The owner of the Seth Warner House, 631 N. Central Ave., Austin’s oldest surviving house, is applying for a city landmark designation for his property.

The two-story brick Tuscan Villa Italianate-style mansion was built in 1869, when Austin was little more than a handful of houses in the east section of Cicero Township. Originally a private home, it served as a music school for much of the 20th century before becoming a home again. Owner James Bowers currently lives at the house with his wife.

Although the house is already listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Bowers wanted to make it a city landmark to protect it from demolition. Ward Miller, the executive director of Preservation Chicago, a historic preservation advocacy nonprofit, said that he’s been working with Bowers to get the building landmarked. 

The Commission on Chicago Landmarks will vote on whether to give the house a preliminary recommendation during its meeting on Oct. 7. If approved, the city will need to clear another commission vote before going to the Chicago City Council for final approval.

Austin currently has nine city landmarks, as well as three homes and three historic districts listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Although the latter designation allows property owners to qualify for preservation grants and tax incentives, it doesn’t protect the property from demolition. The city landmark designation also allows property owners to apply for Cook County tax incentives and city grants. 

According to the national landmark registry application, the Warner House was named after its original owner, Seth Warner. In the early 1840s, Warner opened a blacksmith shop that shot to success when Cyrus McCormick, the inventor of the “Virginia Reapers” farm equipment, commissioned him to make the machines. 

On June 1, 1866, Warner bought the land in what was then the Austinville development and he began building the house  two years later. Although it isn’t the first house in Austin, the Warner home is the first “fine residence” built in the area, which at the time of its completion inspired other well-off Chicagoans to move to the community.

After Warner died, the house changed hands two times until, in 1924, George Hankell purchased the home to turn it into the Austin Conservatory music school. Later renamed the Austin Academy of Fine Arts, it closed in 1979.  

Miller said that, in those 55 years, hundreds of students went through the Academy and that, as Austin’s population shifted from majority-white to majority-Black, the student body changed as well.

The landmark application notes that it’s one of the handful of surviving buildings within the current Chicago city limits that predates the Chicago Fire, although the fire didn’t reach Austin and the community wasn’t within the Chicago city limits until 28 years later.

According to the city officials, it’s rare for a homeowner to ask for the landmark designation for their own home. Last year, Dr. David Scheiner applied for the designation for his home, Galewood’s iconic Miracle House, 2001 N. Nordica Ave. The city council approved the request on April 21. 

Bowers did not respond to phone calls seeking comment by deadline. 

Miller said that his organization supports Bowers’s application, because of its history as Austin’s oldest building and a music school, because it stands out architecturally even among many other decades-old homes and because it would help bring attention to an Austin community asset. 

“It’s been a great resource for a very long time, so we hope that the designation would not only honor the building and make more people aware of it, but that it would help [bring in] the funds to fix up the building,” he said. “A house that’s 150 years old could always use the help.”

Igor Studenkov is a winner of multiple Illinois Press Association awards for local government and business reporting. He has been contributing to Austin Weekly News since 2015. His work has also appeared...