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Abolitionist’s Austin house could become a landmark – Crain’s Chicago Business

A house in the Austin neighborhood built by a Chicagoan who prior to the the Civil War hosted anti-slavery meetings in his downtown performance hall is being nominated for landmark status by its longtime owners. 

Jim Bowers and Cynthia Weaver, who have owned the Seth Warner house on Central Avenue since the mid-1980s, will join preservationists and city officials in nominating the home, built in 1869, at a Chicago Commission on Landmarks meeting October 7. It’s the beginning of a landmarking process that will take three to six months.

Seth Warner, a blacksmith, owned Warner’s Hall, which on October 6 to 8 1853 was the site of the First Convention of the Colored Citizens of The State of Illinois. At the convention, members resolved to fight Illinois’ Black Law, which prohibited free Black Americans from coming to Illinois for longer than 10 days. They also resolved that “we most especially recommend to our people throughout the state to become owners of land, to build houses and cultivate the soil, as the surest means of making themselves and families independent and respectable.” 

Frederick Douglass spoke at the convention, according to historical research that Preservation Chicago and the Chicago Department of Planning & Development prepared for the nomination. The text of Douglass’s comments is not known, but it’s likely to have been along the same lines of his speech a few weeks later in downstate Princeton, where he said “You must abolish slavery or be abolished by slavery.”

Bowers, who is a civil rights attorney, said “it’s comforting to know I’m living in a home that was occupied by a man who in the 19th century was concerned with the same issues as I am.” 

Warner’s Hall stood on the site of the present-day Daley Center, around Clark and Randolph streets, according to Ward Miller, executive director of Preservation Chicago. The hall hosted an 1854 meeting of Free Soil Party supporters to oppose the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and an 1863 meeting to encourage African-American men to join the Union Army, according to the groups’ research. 

Because Warner’s Hall was destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire 150 years ago this week, the Austin house that Seth Warner built “is all that remains of the footprint of this man,” Miller said. 

Warner first came to Chicago in 1837, the year Chicago incorporated as a city. In the mid-1840s he had a commission from the McCormick Reaper Works to manufacture 100 mechanical reapers, the farm implement that revolutionized farming and made Cyrus McCormick’s family wealthy. After the Civil War, Warner built the Italian Villa-style house and a small farm in Austin, which was then part of the Township of Cicero but later was annexed into Chicago. 

When Weaver and Bowers bought the home in the mid-1980s, it was “pretty well preserved,” Bowers said. “It has a breathtaking interior, with black walnut woodwork, a phenomenal staircase and six fireplaces.” Over the years since, the couple has updated the kitchen and roof and done extensive work maintaining the home. 

The house has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1982, before the couple bought the house, but has not been put up for city landmarking before “because nobody asked,” Bowers said. Miller met him recently in meetings about other subjects and eventually suggested he get the house, the oldest in Austin, landmarked.

If the commission approves on Oct. 7, the house will get preliminary landmark status and go through a series of meetings with first the commission, then the City Council committee on zoning and landmarks, and finally the full City Council. 

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