Growing up, Redondo Beach City Council member Pat Aust was surrounded by collectors. His grandma had a vast collection of china dolls lining the walls of her house and his mom owned almost every Barbie made from 1958 until 1975.
The upstairs of former Redondo Beach Fire Department Chief Pat Aust’s home is dedicated completely to his over 30 separate collections. Photo by Chelsea Schreiber
But even by his family’s unusually comprehensive standards, Aust became the biggest collector of them all. His home houses the largest collection of fire department memorabilia on the West Coast.Aust, who served as chief of the Redondo Beach Fire Department for nine of his 34 years in the department, has what he estimates is a collection of over 35,000 fire department related items. He has everything from fire truck toys dating from 1900 to 10,000 pre-1900 brass, silver and nickel-plated badges as well as three working fire engines – although he used to own six.
“I kinda got into stuff,” said Aust.
Since he was young, he said he has been mesmerized by things that are old.
“When I was going to Pier Avenue School there was an antique store I’d go to every day after school,” said Aust. “I was fascinated with stuff that was 100 years old.”
At that time, the United States was celebrating the 100-year anniversary of the Civil War. Since then, he has been obsessed with collecting antiques and learning about history.
“One thing led to another and the next thing you know I’m collecting, going crazy,” said Aust, while showing off his massive collection.
He’s also been featured on four television shows – including one called “Man Land.”
“When I was 25 years old I bought my first fire engine,” said Aust, who bought that fire engine – a 1919 LaFrance – from the Inglewood Fire Department for $500. He even drove his daughter to her first day of kindergarten in another engine he bought in 1974 – the first fire engine on Catalina Island.
He also began collecting classic automobiles. As his collection grew, he purchased his first home because of its unusual lot size could contain a gigantic garage.
“It was 300 feet too small to be two lots, so it was perfect,” said Aust.
One of his 284 fire department helmets was given to him by the family of the first fire chief of Redondo Beach. Photo by Chelsea Schreiber
It’s been his home for 44 years. He now stores a fire engine as well as 13 cars in his North Redondo home’s spacious garage. He also has 17 pristine antique vehicles in his personal warehouse, or shop, in Gardena. According to Aust, most of his 30 cars are in perfect working order and he drives at least three to four a day to keep them running well. His favorite year and make are the 1936 Fords because they have the “most style.” Almost any given day, he can be seen cruising up Hermosa Avenue, and his vehicles are a staple at the classic car shows at Ruby’s Diner in King Harbor.
The upstairs of his home is dedicated completely to his over 30 separate collections. Photo by Chelsea Schreiber
“I’ve probably put 100,000 miles on Hermosa Avenue,” Aust said. “It’s my hometown, I grew up in here.”
When he was a senior in high school, he married Linda, his wife of 48 years, during spring break because they had, “nothing better to do.” Since then, she has allowed him to fill their home with his vast collection.
“My wife calls me obsessive compulsive, but you don’t think that, do you?” said Aust, laughing.
Pat Aust has collected over 10,000 pre-1900 fire department badges from all over the country. Photo by Chelsea Schreiber
He has filled almost every square inch of his house with his collections, including antique furniture and wood paneling as well as 60 gas pump globes and over 450 porcelain signs. Downstairs is his wife’s domain, but fire department red is still its dominant feature. Walking up the spiral staircase to the second floor is where the shock and expansiveness of the collection really begins to sink in.
“Every single piece of furniture in this house I bought as a project and Linda and I restored it,” Aust said, pointing to a refurbished mantelpiece found in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania and the custom wooden quarter-sawn tiger grain oak trim that frames every room. The upstairs rooms – which barely have enough open space to hang a tack – are completely dedicated to his collections.
Pat Aust’s collection covers almost every open space in his house, including the couch, pool table and bathrooms. Photo by Chelsea Schreiber
He owns over 285 Fire Department helmets, including the helmet from the first Redondo Beach Fire chief. Among his favorite items are the 40 Fire Chief Presentation Speaking Trumpets – a pre-loudspeaker answer to giving orders during a fire.
“You’d be hard pressed to find two in any one place, and I have 40,” Aust said.
Fire fighter hose nozzles also decorate what little empty floor and counter space that exists in his memorabilia-filled upstairs. His guest bedroom and bathrooms are functional, but still packed with his collections.
Pat Aust stores 13 of his 30 cars in an expansive garage at his home, the other 17 pristine antique vehicles are stored in a warehouse in Gardena. Photo by Chelsea Schreiber
“When people visit they are kind of surprised,” said Aust. “They know I have a collection, but don’t know it’s this big of a collection.”
He estimates that he has over 30 different collections of things.
“It’s very eclectic. I have a lot of Redondo and Hermosa Beach stuff too,” said Aust, who is deeply involved in the Redondo Beach Historical Society. “A lot of people don’t know the history of their stuff. They know Uncle Fred worked in Redondo, but they don’t know what he did. To them it was just an old thing lying around. But when it has a home and they know you really like it and know what it is, that’s what makes the story good for them. You’ve filled in a lot of the blanks.”
He’s proud of his collection of 10,000 fire department badges, especially a collection of 36 Chicago Fire Department badges from the 1890s to 1920s that were found on the bottom of Lake Michigan and lovingly restored to their original shiny nickel-plated state. Stacks of the 10,000 piece collection line the guest room and are piled upon a pool table that’s covered with silver trumpets, helmets, toy fire engines, photographs and stacks of display cases filled with badges.
“I got most of the stuff here while on trips back to the East Coast with a guy who is the captain for the Torrance Fire Department,” Aust said. “We drive through the country with an enclosed trailer and buy stuff as we go. We’re like American Pickers – sometimes we actually go knock on farmhouse doors and ask if they have anything to sell. I’ve bought gas pumps, fire department stuff and lots of antiques.”
Wall space is precious in the Aust household. His collections, including now out of code fire department fire grenades, fire department bells and ceramic signs fills almost every wall. Photo by Chelsea Schreiber
Locating each of the thousands of items in Aust’s enormous collection was no easy task. But the search itself is part of the reward.
“Finding things that you’ve never seen – but you know when you see them that they pertain to what you are interests are – is the challenge,” Aust said. “A lot of them find me.”
He’s also bought over 6,000 items on EBay.
“When you actually find out what it is, and you know not just what it is but where it came from and who it belonged to and what the story is beyond that – well, that’s what I find intriguing,” said Aust. “Sometimes the story is better than the stuff.” B
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