photo by Beyond My Ken
With the establishment of the Metropolitan Fire Department in 1865, New York City's network of volunteer companies was abolished. Engine Company 5 was established on September 25 that year, and moved into the existing volunteer fire station at 340 East 14th Street, between First and Second Avenues. It had been built about three years earlier. The new company had a single engine and tender, build by the Amoskeag Manufacturing Company, and a team of spirited horses to draw them.
The volunteer fire fighters, or laddies, had had a reputation as a boisterous, rowdy group. Organizing a professional department did immediately change old habits. On July 20, 1870, The New York Times reported. "Patrick Farrell, of No. 192 First-avenue, who was shot [on July 18] by Wm. Hamilton, a member of Fire Engine Company No. 5 in Fourteenth-street, died yesterday at his residence of the wounds so received." Firefighter Hamilton had gotten into an argument with Farrell and a man named William Callaghan "about a picnic," that culminating in the gunfire. On his deathbed, Farrell said he had been shot "without provocation." Hamilton insisted it was self-defense.
On October 2, 1879 the Fire Department notified the Board of Estimate and Apportionment of the need for a new house for Engine Company No. 5. It said the station:
...was originally built for the Volunteer Department about 17 years ago; it has a large school-house on one side, adjoining, and a tenement-house has since been erected on the other, which caused it to settle, cracking rear and front walls and ceilings, and disturbing the floors.
The first item on the Board of Fire Commissioners meeting agenda on July 25, 1880 was "the opening of proposals for doing the work and furnishing the materials for the erection of an engine-house for Engine Company No. 5 at No. 340 East Fourteenth street." There seems to have been a lack of urgency on the part of the commissioners. The following day the New York Dispatch noted, "All the bids were laid over for future consideration."
Nevertheless, on September 1 that year, the men of Engine Company 5 were temporarily relocated, their fire station demolished, and construction started on a replacement.
Napoleon LeBrun had been appointed official architect for the Fire Department in 1879. A year later his son, Pierre joined him in the business, which became Napoleon Lebrun & Son. Before the turn of the century they would be responsible for the design of 42 fire houses. The firm would famously create individual, sometimes lavish, designs for their firehouse. But in 1881 the Fire Department was renovating or building around a dozen structures. To save both time and money, Napoleon LeBrun & Son reused one design several times, including for Engine Company 5, with only minor differences.
Engine Company 27, at 173 Franklin Street, was one of the nearly identical structures designed at the time. photograph by the author
Amazingly, construction took less than six months to complete, and on March 1, 1881 Engine Company 5 moved into its new home. The design followed the traditional firehouse layout. The centered bay doors sat within the cast iron base. The two upper floors were faced in red brick and trimmed in terra cotta and stone. LeBrun & Son’s Queen Anne design was splashed with Neo-Grec elements, most notably the stone lintel that floated above the second story central opening.
The company suffered a grievous loss on February 12, 1895. In reporting the death of firefighter Peter McKeon, The Press began:
One might suppose that staring death in the face as often as they do, firemen's hearts would become a little hardened. Such is not the case. No set of men feel grief more keenly than they, and their sorrow for a mate who dies on duty is touching in its earnestness. This is why the whole department is grieving over the sudden killing of Peter McKeon, than whom a braver fireman never lived.
Engineer McKeon's death was particularly grisly. The company was responding to a fire in a tenement building, the Florida Flats, when a wheel came off the truck. "Before McKeon turned around from his place on the firebox step, the engine tender dashed into him. The pole of the tender pierced the engineer's back, pinning him to the boiler," explained the article. The terrified horses reared, tearing the pole from McKeon's back and he fell directly to the street where the horses "trampled him again and again." He died within a few minutes of being pulled from under the horses' feet. The 45-year-old left a wife and four children.
As the article said, the dangers of firefighting required the "staring of death in the face," almost constantly. On December 22, 1897 the company was called to a tenement fire at 436 East 14th Street. The New York Herald reported, "There was an accumulation of gas in the cellar, and this, combined with the smoke, made it almost impossible to live." Two firefighters, John McCabe and James E. Davis entered the basement. When they did not return after a reasonable time, other members followed. "They were found unconscious and taken out."
Three other firefighters who took up the battle, were also overcome and had to be rescued. The last to be pulled out, Martin J. Oakley, was dead. John McCabe returned to the firehouse, but had to be taken to Bellevue Hospital the following morning, where three of his comrades had been taken the night before. The New York Herald said he was "in a bad condition."
Despite the change from horse-drawn to motorized fire engines, and the neighborhood from one of tenements to commercial buildings, Engine Company 5 remained in its venerable fire station. Firefighter Jim Ronayne reflected the changing times in 1974 when he was chosen for a specialized--and surprising--detail.
On February 20, 1974, The New York Times wrote, "Three nights a week, when Manhattan fireman Jim Ronayne is not on duty with Engine Company No. 5 or heading to a fire, he is getting ready for a night at the opera. Mr. Ronayne puts aside his 'turnouts'--the fireman's uniform of dungarees, denim shirt, rubber boots, canvas coat and helmet--dons a black tuxedo and makes his way to Lincoln Center."
Ronayne was one of nine New York City firefighters who made up the "Tuxedo Squad" for the Metropolitan Opera. At each performance, three of them were within the crowd of opera-goers "to guard against accidents, fires and thefts." The men estimated that they needed to summon help from Roosevelt Hospital to deal with accidents and illnesses at least 20 times per season. Ronayne confided in the reporter that "he likes 'Irish opera' best."
Perhaps no single group was more devastated by the events of 9/11 than the New York City Fire Department. After the attack, Engine Company 5 was deployed to pull hose line up 80 floors in the North Tower. Among the members was Manny Delvalle, Jr. who also carried an oxygen tank. As his team continued, he paused at the 10th floor to give a woman oxygen. He was never seen again. The men of Engine Company 5 had gone up another five floors when the building began to shudder and they were called back. After the tower collapsed, a search was made for Delvalle, but the 32-year-old could not be found. A bronze plaque in his honor hangs among those of other lost firefighters affixed to the facade of the fire station.
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