The cause of a huge fire that broke out the night of Mar. 15 is still under investigation, Evanston fire department officials said.
The fire destroyed a historical house, 1560 Oak Ave., beyond repair and caused damages to neighboring establishments. Despite the size of the extra-alarm fire, no one was injured in the blaze.
The house, which had been undergoing renovations to be converted into a museum for clocks and stained glass, was one of 23 documented homes designed by Evanston architect Stephen A. Jennings, whose signature style included sweeping roofs, towers and bays.
According to Kris Hartzell of the Evanston History Center, 1560 Oak Ave. housed the Catholic Women’s Club during the 1920s, providing working women a place to live together if they couldn’t afford to rent an apartment. Tours featuring the house often highlighted its significance to Evanston women’s history.
“It was a place to learn about social issues and engage in informative talk,” Hartzell said. “It’s so sad we lost a gem of a house.”
Cameel Halim, a real estate investor with properties in Evanston, had worked on the house for the past three to four years to turn it into a museum for his collection of timepieces and stained glass. The museum was set to open in a year or so, Halim said. The collection, which Halim created over 20 years, includes European, American and Asian clocks dating back tothe 16th century. None were lost in the fire.
Halim said he chose 1560 Oak Ave. because the building was a magnificent structure that was like a museum itself. He had planned to build a modern addition behind the Victorian-style house, but now that the house has been demolished, he said he will likely rebuild an entirely modern Museum of Time and Glass on the same lot.
“It was a horrible feeling at first to know the building is gone,” Halim said. “Now I think we just have to look forward and think positively, plan the new building, add more space. We can’t keep sitting down and crying.”
Damages are estimated to total around $800,000. Private insurers are still looking into what caused the fire.
The fire broke out at about 11 p.m. on March 15. Neighbors poured out of their houses to watch firefighters’ efforts to contain the fire, which took about three hours to contain. The fire department closed down surrounding streets until the day after the fire, as firefighters continued to work on the scene, according to a news release.
Neighboring Margarita European Inn, a bed and breakfast, suffered some damage but was able to continue operations a few hours after the fire.
Kathryn Weimer, general manager of the Margarita European Inn, said she rushed back to the scene after the inn had just closed for the night. She said a Northwestern mother staying at the inn spotted the fire first.
“I was so anxious,” Weimer said. “I just wanted to make sure the guests were okay. The first hour, it was anybody’s guess if those wonderful firemen could keep the fire away from the inn, but they did.”
Firefighters set up an industrial fan inside the inn to keep smoke to a minimum and later allowed guests to return to their rooms. Some windows on the south side of the Margarita European Inn were broken by the intense heat of the fire next door, but otherwise the building was unharmed.
“It’s a sad state of affairs when a historical building that has lasted over 100 years goes with no apparent reason,” Weimer said.
The house on the 1560 Oak Ave. was the last of Jennings’s houses in the immediate area and was a remnant of what the streets in Evanston looked like in the 1800s.
The Evanston Preservation Commission doesn’t expect to change its efforts despite the recent fire, Hartzell said. She said the core of downtown Evanston has always evolved with the times, so the loss of another historical building won’t change the landscape a great deal.
“Nobody wants to stop change,” Hartzell said. “It’s part of a vital community to always be improving. I would like to see representation of older buildings maintained, but we have to balance preservation efforts in the community. Landmarks and historical districts have statutes to protect them and we in the community feel those are adequate.”