Throwback Thursday: How the Museum Rebuilt Itself After Burning to the Ground

On the night of October 19, 1942, smoke poured out of Boston Children’s Museum. The 2-alarm fire blazed while Jamaica Plain firefighters sought to extinguish it, and neighborhood children stood on the street watching and waiting. After several hours, two boys—James Baird and John Barrett—gained permission to enter the smoldering ruin to try and save any live animals inside. Rushing in, the pair unearthed two guinea pigs, both of which were still drenched from the hoses. As The Boston Post observed, the creatures immediately became “friendly and composed in the hands of their rescuers.”

baird_fire
James Baird and John Barrett with the rescued guinea pigs.

Boston newspapers lamented the loss of the Children’s Museum. The Boston Globe described the building as “gutted from cellar to roof,” going on to note how “at least $50,000 of damage” was done to the collections and exhibits. Much of the botanical specimens, doll collection, model ships, and taxidermy had been damaged or destroyed, and some valuable Audubon prints had suffered heavily from the smoke. Calls for funds, as well as donations of natural history objects to replace the ones lost in the fire, were quickly raised in the newspapers.

Despite the extensive damage, the Museum retained a brave face, persevering in holding their planned fundraisers for the next day. Children gathered in the auditorium next door to send Christmas gifts to the children of a then war-torn Great Britain. And, perhaps after noting a sudden interest in the public, the Museum also put together “Fire Fighting Today and Long Ago” in 1946, a special exhibit mapping the evolution of that profession.

Kids with Engine Model
Boys crowd around a model in the new Fire Fighting exhibit.

Correspondence in the Archives relates how a local donor agreed to contribute several items to the new exhibit, including models of fire engines, leather buckets and belts, brass nozzles, and prints of several fires…provided they were, in her words, “kept under glass where they would not be handled by the kids.” Upon her recommendation, the Museum also launched additional correspondence with the city’s Fire Commissioner, as well as the Chiefs of both the Boston and Cambridge Fire Departments. From this arrangement, reports indicate the Museum obtained several fire alarms for demonstration, as well as some equipment and models. Luckily, the Fire Departments were more open to the idea of children handling the donations!

Engine & Fire Models
A case in the Fire Fighting special exhibit.

Within hours of subduing the flames, Museum executives confirmed to the public that activities would continue next door while reconstruction took place. And yet, the 1942 fire at Boston Children’s Museum sparked a great appreciation for what was almost lost. As The Boston Traveler noted a few days later: “The serious fire at the Children’s Museum brings home more clearly…the value of this unique institution in the educational structure of the city. For years the children of Boston have learned there about the visible universe and its creatures in the most impressive and lasting way, by the direct impressions that come from seeing, handling and studying objects. This is teaching at its best.”

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