Among Kearny’s little-known treasures is the Exempt Firehouse.
The two-story brick structure at 72-74 Halstead St., between Kearny Avenue and Maple Street, is one of the few properties in town accorded landmark status by the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. It’s also on the state register.
Unknowing passersby may easily mistake the Romanesque-style building with two sets of double-doors on the ground floor and twin oval-shaped windows above as a dormant commercial property, but an inspection of the interior belies that impression.
I was afforded a recent tour of the building by its unofficial caretaker, Firefighter Michael McCurrie, who currently serves as president of the local Association of Exempt Firemen.
This week, the town’s governing body is slated to ratify a 25-year extension of the town’s lease of the property, through Jan. 31, 2049, to the Association.
An ordinance authorizing the lease renewal at $1 a year introduced at the Oct. 11 council meeting refers to the property as a “recognized historic site” and notes that the building serves a public purpose, “essentially (serving) as a museum highlighting historical facts about the Kearny Fire Department.”
An addendum to the lease agreement calls on the Association to “maintain the premises in good repair … after review and approval by the town to the extent funded through donations or grants, including historic preservation grants.”
McCurrie, a 34-year Kearny firefighter who heads the rank-and-file firefighters union, says much of the cost of sustaining the building, which dates from 1894, come from deductions from local firefighters’ salaries.
State law and N.J. State Exempt Association by-laws state anyone who completes seven years of active duty as a firefighter becomes an “exempt”member and contributes annual dues to the Association.
Monies collected from the salary deductions and exempt dues both go to help support the building’s upkeep and, where needed, charitable expenses for members and/or their families.
Today, the building hosts firefighters union meetings and occasional town-sponsored public events. It also serves as an election polling place.
McCurrie, a licensed carpenter, has applied his trade skills – along with several fellow firefighters and local businesses – by volunteering untold numbers of hours ensuring the building stays safe and secure. As a rookie back in 1988, McCurrie recalled, “We inherited it in bad shape.” A fence and a makeshift wall were installed outside as protection against possible falling pieces of façade.
Among others McCurrie credited with putting in their own time were licensed carpenters. Capt. Vic Girdwood taped and spackled drywall joints; Capt. Glen Williams reframed the tin ceiling and sheet-rocked over plaster walls on the second floor; Capts. Jerry Coppola and Harry Fearon fabricated a new stairwell to the second floor; Firefighters Sebastian “Zibby” Viscuso and William McGeehan did the original renovations of the first floor, putting in new flooring and paneling the walls back in 1973; and Firefighter/Lineman Jim Doran, a licensed electrician, guided McCurrie through installation of inside and outside lighting.
McCurrie concentrated his efforts on restoring the original wainscotting on the walls of the main floor, installing a new electrical system, a new HVAC system and backup heating unit. For the first-floor kitchen area, he salvaged an old 2-basin stainless steel commercial sink he recovered from the town’s public works compound that Joe Lynch from Precision Plumbing in Kearny helped him hook up. He also secured a 10-burner commercial store from a German Methodist church in Harrison and a refrigerator from the old Gunnell Oval fieldhouse.
The most recent set of improvements, much of that done during COVID-19, cost in the neighborhood of $50,000, McCurrie said.
“That pretty much drained the coffers of our Exempt Association fund but we’re hoping to build it back slowly, with help from our new hires,” he said.
Future projects he’d like to tackle are drainage improvements in the basement, resurfacing uneven concrete in the rear of the building and installing a new set of front doors and upstairs windows that conform to architectural stylings of the early 19th century, matching the original design of half-circle transom windows with two square doors.
Speaking of history, the upstairs space – now occupied by rows of wooden folding slat seats surrounded by various helmets donated by local KFD members from the early 1900s to the present and other artifacts like an early fire alarm telegraph and call box systems, old air packs and voice “horns” chiefs used to shout orders to firefighters.
Resting on a stone pedestal is an ancient cast-iron fire bell that used to be in Schuyler School.
“It must weigh 800 pounds,” McCurrie said.
How it got transported up to the Exempt house remains a mystery.
Downstairs, mounted on the walls are more helmets, historical and current-day photos of KFD members in action fighting fires, a collection of uniform patches from other fire departments and an old fire rescue net.
One day, McCurrie hopes all these materials may be catalogued and organized so that, eventually, the space can become a real showcase for fire buffs and the general public.
Clearly, this is a labor of love for the veteran firefighter but, more than that, he considers it part of an extended legacy, harkening back to the days when “each firehouse had its own carpenter, electrician and so forth, so each building was self-sufficient.”
A surprising discovery McCurrie made while exploring the building’s main floor was a protrusion in the ceiling, a short distance from the right-front door, featuring a sort of rope-pulley system. He climbed up a ladder, gave the attachment a yank and found the rope was still intact as he pulled it down until it was several feet above the floor. Investigating further, he found the instrument’s twin opposite the left front door.
It, too, still functioned.
After conferring with some of the department’s old-timers, he solved the apparent mystery.
These attachments fitted onto the harnesses worn by the horses that pulled the fire apparatus, such as it was, when the Highland Hose Company 4 — as the then-operating firehouse was known — swung into action as the members responded to an alarm of fire.
(The KFD switched from volunteers to paid firefighters circa 1888.)
But unlike much bigger towns in the region, Highland Hose Co. didn’t maintain a stable of its own horses, McCurrie said. Firefighters had to commandeer a team from some passing milk or freight wagoneer, back the horses into the firehouse, lower the harness into place and ride off to put out the fire with hoses they filled with “soda acid” — a combination of vinegar and baking soda — which, once the nozzle was turned, would pressurize and squirt out a carbon dioxide spray that suppressed the heat of fire.
Highland Hose shut down sometime during the 1930s, around the same time Engine Company 4 in South Kearny opened, McCurrie said, probably because Highland wasn’t big enough to accommodate the then-larger fire rigs being manufactured.
It was as an Exempt House that the building received its national landmark status in 1987, the same year it ended up on the state historic register.
Learn more about the writer ...
Ron Leir | For The Observer
Ron Leir has been a newspaperman since the late ’60s, starting his career with The Jersey Journal, having served as a summer reporter during college. He became a full-time scribe in February 1972, working mostly as a general assignment reporter in all areas except sports, including a 3-year stint as an assistant editor for entertainment, features, religion, etc.
He retired from the JJ in May 2009 and came to The Observer shortly thereafter.
He is also a part-time actor, mostly on stage, having worked most recently with the Kearny-based WHATCo. and plays Sunday softball in Central Park, New York