The second floor of the San Antonio Fire Museum is a perfect vantage point from which to see the garden behind the Alamo, the faux historic wall surrounding it, and the church’s metal roof poking out from among the trees.
For Jim Wueste, president of the Fire Museum Society, the view represents the opportunity for better exposure for the 1939 fire station-turned-museum southeast of the Alamo. The Alamo Master Plan will change the dynamic of the area around the grand historic structure that often goes unnoticed on the corner of Bonham and East Houston streets.
For one thing, the Fire Museum will benefit from the change in the Battle of Flowers parade route, which will run along Third Street, turning at Bonham – at the museum – to circle back behind the Alamo.
“I think we’ve got huge potential here,” Wueste said, looking out the window to Alamo Plaza.
The museum’s potential grew beyond a parade route two weeks ago when City Council unanimously approved a measure to convey the museum property, worth about $2.65 million according to an independent appraiser, to the nonprofit Fire Museum charity, which hosts troves of artifacts from antique firetrucks to payroll records.
“By giving [the property] to [the museum] they can then use that to leverage an expansion they’ve been needing,” Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) said. “They couldn’t do that in a space that wasn’t their own.”
The museum had been leasing the building on a yearly basis from the City at no cost since it moved into its new home and opened in 2013.
“It took 2 years worth of discussion,” Wueste said, and originally negotiations centered around a 50- or even 99-year lease.
“I think we’d be a great fit for some corporate partners to come in and help us with some projects but if all you’ve got is a one-year lease, they’re not going to talk to you,” he said. “Conveying the building does exactly the same thing [as a long-term lease].”
That means the museum, which is completely run by volunteers (retired firefighters and their families), can start investing in long-term projects, expansion, improvements, and programming, he said.
About 16,000 people visit the museum each year and about 80 percent of those visitors are tourists. The Alamo gets 2.5 million visitors per year. Once the Alamo Plaza redevelopment is completed, visitors could have a clear sight line straight to the museum from the Alamo’s garden, and the parade route also will bring increased visibility.
“The modified parade route will essentially move the parade to right at their front doorstep,” said Treviño, a co-chair of the Alamo Management Committee.
The museum pays the bills from annual membership fees, donations, the nominal entrance fees collected at the door, and proceeds from the gift shop. Some retired and current firefighters donate through payroll deductions. Wueste estimates the annual budget for the museum to be between $225,000 to $230,000.
Combined the museum has 26,000 square feet, Wueste said, plenty of room to grow, as it currently only uses the ground floor space of the former firehouse and workshop for the museum. He imagines an event space that they could rent out to give “a little money to the bottom line.”
The former Central Fire Headquarters, built by the Works Progress Administration, wasn’t always the museum’s home. It was started by five firefighters at old #19 fire station in 1997.
The conveyance comes “with the condition that the property continues to operate as a museum open to the public,” according to City documents. Otherwise, ownership goes back to the City.
San Antonio’s volunteer fire company was founded in 1854 by a group of men, mostly German immigrants. Photos of the original crew line the museum’s entrance, where visitors are immediately greeted by a volunteer.
On a recent Wednesday, it was Joe Garza, a retired district chief for SAFD. He worked as a captain here in the days when firefighters routinely slid down the poles running between the two floors in 1975. Today, the poles are blocked off for safety reasons, but a mannequin wearing fire gear and boots can be seen imitating the emergency drop. Another is sleeping in a bunk on display, pants and boots ready to be stepped into on the floor beside him.
Nearly four decades after the volunteer fire company formed, the City started paying firefighters. “Been paying them ever since,” Garza said with a smile.
Garza walks through the bays, describing features of the vintage firetrucks, including an 1892 Ahrens Steam Fire Engine. This same engine was on display at the transportation exhibit at HemisFair ’68, Garza said.
“It’s history inside of history,” he said.
One wall is dedicated to fallen San Antonio firefighters, including Scott Deem, who died while fighting a large fire at a strip mall on the city’s Northwest Side in May 2017. He was the first SAFD firefighter lost in the line of duty in 20 years.
Other walls are dedicated to the black and female firefighters who at first weren’t allowed to join the City department; SAFD hired its first black firefighter in 1967, its first female firefighters in 1979.
A group of black firefighters started two volunteer companies in the mid-1860s during the Civil War Reconstruction Era. When they started asking City Council for money to buy equipment and supplies, however, the City moved to disband them.
Volunteers host school and group tours by appointment and fire safety classes for children are available by request. A miniature home with all manner of dangerous scenarios is set up for them to identify the hazards. For younger children, the museum can arrange to present the Fire Prevention Puppet Show for no additional fee.
But the puppet show isn’t just for kids, Wueste said. “Grandmas are having just as much fun as the kids.”