Los Angeles Fire Department
Historical Archive

Los Angeles Reopens Its
Old Plaza Fire Station

    On October 1st in the year 1871, the City of the Angeles celebrated the birth of a brand new Fire Department, Eighty nine years later, on Saturday, October 1, 1960, the firemen and the citizens of the City gathered at Old Plaza Engine House to hold another birthday celebration and to open a door into the Fire Department's past.

    That door led to the completely restored original Old Brick Fire House.

    The Old Plaza Fire House dated back to an afternoon in May in the year 1884, when dashing, mustachioed Chief Walter S. Moore won a big battle for public safety.  That was the day that the high-collared City Councilmen agreed to have a new brick fire house built for the famous volunteer fire company, "38's Number 1." 

    The Plaza House continued as a fire house for the next 13 years.  When "Ones" did move away in 1897, it was because the house was too small to handle the newer and larger apparatus that the City had procured.

    New equipment was not easy for the Department to come by even in that early day.  The City Council never did agree to purchase motorized apparatus.  Los Angeles had to annex the City of Hollywood to get its first automotive fire equipment.  Changes were eventually made, however, and when the firemen moved out of the Old Engine House, it fell to use or misuse of every type under the sun.  At one time it was a saloon, then a hotel.  At one time it was the hub of Chinatown, but in the mid-thirties even that distinction was taken from it when most of Chinatown was torn down to make way for the Union Depot.

    By the 40's, what had been Engine Number 1 was completely unrecognizable.  Its facade had been changed to suit the needs of a dozen different owners and it had been covered with endless coats of paint.

    At the end of World War II, old One's had deteriorated to what cold only be called an eyesore.  It was a sure bet that none of the thousands of passerby ever gave it a second look.

    About the time One's reached its all-time low, the City of Los Angeles started on a massive demolition program.  A considerable number of old buildings in the City were torn down to make way for the freeway system.  It was this threat to her historical buildings that spurred on a group of the more nostalgic-minded citizens in their efforts to save some of the City's famous landmarks.

    A committee of citizens, spearheaded by Mrs. Christine Sterling, and championed by Leo Carrillo, convinced the State of California to begin the Plaza redevelopment, and the program was started.

    The Fire Department's part of that story started with a tip from the State Department of Architecture to Fireman Robert Foster, Los Angeles Fire Department Historian.  Bob was told that the State suspected that the building on the corner of Plaza Street and Los Angeles Street had at one time been a fire house, but that no one could be found that had ever seen the old fire house, nor were there any pictures or other corroborating evidence available for them to work on.

    This tip set Bob on a mission that was to take up almost every moment of his off-duty time for the next six years.  His first step was to find a picture of the, at the time, mythical fire house.  With no place to start looking, the task did not seem too hopeful.  Bob Foster, however, was a man with a purpose and although the chase led him up a good many blind alleys, the key clue was finally found, and with a photograph to go on the architect began to formulate his plans.

    Bob still had hundreds of days of checking Department records, newspapers, files, running down good tips and bad before he could produce the volume of data that enabled the architect to begin the reconstruction of Engine Ones.   Even after he had gathered enough information to make the reconstruction possible, Bob still had to plan the interior decor.  This meant further research.  Some idea of the problems he faced can be gleaned from the questions that came up during the course of reconstruction, such as:  What were the circular foundations that were found under the many times recovered floor used for;  and what kind of plumbing, if any, was used in the original house.  All of the answers were found, but after most of the fundamental questions were answered, other questions arose.  One thing should be kept in mind about the Engine One project;  it was not to be a museum.  The Plaza restoration program will create authentically restored buildings, which will appear just as they did when in use.  All of the items that are to be seen on display, the special fire horse harness, harness repair equipment, beds, coat trees, and even the spittoons are actually from the same era as the old engine company.

    Finding out what should be put in the Engine House was one thing;  finding the items was quite another.  It took a good many trips to second-hand stores, antique dealers, and even into fire department attics before everything could be set up.

    The final display piece to be readied was the Los Angeles Fire Department's steam pumper.  That piece of apparatus had been out of use for so long that no one really knew just what make it was or just how long the City had owned it.

    To get such information required a check of department records and then a check of the minutes of the City Council.  These records revealed that the Los Angeles Fire Department's Steam Pumper is a second size, 700 gallons per minute, Amoskeag.  It was built for display at the Chicago Columbian Exposition of 1892.  It must have been one of the star attractions at that fair, for it had a completely nickel-plated boiler, stack, and compression dome, with the chassis and wheels finished in bright maroon and trimmed with gold leaf.

    To say the least, the Fire Pumper was a long way from a like-new condition by 1960.  To make arrangements for reconditioning, Bob Foster negotiated with the State of California.  The State finally agreed to restore the Fire Department's Amoskeag Steam Pumper if the Fire Department;  i.e., Bob Foster, would show them how to do it.

    After a considerable amount of research of the subject of old fire pumps, Bob developed the data, the pictures, and the plans that were necessary to do the reconditioning job.  Taking this information with him, he drove his car up to Soledad, a town near Monterey, California, so that he could personally give the shop craftsmen any additional instructions they might need.

    Unfortunately, the Amoskeag was not completed in time for the October 1st opening, but it is expected to be finished very soon and will be put on display at Old Engine Ones in the very near future.  One of the local motion picture studios, 20th Century Fox, provided an "extra first steamer" for display at the opening.

    The hour-long dedication or re-dedication program was one of the best from the standpoint of both attendance and spirit that has taken place in downtown Los Angeles in a good many years.  Master of Ceremonies was Vierling Kersey, Commissioner of the Department of Recreation and Parks.  Music was provided by the Fire House Five plus Two who, incidentally, brought along their own antique Silsby Steamer and 1914 La France.  The Main Streeter Quartet provided appropriate vocal selections.   Fred Allen, President of the Box 15 Club, presented the City with a beautiful bronze plaque that designates the Building as California Historical Landmark No. 730.

This article appeared in the November, 1960 issue of THE FIREMAN'S GRAPEVINE.

Copyright 1999 All Rights Reserved.