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Rediscover San Francisco's oldest firehouse

May 18, 2005

Photo of the exterior of San Francisco's oldest firehouse Old 21On Friday, May 21, and Saturday, May 22, the public is invited to step inside San Francisco's oldest firehouse to experience a historical record that traces the building's 112-year history.

"Discovering Old 21: A Weekend Photo Exhibition of the City of San Francisco's Oldest Firehouse" is the product of hard work on the part of students in grades 10 through 12 at the Urban School of San Francisco in collaboration with students and faculty at SFSU.

Richard Kay, director of special sessions at SFSU's College of Extended Learning, is responsible for SFSU's involvement with the project. He and his neighbors convinced the San Francisco Fire Department to restore the exterior of Old 21, a stately Victorian in their neighborhood, located at 1152 Oak St.

When Kay learned about The History Channel's Save Our History program, he contacted The Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco. The joined forces and won the $10,000 grant that funded the project.

"The collaboration between the schools and the historic organizations brings communities together. The interaction between generations will hopefully inspire young people to continue their historic preservation efforts," says Dan Davids, president of The History Channel, USA.

Throughout the semester, Kay orchestrated the collaboration between SFSU, the Virtual Museum and the Urban School.

Dan Matz, who teaches a course in San Francisco history at the Urban School, welcomed the chance to be involved in the project. Students in two of Matz's classes conducted the majority of the research. "The project gives high school students a chance to publish their work in the form of the exhibit, Web site, and accompanying catalogue. It also takes students into uncharted territory. ... It's been exciting to watch students rise to this challenge -- to check and double check sources, to edit their writing carefully."

The young historians tracked down photographs and old log books dating back to 1907, and interviewed residents, including one man in the neighborhood who fed the horses who served as transportation for Old 21's firemen. The California Historical Society and the San Francisco Public Library proved to be tremendous resources.

Matz's students passed along their photos to Lydia Peña, who is earning her master's degree from SFSU's Museum Studies Program later this month. She is curating the exhibit for her final creative work project.

"Getting information on one particular firehouse rather than the entire fire department was hard [and] finding suitable photographs of the building and specific events relevant to Firehouse 21 was especially challenging," says Peña, who points out that holding the exhibit inside the firehouse itself was not easy either.

"[The firehouse] is not a gallery or museum where the space is clean and open. Old 21 is an older building and is currently being used as a working office … Having to design the exhibit around that was tricky."

For Peña, the reward has been watching the exhibit materialize as she received the images, created a catalog and designed postcards to spread the word.

The photo exhibit includes a model of the firehouse, built to scale by Professor Paul Nowicki of the Design and Industry Department, and a Web site created by a group of SFSU students in the Department of Instructional Technologies (ITEC).

Kamil Walas, currently in his second year in the ITEC master's program, took part in the project as a requirement in "Advanced Design of Instructional Media," a course designed to provide students with opportunities to perform community service and develop professional skills.

Together with his ITEC peers Edmond Chow and Nestor Navidad, Walas met regularly with Peña and Urban School students to compile research and incorporate it into an Old 21 Web site.

"We all felt that this was a great opportunity to participate in the process of preserving a historical San Francisco icon that would be around for many more generations to see," Walas says.

Built in 1893, "Old Engine 21" is in fact Official San Francisco Landmark Number 89, listed between Number 88, the Palace of Fine Arts, and Number 90, the Ferry Building.

Funded by The History Channel, the exhibit will take place from noon to 4 p.m. on Saturday and from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Sunday.

-- Adrianne Bee


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Last modified May 18, 2005 by University Communications