The State Fire Marshal’s Office will investigate the cause of a fire that destroyed a historic 19th-century home near downtown McGregor.
The two-story white home on West Sixth Street, known as the Brown-Mann House, went up in flames Monday night in a blaze that was battled by six area fire departments.
The Colonial Revival and Queen Anne-style home was built in 1890 by physician Dr. James Brown. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1987.
The fire continued to smolder Tuesday as only a central fireplace and the foundation remained.
City Manager Keith Evans said he has called upon state fire officials to investigate what started the fire because the property had been vacant for about 20 years. The fire started on the second floor and he doubted the property’s electricity was on.
“It could be arson, but we have no proof of that. . . . That’s what the investigation will examine,” he said.
Neighbors report flames erupted from the upper level Monday evening, licking surrounding properties. The fire spread to an adjacent house, damaging it, but firefighters were able to save that building.
The home belongs to John Mann Gardner II, the great-grandson of McGregor businessman John Mann, who purchased the house in 1929.
Gardner grew up in Moody and recalls visiting his great-grandmother, Mann’s widow, Myrtle.
He inherited the home when his grandfather, Otis Gardner, died in 1982, but he has primarily lived in Dallas since then.
Gardner said he had plans to eventually relocate to McGregor and restore the home.
The fire destroyed various family heirlooms, including photos, china and crystal dishes, he said.
“Obviously, I’m devastated,” Gardner said. “I was getting ready to do a significant amount of work there, so it’s just a big blow to me.”
Gregory Smith, national register coordinator for the Texas Historical Commission, said the home had great local significance because of the original owner’s prominence in McGregor’s early years but also was noteworthy for its architectural features, which remained largely intact.
For example, the house featured ornate decorative details on the railing in a style pioneered by renowned Chicago-based architect Louis Sullivan.
Smith said the features were uncommon for homes built in Texas during that period. The house also had a central fireplace that heated four different rooms.
“When it was added to the National Register, it was recognized at that point as being one of the last of the grand, century-old Victorian houses that was still unaltered,” Smith said. “A house of this age was certainly well-built, and certainly the original owner made sure that quality materials were used in construction.”
But some residents said the fire could have been prevented if the home had been better maintained.
Councilman Paul Allison has lived next to the Brown-Mann house since 1997 and witnessed the exterior deteriorate, from peeling woodwork to broken windows.
He said the city initiated action to have the home condemned about 15 years ago, but Gardner stepped in to upgrade the electrical wiring and plumbing at that time to bring it up to code.
Allison’s house was badly damaged in the fire, including his living room, kitchen, garage and part of the attic.
He, his wife and four sons are staying with relatives while awaiting more permanent housing.
“There is so much wood, and there were so many rooms that had cloth wallpaper that had started to fall off, that it kind of created a hot box,” Allison said. “It was so dry in there that once it caught fire, it was amazing how quickly it spread.”
John Hudson, assistant superintendent for the McGregor Independent School District, has lived on West Fifth Street directly behind the Brown-Mann House since 1992.
He said Gardner has not visited the home in person for about 10 years, but a local man had helped maintain the property.
Hudson said he thinks small animals like squirrels may have gotten into the home and caused more damage.
“You always worry about a big, vacant house and if some vagrant or homeless person may go in there, get cold and set a fire,” he said, adding that he is not aware of squatters entering the property. “I’ve been worried about the place for years and about it catching fire.”
Hudson and Allison said they are aware of multiple inquiries by residents wanting to purchase and restore the house.
“People loved this house, and it’s a big loss to the community,” Allison said. “So many people wanted to see it restored, wanted to see some activity in it, wanted to see people living in it or for it to be turned into a bed and breakfast, but that never happened.”
Gardner acknowledged he has not been involved with caring for the house for several years, but said that it was important to him that the home remain in his family and not be sold.
He said he had been in talks with contractors to make some improvements to the property as recently as last week.
“I did what I could do,” Gardner said, adding that his work duties with Dallas Area Rapid Transit prevented him from coming to the house. “I had the intention all along, but it’s a whole lot easier to do something on your own and of your own volition than to basically be forced.”
Evans said even though the fire has destroyed what had been a community treasure, the city is fortunate the blaze did not spread further and destroy more homes on the block.
Allison and his sons were able to evacuate surrounding residents before the flames engulfed the Brown-Mann home, and Hudson said other residents helped spray water on adjacent homes to prevent them from catching fire as firefighters worked to contain the blaze.
“We mourn the loss of a historic home, but we’re grateful that we do not have to mourn the loss of a life or any injuries from this incident,” Evans said. “We have a whole lot of reasons to feel blessed, and a few reasons to be sad.”