By Peter Hermann, The Baltimore Sun
5:45 PM EDT, April 7, 2012
The helmet looks much the way it did when Morris Hunt wore it into a burning building on Leadenhall Street in the summer of 1965. He managed to get out, but he didn't survive.
His daughter, Drue Jenkins, came to the Baltimore Fire Museum in the old station of Engine 6 on Gay Street, lifted the helmet off a shelf and put it on her head. She was just 2 years old when her father died, she said, and the helmet is "all I have left of him."
On Saturday, Jenkins and others came to the museum for Old-Timers Day, not just to reminisce about the station built in 1853 — it still has a hayloft from the days of horse-drawn engines — but to worry that the exhibition was the last.
The firehouse is on a City Hall list of 15 landmarks that could be sold or leased in an effort to save money for the cash-strapped city. Other landmark buildings on the potential for-sale list include the Shot Tower, War Memorial Building and the Peale Museum.
The Fire Museum, which gets city funds for maintenance and donations for everything else, is open just one day a month.
"It's where my father's helmet is, yes," said Jenkins, who works at a downtown law firm but returns to the museum as an admirer and a volunteer, and never fails to put on her father's gear. "But it's more than that. This place is the Baltimore City Fire Department's history. It represents the firefighter's soul."
The museum's curator, Robert Brown, a 35-year veteran of the Baltimore Police Department who retired in 2003 as an arson detective, is trying to secure the museum's future.
He said he has reached out to organizations, including Johns Hopkins Hospital and the B&O Railroad Museum, to see whether they'd buy the firehouse and allow the fire museum to lease it back. Hospital and rail museum representatives could be reached for comment Saturday.
"It's extremely hard," Brown said as he toured the museum, showing off horse-drawn fire pumps and the dented helmets worn by six firefighters who died in the downtown Tru-Fit clothing store blaze in 1955.
"We've tried to be in contact with the city, but they won't return calls or talk to me," Brown said, noting it's equally as frustrating to seek donations. "When you call people up and ask for money, not a lot of people want to talk."
Ian Brennan, a spokesman for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, said Saturday that decisions on whether to sell, lease or leave the 15 buildings alone are still pending a study by a private consulting firm to determine what options "make financial sense."
But Brennan said efforts by the Fire Museum's curator to seek a buyer or a partner "are terrific."
"The mayor would be happy to hear … something to make the museum more robust," he said. "We'd be happy to hear it."
When the firehouse closed on July 16, 1976, it was the oldest station still in use in the country. It was turned into a museum that year and now holds fire memorabilia in every shape and size: fire pumps from 1916, toy engines made of balsa wood, a helmet from every firefighter killed in the line of duty.
The museum's address, 414 N. Gay St., is significant as well. Box 414 was the number of the call box that struck the general alarm for the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904. Engine 6's building became a hospital for horses injured fighting the blaze, which destroyed much of downtown.
Saturday's event brought out some of the old-timers, including John Walker, Bob Langan and Robert Cavero, who have a combined 113 years of firefighting experience. All had been assigned to Engine 6 at some point in their careers, and on Saturday they sat around the old firehouse as if they'd never left, trading war stories and recalling fires fought, streets driven and lives saved.
They all lamented the budget cuts have prompted rotating closures of companies, as well as last week's announcement that three fire companies will be closed permanently. Now they hope the word "closure" won't apply to the museum.
Langan, who at 75 retired with the longest service of the three, 42 years, shrugged when asked about the museum's possible sale. "You can't print what I want to say," he said.
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