When attorney James Bowers bought the Tuscan Villa Italianate-style mansion at 631 N. Central Ave., 35 years ago, he knew that it was the oldest surviving house in Austin. But when he learned that its original owner, industrialist Seth Warner, was a vocal abolitionist who was friends with Frederick Douglass, his purchase of the property felt even more important.
“That kind of brings it full circle for me, because the big part of me moving [to Austin] was breaking down racial barriers in some way,” said Bowers, who is white. “So it’s incredible to think that Seth Warner, who was a friend of Fredrick Douglass, lived here.”
Built in 1869, the Seth Warner House has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1982. Bowers wanted to protect his building from demolition and a city landmark status would guarantee that. The Chicago City Council unanimously approved the landmark status on Feb. 23, bringing the number of Austin city landmarks up to 10.
With the landmark status granted, Bowers said now that the home is landmarked, he’ll incorporate the property into neighborhood tours of historic sites. Bowers is a business partner of Crystal Dyer, who owns Gone Again Travel & Tours, the city’s only Black-owned travel agency.
Bowers hopes that the landmark designation will bring more attention to Austin’s other historic landmark buildings and help change the way Austin is perceived outside the community.
According to the landmark application, when Warner built his house, the land was part of the Austinville development in unincorporated Cicero Township. 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.
The city’s preliminary landmark report states that, before moving to Austin, Warner used his money to build the Warner Hall near the site of the current-day Daley Center to “host meetings and lectures in support of anti-slavery and the Union cause in the years leading up to and during the Civil War.”
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, the school closed in 1979. During that time, hundreds of students went through the Academy and, as Austin’s population shifted from majority-white to majority-Black, the student body changed as well.
“I think Austin Boulevard is still a Berlin Wall,” Bowers said. “People [from Oak Park] are still afraid to come here, and people here are afraid to go to Oak Park.”
Bowers recalled that he was able to afford the house “because there was a crack house next to it” and when he tried to get police to help, he was asked why he wouldn’t move.
But Austin’s reputation, he said, overshadows how much history Austin has and he wants to help bring that history to light. Bowers pointed out that many people aren’t aware that Austin has a house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright — the 1903 J. J. Walser Jr. residence at 42 N. Central Ave.
“I want to make sure people understand that Austin has a very vibrant history,” Bowers said. “There is a lot going on.”
Ward Miller, the executive director of Preservation Chicago, a historic preservation advocacy nonprofit, said that they were “very honored to have assisted in the landmark designation of the Seth Warner House,” and that they were happy that the landmark process uncovered Warner’s abolitionist activities.