is considering closing" was published on May 5.  Included was Engine Company 26.  In a statement the Mayor said, "It will be great to have a firehouse or company on every corner, but that's not the real world."

Engine Company 26 squeaked through the elimination process and survives today, a Victorian anachronism among soaring commercial business.

photographs by the author
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