Remembering Frank Manwarren
Remembering Frank ManwarrenThe kitchen in Old Fire Station 27 is quiet today. The museum that once was the largest fire station west of the Mississippi River is closed. Sitting on the main table in the kitchen, and also posted on the wall above the lockers are two photos from the 1950s of a group of smiling LAFD firemen and officers. In the midst of that group, a gruff looking man with a smoothly shaved head glared at the photographer - but anyone looking closely could see that the fireman had a twinkle in his eye.
When Fire Station 27 was opened in 1930, Frank Manwarren was ten years old. As a child, he was faced with growing up during the Great Depression. He would go on to become a fireman for the City of Los Angeles, and he would spend a number of wonderful years working out of Fire Station 27. It’s what he did before, during, and after his time at 27s that makes his time there unforgettable.
Manwarren, who died this week (1/23/10) at the age of 89, was not your typical firefighter. He was a designer, builder, photographer, and public safety servant. And above all else, he was good to everyone around him. Laughter and fun pranks were part of what made him so enjoyable. But, given his early years, you’d be hard pressed to understand how a man’s spirit could remain so positive and upbeat.
Born June 15, 1920, his childhood was difficult, as the country was in the midst of a decade long depression and recovery. By the time he was nine years old, Frank was already actively working, just to find food for his family. In addition to Frank and his parents, there were eight boys and two girls in the Manwarren family.
When Frank was 17, he started working for the Railroad in Los Angeles, and the primary objective was still food and basic needs for his family, although several of his siblings had moved out and were also working. With the outbreak of World War II, his emerging need to serve pushed him to enlist. He spent two years in China, with the U.S. Army Signal Corps and developed two interests that would follow him for the rest of his life: photography and waterway landscapes.
While in China, Frank was in the midst of misery, as he had spent most of his early life. Soldiers were not only dying in combat, but falling to illness, including dysentery and malnutrition. Yet, in the midst of the horror of war, Frank noted that China was home to some of the most remarkable and beautiful rivers and waterscapes. He captured many images with his camera in China, including both combat imagery and the remarkable beauty that can be found throughout the country.
When Frank returned to the States, he again turned his attention to earning money to help support his family. His father wanted him to return to the Railroad, as that was viewed as a steady job. But Frank wanted to do more and in 1946 he was accepted as a fireman for the Los Angeles Fire Department.
During his career, he worked at a wide variety of stations, including Fire Station 27 in Hollywood. After approximately ten years in the field, Frank became one of the public relations photographers, often shooting with 16 millimeter film as well as still photography.
And, at the same time, his interest in water and water-based monuments continued to evolve. Along with several of his friends, he began to construct water sculptures and monuments. In 1961, Frank earned his general contractor’s license and soon thereafter, built a three-acre lade and island for Bush Gardens in Northridge, California. It opened to the public in 1964.
And from that point forward, Frank had two careers: his firefighting career and his landscape waterway career. His waterway career included using all forms of construction techniques, and his work is noted around the world. Some of his projects have included the Japanese Pavilion at Disney World/Epcot Park, Nine miles of shoreline along the lake in Westlake Village, The Lakes in Tempe, Arizona, and the lake in Laguna Niguel, California. He also created a series of natural habitats for zoos, including the San Diego Zoo, Los Angeles Zoo, Fresno Zoo, and the Denver Zoo. Frank even went wild with water rides, including those for Astroworld Six Flags, Magic Mountain Six Flags, Six Flags over New Jersey and Opryland in Nashville, Tennessee. Frank also worked with hotels and floral gardens, and one of his favorite projecst was building a floral garden in Taipei, for the Taiwan Republic of China.
As a firefighter, Frank was actively involved in capturing images and photography at some of the most dramatic and dangerous emergency incidents in Los Angeles, including the Bel Air Fire, the Baldwin Hills Reservoir Collapse, and the Watts Riots. He retired on May 3, 1970.
During the last decade of his life, Frank would often spend his Saturdays in the LAFD Historical Society Museum (Old 27s), in the same kitchen he once sat in during a photo shoot, glaring at the photographer. During these visits, however, he would more often be smiling and laughing, recounting stories of the past, telling everyone what waterway project his son was working on, and making everyone smile. He would always brighten up when his close friends Julian George and Bill Rolland were about, both retired firemen as well. And he would speak reverently about those who gave their lives when he was in the presence of another retired firefighter, Ted Aquaro, who was an officer with the Firemen’s Relief & Widows and Orphans organization (and now a Director for the LAFDHS).
They say that firefighting is a profession that doesn’t really change over time. Fire Station 27 is unique in that it represents a time in the fire service when the danger and adrenaline required to be successful outweighed the political, cultural, and social issues that make up most first responder agencies today. Although Frank is no longer with us, his presence will always be a part of Old 27s. His service to country, city, and his fellow man represent the very best of the fire service. For anyone who knew him, Frank Manwarren was not only a creative, talented photographer, contractor, and fireman, he was a beacon to the fire service and more recently to the Museum and Memorial. His legacy is now etched in the hallways, kitchen, and apparatus floor of Old 27s. This week, every fire station Los Angeles received the traditional death announcement of ten bells, and the legacy of Frank Manwarren moved into the history of the department, the museum, and the City he served so proudly.
Author: David Barrett