Historic Tragedy 

Ironically, right around the one-year anniversary of Sept. 11, the Virginia Fire and Police Museum is closed maybe forever.

The museum lost $100,000 in state funding and another $100,000 in matching grants during the last year. After struggling for months to cope with this devastating loss, the museum -- located at 200 W. Marshall Street in Jackson Ward - was forced to close at the end of August. A minimum of $125,000 must be raised to cover operating expenses if the museum is to survive. If the money materializes it will reopen Oct. 1. If not, it will close for good.

That the museum may shut down forever immediately after the first anniversary of 9/11 seems a particularly tragic irony. No event in recent history elicited such collective gratitude for the work that police and firefighters do. Americans were riveted to television screens by images of those public servants' hard labor, sacrifice and bravery.

The museum's staff — reduced by budget cuts to just two during the last year — knows something about those virtues. In addition to putting in long, demanding hours, Longest and Assistant Director Vicky Mollenauer went without salary for 13 months while the museum struggled to regain its financial footing. Ever conscious of cost-cutting, staff and volunteers wore coats and lowered heat during the winter, used air conditioners sparingly during the summer, turned off lights when the museum was empty, and discharged the housekeeping service. Interns took over the cleaning, and Longest herself handled the building's maintenance chores, learning skills such as electrical wiring and roof repair.

What Richmond stands to lose if the Fire and Police Museum doesn't survive is one of the most interesting historical sites in a city already swarming with historical sites. Housed in Steamer Company No. 5, Virginia's oldest standing firehouse, the museum offers visitors a fascinating look at the history of these public servants' professions. The building, constructed in sections between 1849 and 1885, houses a diverse collection of artifacts spanning three centuries. There are preserved jail cells, hand- and horse-drawn fire wagons, antique police cars, helmets, uniforms, badges — even a large collection of antique police and firefighter toys.

Less flashy but no less interesting are the museum's many archival materials, which include hundreds of old photographs and nearly 200 police and fire logbooks dating back to the mid-19th century — all accessible and there for the visitor's perusal. If the museum doesn't reopen, the fate of this treasure trove of documents and memorabilia is, sadly, unclear.

"The closing of any historical institution is disappointing," says Longest, "but to lose all this history is devastating."

The museum also provides programs on fire- and life-safety for thousands of children, and Longest is especially anguished at the possibility that these kids — many of them underprivileged and "at risk" — "won't get to know the extraordinary contributions made by Virginia's Fire and Police Departments."

What concerns her most now is her belief that there are enough people out there who want the museum to survive to save it, but they don't realize the severity of the threat — this isn't a telethonlike plea for money that will tide things over until the following year's telethon and another plea for money.

"People are not aware that it's closing," she says, frustrated. "What we are trying to do is get the word out and get the support of the community before it's too late."

Barring that, she needs a miracle. S

If you would like to make a donation or find out how you can help, write: The Virginia Fire and Police Museum, 200 W. Marshall St., Richmond, VA 23220, or call: 644-1849.


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