The Austin neighborhood’s oldest house is up for Chicago landmark status. The Seth Warner House, built in 1869 at 631 N. Central Ave., has weathered a few transitions from its start as a gentleman’s farm on the prairie, to a hotel during the 1893 Columbian Exposition, to music school and back to single-family home in the midst of an urban city landscape.
Ward Miller, executive director of Preservation Chicago, has been excited about the Seth Warner House for years. Noting that the house is one of 110 significant homes featured in John Drury’s 1940s guide “Old Chicago Houses,” Miller says that when he met the current owner, James Bowers, he tried to convince him to pursue landmark status for his home.
The house was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1982, but lacks landmark status from the city of Chicago itself.
“I told [Bowers], you have to landmark it,” said Miller. “Your home is contemporary to the much-revered Old Chicago Water Tower, downtown on Michigan Avenue. We’re possibly just one heartbeat away from losing this historic house forever if anything happens to you.”
Bowers and his wife, Cynthia Weaver, have lived in the home for 35 years. In spite of the fact that the house was in great disrepair when they bought it, with a leaking roof among other issues, and neighboring homes that were used for drug dealing, he says restoring the home is an ongoing process that has changed the course of their lives for the better.
A civil rights attorney, Bowers says his work is informed by where he lives, calling Austin “a kind of microcosm of racism in America.”
He and his wife have invested in the community and its youth, and inspired by the preservation efforts to save Laramie State Bank in Austin, they determined that landmarking their house could have benefits for the community.
Once Bowers and his wife were on board, Miller says the process involved the compilation of a landmark designation report on the home, which provided a comprehensive history of both Warner and the house that makes the landmark designation seem like a foregone conclusion.
Predates Great Chicago Fire
The house is the oldest residence in Austin and predated the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. It would be one of only 12 other buildings from that era that have landmark status in the city.
From 1924 to 1979, the house hosted classical music conservatories that served the West Side. An estimated 31,000 students and 20 teachers passed through its doors as the neighborhood went through racial changes.
Miller says both of these factors alone are enough to qualify the house for landmark status, and the intriguing history of original owner, Seth Warner, makes the house even more interesting.
Warner moved to Chicago from New England at the age of 27 in 1837, the same year the city was incorporated. 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 the building’s and marks report says 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.
In 1854, Free Soil Party supporters met at Warner Hall to protest Sen. Stephen Douglas’s Kansas–Nebraska Act, which created a pathway to extend slavery to America’s western territories.
“It’s kind of amazing that we’re considering this house, which was here in the very beginnings of our city, and with all of Seth Warner’s connections to Chicago industry and abolition activities, in a time where we’re dealing with George Floyd and Emmett Till’s legacy, and we have an owner who is an active civil rights attorney,” 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 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.”
Importance of preservation
Miller makes the case that the Seth Warner House is more than just a historic building that’s worth saving. Yes, he says, the house has some striking original light fixtures, staircases, marble fireplaces and black walnut wood trim. The cupola and Italianate influences are amazing as well.
Beyond the individual house, Miller says that city landmark status is galvanizing for the community in which it’s located.
“The building represents who we are as a city, at our strength and our core,” Miller said.
Designating the house a landmark would be a healing gesture that Miller says would give people pride in the city and pride in their neighborhood. He notes that as prairie gave way to city, the rest of the block built up and contains some significant painted lady Queen Anne-style homes. Eventually, he’d love to see the block win landmark designation.
Making more houses landmarks could encourage pride and investment in the community, Miller said.
“Each of these landmark designations injects hope,” he added. “It adds to the quality of life. These kinds of designations could help spark a lot and bring about a carefully crafted, planned renaissance that wouldn’t displace people but would make this a place people want to invest in, live in and visit.”
The landmark designation report was submitted to the Commission on Chicago Landmarks on Oct. 7. Miller says that because the both the owners and alderman were on board and because the commission voted unanimously for the landmark status, the application was fast-tracked.
On Dec. 2, the application received its final landmark recommendation and it is now awaiting a hearing with the Commission of Zoning, Landmarks and Building Standards before heading to a vote by the entire Chicago City Council.