Susan Ellis's Auburn Gresham home was destroyed by a fire Sunday night. She started a $50,000 GoFundMe to start anew. Credit: Susan Ellis

AUBURN GRESHAM — A South Side architect and journalist lost her home after a lightning strike set it ablaze late Sunday. 

Susan Carlotta Ellis is asking for help rebuilding the Perry Avenue home that has been in her family for more than six decades. You can donate to help her here.

Ellis was enjoying a “beautiful, lovely date” at a jazz concert and dinner in Hyde Park before arriving at her Auburn Gresham home about 8:30 p.m., she said. 

Ellis was in her home for about five minutes before she heard someone “banging on the door,” she said. Ellis initially ignored it, she said.

But when the knocking didn’t stop, Ellis’ date encouraged her to check who it might be. 

“I opened my door and five people were telling me to get out because my house was on fire,” Ellis said. “They said they heard a big boom, and lightning had struck the house.”

Susan Ellis’s home was severely damaged in a fire late Sunday. Credit: Susan Ellis

Lightning struck Ellis’s roof about 8 p.m., Fire Department spokesman Larry Langford said. That was about 30 minutes before Ellis arrived home. 

Ellis hadn’t seen or smelled smoke when she came home, she said. Her home had working fire alarms, but they didn’t go off, she said. 

By the time Ellis ran out of her home, she could see the back of the house was engulfed in “orange and yellow flames,” she said. 

Ellis counted “at least seven firetrucks” and a swarm of firemen that responded to the scene, she said.

A fireman fell through the staircase while battling the flames, causing a “mayday” emergency, Langford said. 

Ellis watched in shock, unable to comprehend what was happening, she said. Her home has been in her family for more than 60 years, she said. 

“All I could think was, ‘My family home,’” Ellis said, crying. “My father built this. There are a lot of memories in this home.” 

Ellis lost family heirlooms in the fire, from china and silverware passed down generations to quilts made by her grandmother, she said. 

Ellis’ roof and kitchen were destroyed, and the lightning fried everything plugged in. The backroom her late father built in 1962 received the most damage, she said. 

“The house is dead,” Ellis said. 

Almost everything in Ellis’ attic was “damaged, burned and scorched” except three tubs of family photos, Ellis said. 

“It was as if some invisible force were around those photos, protecting them,” she said. 

A photo of the addition Susan Ellis’s father built in 1960. Credit: Susan Ellis

For the past few days, Ellis has stayed with friends. 

A GoFundMe campaign to help Ellis find temporary housing and secure her Auburn Gresham home ahead of the winter has raised $8,900 of its $50,000 goal as of Friday morning. She’ll also use the money to fix the kitchen, roof, replace electrical wiring and buy a furnace and air conditioner, she said. 

Separate from the GoFundMe, neighbors raised $1,000 to help Ellis rebuild, she said. 

Ellis is in between full-time employment and working part-time, she said. Previously, her work has been featured in nonprofit civic media organization City Bureau, where she served as a Documenter and a 2021 Civic Reporting Fellow,

Ellis interviewed for a new job Monday, hours after the fire. 

“If it weren’t for my faith and knowing God will take care of his children, I wouldn’t be able to stay resilient,” Ellis said. “Some people might have thought of this as bad luck, but I don’t look at it like that. I look at it as a pure blessing. I’m alive. I’m in my right mind. I’m still healthy. God has allowed me to live and not die. I could have been at home in my bed.”

The incident has given Ellis renewed appreciation for the Fire Department, too, Ellis said. Everyone should have working smoke alarms and an escape route, she said. 

“Physically I’m OK, but it’s a lot,” Ellis said. “I pray in due time I’ll heal, and the house will be healed. I pray that this house will live again, and the children can come and play again and we can celebrate a new home for the next generation.” 

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Atavia Reed is a reporter for Block Club Chicago, covering the Englewood, Auburn Gresham and Chatham neighborhoods. Twitter @ataviawrotethis