The firehouse and the Hands-on Museum

Published In:
Ann Arbor Observer, November 1996,
November 1996

Author: Grace Shackman

Date: November 1996

When the present fire station was being built in the 1970’s, Ann Arborites debated whether to save the 1882 firehouse and, if so, what to use it for. Although the Civic Theater also had many proponents, the final decision was to use it for a children’s science museum. The city retained ownership of the building, but rented it to the Hands-On Museum for a nominal fee. The museum, under the direction of Cynthia Yao, refurbished the almost century-old firehouse and expanded the floor space by 50 percent by opening up the attic and creating a mezzanine above the second floor.

Ironically, the old firehouse needed significant upgrades to meet modern fire safety standards, including enclosing open stairwells. (The museum later added sprinkler and alarm systems.) While the work was in progress, some firehouse artifacts were found, including an ancient ax, an 1883 grocery list, and a flag. These are on display in the museum’s stairwell, along with some historic items donated by the fire department – including the hook once used by the city’s first professional fire chief, Fred Sipley.

The museum moved into the old firehouse October 13, 1982. At that time it had one paid staff member (director Yao), ten volunteers, and twenty-five exhibits. They hoped to attract enough visitors to meet their $50,000 operating budget and, to their relief and surprise, did so: 25,000 people came the first year. Although the museum has received some grants, for the most part it has operated on money from entrance fees and programs. It now has more than 250 exhibits, a staff of fourteen, between 400 and 500 volunteers, and a yearly budget of $850,000. Last year 145,000 people visited the museum, including 40,000 children in school groups. At last count, 1,343,221 people have come through the museum since its founding.

But just as the fire department outgrew the building, so has the museum. It has purchased four buildings to the west along Huron. Once remodeling is complete, the acquisitions will triple the museum’s size. The new space will be used for a variety of new displays and innovative programs, including a preschool gallery, a telecommunications exhibit, and a science theater for high school and college students. The area that had been covered parking for the gas company will be used for a lobby and gift shop. The rest of the parking lot on Ann Street will become the entrance, making bus drop-off and pickup much safer.