Kane County History: Aurora’s 1894 Central Station Is Proud Home of a Regional Fire Museum

Kane County History: Aurora’s 1894 Central Station Is Proud Home of a Regional Fire Museum

  • Editor’s Note: This article is part of a weekly series on Kane County’s amazing history. Today’s post is contributed by Brian Failing, executive director of the Aurora Regional Fire Museum.

If you have ever driven on Broadway in downtown Aurora, you likely have seen a building at the corner of New York and Broadway with a large, green dome perched upon its roof and big bold letters over the front doors reading “A”, “F”, “D”.

This building was once home to the Aurora Fire Department and is now home to the Aurora Regional Fire Museum.

Aurora’s First Station — 1856

Source: Photograph Collection, Aurora Regional Fire Museum, Aurora, IL.

Aurora’s first Central Station, constructed in 1856, was located in the same place the Aurora Regional Fire Museum stands today.

As you can see in the photo above, the building was positioned next to the Aurora Police Department, and the city had an addition constructed between the two structures to put a roof over the Fire Deparment’s ladder truck.

Also in the picture above is Aurora’s 1892 aerial hook and ladder purchased from Michigan Fire Ladder and Engine Company of Grand Rapids, MI.

Central Station 1890s

Photograph of Aurora’s Central Station from the 1890s with firefighters posing with some of the department’s horses. Source: Photograph Collection, Aurora Regional Fire Museum, Aurora, IL.

Aurora’s “new” fire station was constructed in 1894 and served as Aurora’s Central Station until January 1981.

The Hobbs building in downtown Aurora.

The Central Station was designed by Aurora-based architect John Edward Minott, who created numerous private residences and well-known public buildings throughout the area, including the German Methodist Church in Aurora, the Hobbs Building in Aurora, and the Masonic Block in Plainfield.

It is believed that Minott’s designs were influenced by the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition that took place in Chicago. In addition to being known for its classical architecture, the fair featured international pavilions representing cultures from around the world.

Moorish Temple and Persian Palace designs included domes very similar to that found on this building. The Moorish Temple included similar architectural elements found in our building, such as the keyhole windows.

Aurora’s Central Station was built at a cost of $10,000 to the city of Aurora. The two-story brick building was surmounted at the front with a mosque-like dome, from which a flag floated proudly.

When completed, the Aurora Beacon described it this way: “The finish is admirable, and its appearance, inside and out, is attractive. Over the three front entrances, in the big cut stone caps, are the letters A. F. D., so that no one need mistake the character of the building.”

Central Station 1969

Above is a photo of Aurora’s Central Station in 1969 showing how the building was altered over the years. The onion dome and decorative cornice were removed in the 1940s, the bay windows were converted, inward-swinging doors were replaced with automatic doors, and a window was converted into a doorway. Source: Photograph Collection, Aurora Regional Fire Museum, Aurora, IL.

Until 1981, the Central Station building was used for its original purpose as a fire station. In all of these years, the shell of the building remained the same, while the department grew around it.

In 1916, horses were no longer needed as all apparatus had turned to motorized vehicles. In 1920, the wooden apparatus floor replaced with concrete to support the heavier equipment.

A few decades later, in 1943, the copper-clad onion dome and bay windows were removed, presumably for wartime scrap drives, and for many years to come, doorways and windows were modified to meet the needs of the firefighters and the community.

In December 1980, Aurora’s new Central Station was completed just steps away from this building.

In subsequent years, the building was used as storage and even a space for training by the Aurora Police Department. By 1985, the city of Aurora allowed local businesses to bid on the building.

Public and political opinion about what to do with the building were at a stalemate. Many wanted the old Central Station to remain with the city and used as a museum or educational space. Others wanted a business or restaurant to occupy the building to enhance downtown Aurora.

Efforts to sell the old Central Station to several Aurora businesses — including a restaurant, medical insurance company, and a women’s clothing store — all failed. A group of community activists, building preservationists, and retired firefighters petitioned city officials to “Save Our Station” from demolition.

On Feb. 8, 1988, the Aurora Fire Station Preservation Corp. was founded for the purpose of rehabilitating the Old Central Fire Station as a charitable and educational museum. The group was comprised of a number of active community members as well as active and retired firefighters who wanted to see the building survive and for the museum to continue to thrive.

When the organization took control of the building, it was in disarray. Major repair work was needed: The roof leaked, the walls were thick with many layers of paint, and safety code violations were life-threatening. The old building suffered from the previous years of indecision.

Within years, the building was transformed into a clean and welcoming space. In 1990, the Aurora Fire Department transferred the collection to the Aurora Fire Station Preservation Corp. and the Aurora Regional Fire Museum opened its doors to the public in its newly renovated space.

In 2000, the city of Aurora received a grant from the state of Illinois to further renovate the old Central Station.

The grant money transformed the old Central Station into its turn-of-the-century glory: projected bay windows with leaded glass transoms, apparatus doors matching the 1894 design, and even a replica of the onion dome. These three architectural elements continue to make the Aurora Regional Fire Museum a gem while walking or driving in downtown Aurora.

The Aurora Fire Museum

Photograph of exhibits in the Aurora Fire Museum when it was housed at Station No. 4 in Garfield Park. Are there any artifacts you recognize? Source: Photograph Collection, Aurora Regional Fire Museum, Aurora, IL.

The Aurora Regional Fire Museum was established in 1966 by the Aurora Fire Department and was housed in the basement of Station No. 4 on the city’s East Side until it moved to Central Station.

Opening its doors on Oct. 6, 1968, the museum has grown from a local fire museum to a regional institution.

The museum would not be where it is today if it were not for the work of dedicated individuals from the Aurora Fire Department and the Aurora Fire Station Preservation Corp. Through the foresight of the Aurora Fire Department, objects, photographs, and stories were saved and created the foundation on which the museum was formed.

Onion Dome Re-Created

This photograph shows the restoration work of Aurora’s Central Station. The onion dome was re-created, the bay windows added, and workers work on fabricating the cornice. Source: Photograph Collection, Aurora Regional Fire Museum, Aurora, IL.

Today, the Aurora Regional Fire Museum continues to care for and interpret the 1894 Central Station and features two floors of exhibits centered on the history of firefighting, the Aurora Fire Department, and fire safety.

For more information about the Fire Museum or to plan your visit; visit our website at www.auroraregionalfiremuseum.org.

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