By Karen Zautyk
Members of the Kearny Fire Department, who are usually in the business of saving lives, have voluntarily taken on another responsibility — saving a small but precious piece of Kearny history.
For 15 years, on their own time and using their own money (plus gracious donations from individuals and businesses), they have been restoring the only building in Kearny declared an official historic site by the State of New Jersey.
And we’re willing to bet most of you aren’t even aware of it.
The structure is the oldest standing firehouse in town: a small two-story brick building on Halstead St., just west of Kearny Ave. It dates to 1895 and was originally the headquarters for Highland Hose Co. No. 4, back in the days when a clanging bell was the only way to alert firefighters to an emergency, and when rigs pulled by galloping horses raced through the streets to answer a call.
The building hasn’t been a working firehouse for decades, but it is still in regular use. Nicknamed the “Exempt House,” it is the monthly meeting place for members of Kearny Firemen’s Mutual Benevolent Associations 18 and 218.
These meetings are held on the beautifully restored second-floor of the building, which has been rehabbed floor-to-ceiling to pristine condition. Even the windows are new. They are exact replicas of the original ones and were installed following the specific criteria required when renovating a historic site.
We learned all of this from retired KFD Deputy Chief George Harris, who acted as our tour guide on a recent visit. The goal, Harris explained, is to eventually restore the entire structure and open it to the public as a Fire Department museum. But there is still a long way to go.
In addition to the second-story rehab, completed work has included refurbishing the exterior brickwork: Bricks were removed, repaired, and put back, one by one. Those brand-new-looking ones that you see are actually all original to the 19th century building.
The rehab job has been tough going since the beginning. When the firefighters initially decided to launch the project more than a decade ago, they found that the structure was sinking. “We had to jack up the building,” Harris recalled.
Currently, the firefighters are busy repairing the staircase leading to the second floor. They have also discovered that the roof was sagging, so that is being replaced.
As we noted, the KFD members — active and retired — do all of this exhausting work themselves, with occasional donated labor, for which they are most grateful.
When it was a working firehouse, the living quarters were on the second floor and the ground floor housed the rigs and the horses. That is, after the department got its own horses. Prior to acquiring KFD equines, firefighters had to borrow the animals. When the alarm bell rang, “the milkman or the bread man would bring their horses to the firehouse,” Harris explained.
Speaking of bells: Among the artifacts in the building is the 1886 alarm bell, which had gone missing but has now returned home. “It was found in the basement of Schuyler School, but no one knows how it got there,” Harris noted.
Over the years, other treasures have also reappeared. including a collection of 19th century trophies which had been packed away and forgotten in boxes in the firehouse cellar.
“We also found a lot of stuff after a flood in the basement in 1962,” Harris said. “Things were thrown out, but Firefighter Billy McGeehan went to the dump and brought them back.” Kudos to McGeehan and his sense of history.
When the dream of a museum is realized, the public will be treated to an exceptional exhibit, portions of which we were privileged to see. This includes the old “dispatch center,” through which all town emergency calls were routed long before 911 and cell phones. (No, children, dinosaurs did not roam Kearny at the time!)
There is also the old “life net,” a massive circle of canvas that had once been the only escape route from a fire. The item, which now hangs on a wall and is covered with patches and badges from fire departments around the world, was still in use until the 1960’s. Even later, the KFD used it for training. “It took eight people to hold it,” Harris recalled. “We used to train by jumping into it from the second story.” That practice, he remembers, was stopped in 1970 by then-Chief John Phillips, who was modernizing the department.
A museum will also offer visitors the chance to pay silent tribute to the two members of the Kearny Fire Department who lost their lives in the line of duty, and who are honored by plaques on the wall: Capt. Robert Ball, Nov. 12, 1973, and Firefighter Manny Gennace, Dec. 24, 1977.
While we were visiting the historic firehouse, KFD members were busily engaged in one of their regular clean-out days and were readying the staircase for that upcoming project. Harris and Capt. Harry Fearon made it a point to thank the businesses that have generously donated to the restoration work: Allied Building Products of Carlstadt, which has provided roofing materials; Viola Brothers of Nutley, spackle and trim; Continental Hardware of Newark; K-Mart of Kearny, paint; Building Specialties of Kearny, sheet rock; and J&L Atwell of Kearny, which installed those very special second-floor windows.
(If we have left anyone out, blame this correspondent and her faulty notes, not the KFD.)
To learn more about the history of the department, visit kearnyfire.com.
To donate materials or money (both of which are welcome and much appreciated) to the restoration effort, contact the department at the non-emergency number: 201-991-1402.