NEAR MISS: Fire Burns Seth Warner House Attic, but Owner Plans to Repair Damage

James Bowers and Ward Miller interview with Anthony Ponce from Fox 32 Chicago on June 15, 2023 regarding the fire at Seth Warner House. Photo credit: Ward Miller / Preservation Chicago

“One of Chicago’s oldest homes caught fire early Thursday, injuring a firefighter in the process.

“The fire occurred at 631 N. Central Ave. with the roof suffering extensive damage, Fire Department officials said. The owner, civil rights attorney James Bowers, was asleep at home with his wife when the fire started. The couple managed to escape unharmed with their four cats, he said.

“Two neighbors across the street say they saw fire from the top of the roof around 1:30 a.m. Thursday, lasting for roughly an hour.

“Fire Department officials said one firefighter was hospitalized and is in good condition. No other injuries were reported and the cause of the fire is not yet known, officials said.

“The home was built by abolitionist Seth Warner in 1869 and designated last year as a Chicago landmark.

“Bowers said the home has some damage to the roof and water damage to the third floor. The family also lost some antiques and case files, he said. The home is temporarily uninhabitable due to smoke damage, but Bowers said he expects to restore it.

“‘I was happy to preserve it,’ Bowers said. ‘After awhile, you learn it’s more about the process of meeting new people.”’

“Ward Miller, executive director of Preservation Chicago, said he is relieved the home is still standing.

“He worked with Bowers to establish the Warner House as a landmark in 2021, believing it is an important part of the neighborhood and city’s history as one of the 12 homes predating the Great Chicago Fire.

“‘This was a terrible disaster, but luckily nobody was hurt,’ Miller said. ‘This building is so important to the community of Austin. James continues that great history.’

“Bowers said he believes the total cost to restore the home could be around $50,000. Bowers and Miller said insurance and funding thanks to the home’s landmark designation could lessen the burden.

“Miller said he hopes the block can be designated as a landmark district and will lobby with 29th Ward Ald. Chris Taliaferro and neighbors to bring about the change.

“Being a landmark in Chicago’s music scene was timely to Miller as The Warehouse, the birthplace of house music, was also designated as a landmark earlier this year.” (Arline, Block Club Chicago, 6/15/23)

“While Warner built the house after the Civil War, it may be the only remaining physical reminder of his aid to the abolitionist cause, because his music hall that hosted several anti-slavery events was destroyed by the 1871 fire.

“In 1851, Warner, a blacksmith who was white, built Warner’s Hall at Clark and Dearborn next to his shop. Two years later, the hall was the site of the three-day First Convention of the Colored Citizens of the State of Illinois.

“Frederick Douglass spoke at the convention on Friday evening. The text of his speech was not preserved, but it’s likely to have been along the same lines of his speech a few weeks later in downstate Princeton, where he said, “You must abolish slavery or be abolished by slavery.”

“The hall hosted an 1854 meeting of Free Soil Party supporters to oppose the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and an 1863 meeting to encourage African-American men to join the Union Army, according to according to historical research that Preservation Chicago and the Chicago Department of Planning & Development prepared ahead of the landmarking.” (Rodkin, Crain’s Chicago Business, 6/15/23)

We are relived that the fire was quickly contained and damage limited. However, the damage caused from fire and smoke damage, and from water damage will require a significant effort to repair. Preservation Chicago worked diligently for many years with the homeowners Jim Bowers and Cynthia Weaver towards the Chicago Landmark Designation of the Seth Warner House. To accelerate the landmarking process, Preservation Chicago contributed to the research and writing necessary to generate the Landmark Designation Report. We will now shift our efforts to help them secure the necessary funding to restore this important early home with an incredible Chicago history.

We applaud owners Jim Bowers and Cynthia Weaver for making the decision to pursue a Landmark Designation. They have been outstanding stewards of this early and important Chicago home. Hopefully this Landmark Designation will enable them to generate the necessary funding to recover from this fire and to fully restore the building. We also hope that their leadership will encourage neighbors in Austin to consider a Landmark District to protect many of the other early homes nearby.

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