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Historic 154-year-old Austin house damaged in fire

Fire damages 154-year-old landmark home on West Side
Fire damages 154-year-old landmark home on West Side 02:55

CHICAGO (CBS) -- A roaring fire early Thursday damaged an Austin neighborhood home that is one of the oldest still standing in Chicago.

The Seth P. Warner House at 631 N. Central Ave. was constructed before the Great Chicago Fire. 

Around midnight Thursday morning, firefighters responded to the house and battled heavy flames. The house also sustained smoke and water damage. 

Most days, it's the architecture that turns heads at the Seth P. Warner House. But now, as CBS 2's Noel Brennan reported, all the attention is of course now on the damage from the fire.

On Thursday afternoon, crews were boarding up the windows on the 154-year-old house.

"The house is beautiful inside," said owner Jim Bowers. "I mean, luckily most of it's still intact."

Bowers and his wife have lived in the Seth P. Warner house for 38 years. But they won't be going home to it tonight.

"My wife smelled smoke, and she came and got me," Bowers said. "I went up in the attic, and I tried to put it out - and it was just too intense."

The family is still assessing what is lost. Bowers said the fire mostly impacted the attic and roof.

"The roof's going to have to be replaced completely," Bowers said.

154-year-old home damaged in fire 02:02

The house is treasured not only by its owners, but historians as well.

"You can see this boxy exterior. It's actually made out of brick. A wrap-around porch that goes around the whole house? That makes for a pretty classy house" said Tim Samuelson, Chicago's Cultural Historian. "This is the house I was dying to see as a kid."

Part of Samuelson's special interest has always been the old houses of Chicago – and the Warner House is than most of Chicago. It was built a couple of years before the Great Chicago Fire.

As noted by the city, businessman Seth Porter Warner settled in the Austin community in 1869 – before the area was part of Chicago.

"In 1868-69 when that house was built, it was the middle of nowhere," Samuelson said.

The architect behind the house is not known. But the Chicago Commission on Landmarks reports it originally served as the centerpiece of Warner's "gentleman's farm" – which occupied 6.8 acres of land and also included an orchard, a pasture, a barn, and a carriage house.

Other houses – first Queen Anne-style houses and later flat buildings - were later built around the Warner house as the Austin community grew, the commission said.

The house is an example of Italianate-style architecture, and in particular the cube-and-cupola typology, the commission said.

Warner had opened a blacksmith shop downtown in the 1840s, and later received commissions to manufacture Cyrus McCormick's Virginia Reaper – which revolutionized grain harvesting and helped put Chicago on the map for industry, the commission said. Warner was also known as a champion of music – opening Warner's Hall to host music and lectures near to his downtown blacksmith shop, the commission said.

Warner was also a staunch abolitionist well before the Civil War – and hosted a speech Frederick Douglass at his downtown hall, the commission said. He also helped found the Austin Presbyterian Church in 1871, according to the commission.

Warner sold the house in 1889 and moved to the Near North Side. He died in 1892, the commission said.

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The house was first sold to George Voorhees – who turned the house into a hotel called The Elms and marketed it to tourists visiting Chicago for the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893, the commission said. After the fair, the house had three more owners who used it as their home.

Then, in 1924, a dramatic and musical change came to the Warner House.

"The house became the first of a series of three musical colleges that were headquartered in the building," Samuelson said. "You could learn to play the piano. You could learn to play the violin. There were people who taught dancing."

The house hosted conservatories of classical music all the way up until 1979. Over the years, it was known as the Austin Conservatory of Music, the Austin College of Music, and finally the Austin Academy of Fine Arts.

George Haskell was the first owner of the house as a music school – where he taught music, theatre, and dance with Harold Simonds as director, the landmarks commission said. Violinist Dr. Paul Vernon and his wife, Blanch Weber Vernon, took over in 1934 – followed by vocalists Perrin B. Root and Ione Walker Root in 1953, the commission said.

Voice, instruments, painting, sketching, and drama lessons were offered at the school under the Roots.

The last owner was John H. Hunter – an African American musician and composition, theory, and keyboard teacher who ensured that the academy was racially integrated, the commission said. Hunter was an alumnus of the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago, and had taught music at Albany State University in Georgia. He operated the academy at the Warner House part-time while working primarily as U.S. Department of Energy auditor, according to the commission.

Hunter's obituary notes that he "cultivated the talent of the amateur, the gifted, and those in between" and "elevated the status of the Academy from great to superior."

An estimated 31,000 students and 270 teachers passed through the music schools that called the Warner House home over the years, the Commission on Landmarks said.

The house means enough to Chicago that it is marked for preservation. It was named to the National register of Historic Places in 1982.

The city also deemed the home a landmark last year.  

"That house has double landmark status," Samuelson said. "If something's been around since 1868, it has to be tough."

Hopefully, history will keep the house standing – and turning heads.

"The house will be here long after I'm gone," Bowers said. "We're just parttime caretakers, basically."

No injuries were reported in the fire, but a firefighter was taken to the hospital for a medical condition.

Crews spent all day working to board up and secure the house after firefighters left.

Ward Miller, executive director of Preservation Chicago, said insurance money will help cover the cost to repair damage. He said the house could also be eligible for a special fund that helps to preserve historic property across the cityy.

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