ALTON — The Watson House on Alby Street has been a staple of the Middletown Historic District for more than a century.
Built in 1879 for Henry Watson, who operated two stone quarries and was one of the owners of the Alton Water Works, the home was designed by Lucas Pfeiffenberger with 13 rooms and a three-story central tower.
“There are certain homes in the city of Alton that I would say are the historical anchor to a neighborhood,” Alton Fire Chief Bernie Sebold said. “The Watson House is certainly the one in that neighborhood. For that neighborhood to lose a home like that, in today’s day and age, it would be almost priceless or impossible to replace. The homeowners told me that when the home was built in 1879, it was built to include indoor plumbing and electricity.”
Just before midnight Wednesday, May 20, a citizen noticed smoke coming from the home and immediately called 911.
“We are fortunate that individual who made the 911 call did so in a very timely fashion,” Sebold said. “They smelled the smoke and took it upon themselves to make the call. This time of year, the smell of smoke is not uncommon with the smoke smell from a chimney or an outdoor fireplace. People are allowed to burn yard waste until 6 p.m. The fact that this individual didn’t ignore their instincts probably saved the home.”
Valuable items and antiques have been removed from the home and are being cleaned, deodorized and stored for the homeowners during the restoration process. While the home sustained structural damage to the kitchen, basement and upstairs, the home was not destroyed by the fire, smoke and water damage.
“My very loose estimate based on my past experience, I would say that the structural damage only would range around $75,000,” Sebold said. “My figures are just an idea on the structural area, not including any contents. We are still not certain on the exact cause of the fire. It was in an area that had a lot of working electrical appliances. We believe the fire originated in the kitchen or just below in the basement. The fire did travel up through the wall in the pipe chase to the third floor. Our firefighters did a great job to avoid creating more damage with the hoses as they searched through the house.”
With several suspicious fires occurring in the Alton area in recent weeks, the Watson House fire is not considered suspicious.
“Part of our process to enter a home is to look for signs of forced entry,” Sebold said. “We didn’t notice any of the signs we search for. We’ve had enough experience to know the difference between a window being broken or if it breaks due to the heat of the fire.”
More than two dozen Alton and East Alton firefighters worked more than 10 hours at the scene. More fire personnel were called in to keep the city covered for another emergency.
“We spent the entire night and we made several trips back the next day,” Sebold said. “With the historic nature of the home, we thought it might attract curious onlookers. We wanted to make sure the home was secure for the homeowners and no more hot spots would pop up.”
It’s been a week since the fire occurred, but through the smell of honeysuckle, the residual wet smoky smell still lingers from the debris and rubble.