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'Suspicious' fire destroys back porch at Susan B. Anthony house in Rochester

The fire-damaged back porch of the Susan B. Anthony House
Susan B. Anthony House
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The fire destroyed the back porch of the Susan B. Anthony House in Rochester.

Fire destroyed the back porch at the historic Susan B. Anthony Museum & House in Rochester early Sunday. But museum President and CEO Deborah Hughes credits the Rochester Fire Department with working swiftly to contain the flames to the porch area and preserve all of the important artifacts inside the building.

Firefighters first learned of the fire at 17 Madison Street just after 1:00 a.m., both from an automatic fire alarm and calls from nearby residents. When crews arrived, they found the back porch of the 19th-century building engulfed in flames.

Battalion Chief Joseph Luna said that the fire department “has long understood the significance that this property holds both to our local community as well as the nation.” He credits firefighters for working to limit the effects of the fire on both the museum and its displays.

Firefighters immediately began working to get smoke out of the building and protecting artifacts from potential damage.

RFD spokesman Lt. Jeffrey Simpson said there was some damage to a doorway and some water damage on a carpet, but also emphasized the care that firefighters took in preserving the interior of the home and its contents.

“I was just so impressed at how conscientiously and gently they dealt with everything. They were all very aware of where they were,” Hughes said.

Hughes said firefighters took photographs that were in a back hall, removed them from the wall and carefully stacked them, as well as removing other objects that could have been damaged and moving them into another space.

The front exterior of the Susan B. Anthony House
Susan B. Anthony House
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The front exterior of the Susan B. Anthony House before the fire.

The cause of the fire is listed as suspicious, but still under investigation. Hughes told WXXI News that cameras on the property showed that there was a person on the back porch at the time the fire started.

There had been an event just outside the Susan B. Anthony Museum & House earlier in the day on Saturday, with Rep. Joe Morelle, area Planned Parenthood officials and other groups to talk about legislation to strengthen women’s healthcare through the Women’s Health Protection Act.

Morelle is co-sponsoring the legislation, which seeks to stop laws that restrict women’s access to reproductive health services. But at this point, Hughes is not aware of any connection between that event and the fire. She said they haven’t received any comments left by anyone that would lead them to make that kind of connection.

The Susan B. Anthony House was built in 1859. Suffrage leader Susan B. Anthony moved into the home in 1865 and died there in 1906. The museum has undergone restoration efforts since 1998, and that project, is now 90% complete.

In terms of what happens to rebuilding the back porch, Hughes said that it wasn’t necessarily of particular historic significance. She said the porch was more than 100 years old, but it was not the original porch.

Since the home is a national historic landmark, Hughes said museum officials will be talking with both the National Park Service and New York preservation officials about the most appropriate way to restore the damaged area to what it was when Susan B. Anthony was living there.

The cost of any restoration is still being determined. Hughes said they do have insurance, but it’s not certain yet how much that would cover, or whether any federal or state funding would be available.

Randy Gorbman is WXXI's Director of News and Public Affairs. Randy manages the day-to-day operations of WXXI News on radio, television, and online.