AUSTIN— The oldest building in Austin may soon be an official Chicago landmark.
The Commission on Chicago Landmarks unanimously voted Thursday to start the process of designating the 152-year-old Seth Warner House at 631 N. Central Ave. a landmark.
The Warner House was built in 1869 by Seth Warner and is so old it predates the neighborhood that surrounds it, as Austin wasn’t incorporated into the city of Chicago until 1899. At the time the house was built, the area was mostly rural and scarcely populated.
The sheer age of the home makes it a cultural treasure since it embodies “a representation of early Chicago development when outlying neighborhoods like Austin were unincorporated rural settlements,” said Matt Crawford, an architectural historian for the city’s landmarks division.
The Warner House was built on a property that initially included a small farm and orchard. The “subtle but elegant” design of the house attracted people who were drawn to the opulent home situated on a vast prairie, said Max Chavez, director of research at Preservation Chicago.
Shortly after the house was built, it became a local landmark that would “show people what life in Austin could be like,” Chavez said. People were encouraged to settle in Austin, which contributed to a boom in the population and set the area on a path to joining the city, he said.
“Austin at the time was mostly undeveloped land, and Warner saw an opportunity here to further develop the area by enticing people with the space and breathing room afforded by the neighborhood’s mostly untouched terrain,” Chavez said.
The Warner House is also historically significant since it served as a hotel called The Elms Resort for tourists who flocked to Chicago for the World Columbia Exposition in 1893, Crawford said.
The house’s contributions to the musical heritage of Chicago also warrant the landmark designation, Crawford said. From 1924-1979, the Warner House was the site of three prestigious music academies: the Austin College of Fine Arts, the Austin Academy of Music and the Austin Conservatory of Music. The schools trained about 31,000 students, according to the city’s historical records.
“The home continued to serve the Austin community in fantastic ways,” Chavez said. “It was within the walls of the Warner house that Chicago youth learned the gift of making beautiful music.”
The house can also qualify for landmark status since it was built and owned by a historically significant person. Warner was one of Chicago’s earliest settlers, arriving in the area in 1837, the year the city was established.
Warner was also a notable patron of the arts and an abolitionist who hosted “numerous speakers and political meetings calling for an end to slavery and supporting the Union cause during the Civil War,” Crawford said.
The Warner House was built with an Italianate style of architecture that is now a rarity in Chicago since the style was popular only in a narrow window between the 1860s and 1870s.
The home has many of the hallmarks of the style, including carved wood exterior details, plaster crown moulding, marble fireplaces, black walnut interior finishes, narrow windows topped by segmented and curved arches and cut stone trim.
It’s currently a single-family home, and its owners support the landmark process.
Now that the commission has initiated the process, the city’s planning department will review how the designation may impact the community and host public hearings to gather feedback.
The commission will then have a final vote on whether to recommend the landmark designation to City Council, which will make the final decision on the Warner House.
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