As part of our LAFD Legacy series, we journey through history by taking you inside the LAFD Museum in Hollywood. Get a look at amazing LAFD apparatus and artifacts, going back more than 100 years.
Watch and hear some incredible hidden stories unearthed by retired LAFD Captain I James Finn. He’s the president and master behind everything historic in the LAFD Museum, Memorial and Historical Society.
LAFD Museum: Best kept secret in Hollywood
When people find out about the LAFD Museum, Jim says it’s exciting! “The first reaction we get is, ‘Boy, we didn’t even know this was here!’ So, we call ourselves the best kept secret in Hollywood! We have lots of repeat visitors that bring their kids in. Some of them come week after week. Some come several times a year anyway. The kids when they come in, we give them a helmet, we give them a badge and one of the things we like to show them behind the kiosk, behind the front door, is a 1905 Gorter water tower and we have a button, you can turn on that rig. Some of the kids have been here so often they go right up to that button and show their mom or dad, they know where it is, we don’t have to tell them.”
The museum opened October 11th, 2001, although it didn’t have many artifacts nor apparatus. Jim says a donation by Travel Town located in L.A.’s Griffith Park made a big difference for the museum. “Travel Town changed part of the focus of what play was about and decided to get rid of their firefighter apparatus, most of which we (the LAFD) had given to them. So, it came back to us, and some of these pieces are downstairs on the apparatus floor now and most of them have been restored. So, they look as good or maybe even better, than when they were in service.”
Watch our special LAFD Legacy series for more!
Some of the most profound pieces of LAFD history can be found at the museum. Take a peek below to see some of these historic pieces:
LAFD Museum’s historical apparatus: 1937 American LaFrance
With joy Jim says, “There’s one very interesting piece of apparatus down there, it’s a 1937 American LaFrance. American LaFrance, called a sedan triple. Now to explain, it was the very first enclosed apparatus L.A. City ever bought. All the apparatus prior to that had an open cab. This was the first closed cab apparatus, it’s the sedan part. It’s a four door and a triple combination; it’s an engine company that has water, carries hose and has a main pump. That’s how American LaFrance dubbed it.”
“So, the one that’s sitting downstairs, on the apparatus floor, went into service in July of 1937 for the LAFD. It serviced at Engine Company 68 for its entire 21-year life.” Jim also says, “It went into reserve status for three years, and was used when other apparatus was broken down. In 1961 we gave it to Travel Town…kids climbed all over it, for 40 years. In 2001, it came back to us, after they decided to get of all their apparatus.”
LAFD Fallen Firefighters Memorial
A key focal point at the front of the museum is a beautiful, custom- built memorial.
Jim says when he started working on a LAFD Fallen Firefighters Memorial, “I never had a good list of who died in the line of duty. In 2004, that’s when we started building it. I used the Los Angeles Firemen’s Relief Association as my base of operations and Ted Aquaro was the secretary then. I asked him how many people die in the line of duty every year. Do you know he said, ‘oh maybe 2.’ And so, I started off and did research and then in 2004 when I finished up and got all of the names it was right at two people per year…We’ve been a paid department for 136 years. We have 277 names on the wall. So, it’s held steady throughout our history. Roughly two people a year die in the line of duty.”
One of the significant incidents that inspired the idea to build a LAFD Fallen Firefighters Memorial was the horrific LAFD helicopter crash in 1998. Jim says Liz Bamattre, the wife of former LAFD Chief William Bamattre, couldn’t forget it.
“The crash of Fire 3, that was our helicopter on March 23, 1998. Transporting a girl from an accident in the (San Fernando) Valley, to Children’s Hospital, because there is no pediatric trauma center in the valley. Over Griffith Park the tail rotor broke, the helicopter went down, it killed three of our people, plus the patient Norma Vides.”
“On March the 8th the same year, we lost a captain at a structure fire on Western Avenue,” he says. That was four line of duty deaths for the LAFD in a short time. “And, we had one more, a firefighter that was training to be a scuba diver. He only had short time left to get certification and conditions were not good for diving that day, he wanted his certification and ended up drowning, that was five just in the span of two months.”
That’s when Liz Bamattre started thinking about building the memorial. Two years later, “We actually ordered our statues in 2000 and then we started construction on the memorial in 2004.” The memorial was completed in 2008
Honoring heroes who made the ultimate sacrifice
At first Jim says he thought building the memorial would cost about 500-thousand dollars, but soon realized it couldn’t be made for that. The plaza is 8,000 square feet and was designed by architects Michael and John Rotondi. They helped design the project for free. The life-sized bronze statues of firefighters representing the city were designed by L.A. City Fire Captain Duane Golden.
“Construction costs skyrocketed. We just got involved in Iraq and Afghanistan, prices of construction material skyrocketed, lumber, everything. So, what we thought may be $500-thousand, because Michael Rotondi went far beyond what any of us would think about doing out there. You almost need to look at an aerial view of the plaza, to see, it’s a map of the local area, and then inside of that is a concrete map of Los Angeles. Thousands of bricks would be used inside the streets. Plus, the concrete and number of other materials translates into a bunch of money.”
Jim adds, “We were obviously not experts at building a memorial. We knew nothing about it, but, thought maybe for 500-thousand dollars we could build this memorial, he says laughing. But we didn’t have 500-thousand dollars.” Jim says he got help from fundraisers and donations. Concluding, “I’m proud to say, that the result as it sits out there right now, instead of 500-thousand, is two-point-six-million we raised and spent on that memorial!”
Free Admission: Great Family Fun
The LAFD Museum, Memorial and Historical Society admission is free! It relies on your donations to keep it up and running. All donations are graciously accepted.
There are lots of artifacts you can find, some from the past days of firefighting history, and some still in use now. There also are items developed by L.A. City firefighters. Jim says, “You’ll see those types of things here, also, there’s artwork to look at…we have docents here that’ll tell you about everything.”
For more information on the LAFD Museum, Memorial and Historical Society: lafdmuseum.org
By Charles Stewart