Cincinnati wall art depicts early firefighters

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CINCINNATI (AP) – Wall sculptures that depict early firefighters are being preserved in Cincinnati, birthplace of professional firefighting in America.


The dozen pieces of artwork will be placed at the Cincinnati Fire Department’s union headquarters building. The department pioneered paid, career firefighting in 1853.


“It’s a really important reminder of (department) history,” said Matt Alter, the union’s president. “Both in how far we have come and what traditions we still hold.”


Hermine VanDerzee told The Cincinnati Enquirer that her father, contractor and artist Herman Meissner, created the sculptures and that he died shortly after completing the work in 1941.


It wasn’t known who created the work until VanDerzee saw a story about efforts to save the sculptures.


Meissner was born in Germany in 1875 and came to the United States in 1903, according to VanDerzee.


She still has a small blueprint for each piece.


“It’s like being reunited,” she said, “with someone you once knew.”


The sculptures were put in a building that was converted from a water pumping station to the city’s fire dispatch center in 1939. The sculptures decorated the building until it closed in 1988.


The long-vacant building is going to be renovated by investors into a brewery and tap room.


The sculptural reliefs show scenes such as four men operating a manual water pump, a steam fire engine, and horses pulling a fire engine. The scenes depicted go back to the 18th century. The reliefs are believed to have been completed by the 1940s, based on dated photos of them. Some of the images have “CFD,” for Cincinnati Fire Department.


They are bas relief sculpture, said Lynne Ambrosini, chief curator at Cincinnati’s Taft Museum of Art.


The images were probably carved out of wood or other block material, and then filled in with plaster or other material to create the reliefs, Jennifer Burt of the Wiebold Studio, a local art restoration company.


Six are 2 feet-by-4 feet; the other six of 6-by-4 feet.


“They’re well done,” Burt said. “Reliefs were really good way for public places to be decorated with something sturdy and dependable.”


Alter said the mural display will help the department celebrate its 160th anniversary year.


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