A new exhibit at the Saratoga Springs History Museum illustrates how major fires, especially in the city’s downtown, have shaped the way Saratoga Springs looks today.
“It’s a full overview of what fire has done to the community and the resilience of the members of the community to rebuild,” said exhibit curator Michael B. Levinson, a New York City-based interior designer who also has a home in Saratoga Springs.
Levinson said he started his research for the exhibit last year. The exhibit, which is located on the second floor of the Canfield Casino in Congress Park, covers a period from 1827 into the 21st century.
Photos from the 375,000-negative George S. Bolster Collection of photos at the history museum were used to tell the blazing story of major city fires.
The exhibit also features video footage of some of the city’s more recent fires, including the Convention Hall fire on Nov. 14, 1965, that gutted the 5,000-seat venue on Broadway just south of Congress Park where political conventions, major sporting events, and other large gatherings were held since very early in the 20th century.
Levinson used burned beams gathered at a friend’s home in Greene County, and transported by truck to the museum by volunteers, to give the exhibit a realistic, charred feeling.
The exhibit, which opened May 27 and will be up until March 1, 2011, includes information about the Broadway fire in the winter of 1957 that destroyed seven buildings on the east side of Broadway across from Division Street before being stopped by a fire wall on one of the newer buildings.
James Parillo, museum director, said Levinson volunteered his time, as he has done in the past, to research and design the exhibit. The exhibit is housed in what for more than 30 years had been the Victorian Room on the history museum’s second floor.
“We wanted to tell the story about how downtown Saratoga Springs was shaped by devastating fires,” Parillo said.
He said city residents and businesses always rebuilt after the fires, ushering in a “rebirth, a new era” in the city’s architectural history.
Levinson said the history of city fires is also told through fire-related artifacts, some of which were loaned to the museum by the Saratoga Springs Fire Department.
There are historic ceremonial fire department trumpets, an old wooden firefighting ladder from the 1930s, fire helmets from the past, some early fire extinguishers and even a leather water bucket used by “bucket brigades” back before water pumping apparatus had been invented.
Major funding for the exhibit comes from the Alfred Z. Solomon Charitable Trust and a grant from the state Council on the Arts.
Parillo said he and several other museum volunteers, including board member Wally Allerdice III, traveled to Greenville in April with a truck to pick up more than a dozen charred beams from a fire that consumed a 19th century barn in that community.
“We were a mess,” Parillo said about the soot from the beams. “But we had fun.”
The burned beams are used near the enlarged photos of some of the city’s major fires.
Video footage of some of the more recent fires that had been converted from the original 8 millimeter film to VHS was turned into a DVD presentation that is part of the exhibit.
In addition to the Convention Hall fire, the video footage shows the September 1965 fire at Saratoga Hospital that claimed the life of a city firefighter, as well as a relatively minor fire at the Canfield Casino in 1966 that was caused when water from the Village Brook flooded the Casino’s basement and started an electrical fire.
Parillo said one of the most tragic fires was the April 12, 1955, Caroline Street fire that gutted homes and businesses on Caroline Street east of Maple Avenue. This fire, he said, claimed the lives of a family of seven people and another young person who was staying with the family at the time.
Levinson said he gathered information on the fires at the Saratoga Room in Saratoga Springs Public Library and also from the rich archives of the history museum itself.
Levinson, 50, said he is able to volunteer his time at the history museum between interior design jobs in New York City.
He has also started the not-for-profit organization, called Empire Historic Arts, that has created history and arts exhibits at the Thomas Cole House in Catskill and in Philadelphia.
The Saratoga Springs History Museum, which is located in the Canfield Casino, is open daily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. The admission charge is $5 for adults and $4 for senior citizens and students.