In the early hours of June 15, one of Austin’s oldest houses, the Seth Warner House on the 600 North block of Central Avenue caught fire. The damage to the roof and third floor of the house was extensive, and one firefighter was sent to the hospital for observation. The cause of the fire is not yet known.
Homeowners Jim Bowers and his wife Cynthia Weaver were home at the time of the fire and escaped without injury. The couple have lived in the house for more than 37 years, and in 2021 sought landmark status for the house, which is one of only 13 Chicago Landmarks predating the Chicago Fire of 1871.
Bowers and Weaver have spent the last several decades restoring the Italianate-style brick home. In the days following the fire, Bowers’ days have been spent meeting with fire and insurance inspectors and moving hundreds of boxes of belongings from the house.
He calls the entire experience “overwhelming,” noting, “We lost one third of the house.”
The cause of the fire is not yet known. Bowers says he has faith in the insurance company and states, “The house is going to be rebuilt.”
The Seth Warner House, built in 1869 at 631 N. Central Ave., was constructed as a gentleman’s farm on the prairie, became a hotel during the 1893 Columbian Exposition, later served as a music school in the Austin community, and again became a single-family home in 1985.
At the time of the Landmark designation, Ward Miller, executive director of Preservation Chicago noted that the house was significant not only for its long history in the city but also because of Warner himself and his role in Chicago industry and the abolitionist movement.
In 2021, Miller said, “It’s really one of those beautiful stories that’s so layered that we call it lasagna history. It’s a touchstone to the city and its history, that despite its warts and bumps and politics is still a beautiful and vibrant place — a city that we all very much love. The story of Seth Warner, his legacy, and his home takes your breath away.”
In 1837, the year Chicago was incorporated, Seth Warner moved to the city at the age of 27. In the early 1840s he opened a blacksmith shop on Randolph Street near Clark Street.
This work led to a connection with Charles M. Gray, who co-founded the McCormick Reaper Works with Cyrus McCormick. Warner was commissioned to manufacture the company’s Virginia Reaper, which revolutionized the grain industry and established Chicago as an industrial power.
Warner decamped to California during the Gold Rush years and returned to Chicago in 1851. At that time, he was wealthy enough to establish a music hall, Warner Hall, near his blacksmith shop. Warner was an active abolitionist, and in 1853 welcomed Frederick Douglass to speak at Warner Hall at a state convention of African Americans.