Fire at row house in Houston's historic Freedmen's Town caused by 'smoking materials,' HFD says

Friday, August 11, 2023
Fire in historic Freedmen's Town caused by 'smoking materials': HFD
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Neighbors told ABC13 the row houses have been vacant for years after they were bought by a developer with hopes of restoring them. Since then, they say homeless individuals have mo

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- A home in the Fourth Ward's historic Freedmen's Town neighborhood caught fire overnight.

Conditions were difficult as Houston firefighters had to brave the heat and humidity, along with the actual fire, at a shotgun row house on Gillette Street at Victor Street.

A video from an ABC13 viewer shows flames shooting up from back of the historic home.

Officials said despite the aggressive attack needed from firefighters, things ended up much better than they could have. The damage was contained to the backyard and back porch of the home.

Firefighters said they were able to quickly extinguish the flames because the station was close by, there were no cars parked on the narrow street, and a fire hydrant was nearby.

An HFD district chief said they were a little concerned as they approached the fire and saw large columns of smoke. They quickly discovered that it was a large tree that was on fire, which officials said can make things look worse than they actually are.

That being said, it still required an aggressive attack, HFD said.

SEE ALSO: The History of Freedmen's Town

"The fact that most of it was on the exterior of the building really benefitted us because we were able to get at it from multiple directions," District Chief Hunter Schappaugh said. "And we had a good water supply. There's a hydrant right on the corner, so we were able to make quick work of it."

There are power lines outside of the home and an apartment next door, so things could have been much worse if the flames spread.

Thankfully, no one was injured and there was no major damage to any structures in the historic Houston neighborhood near downtown.

HFD says investigators have ruled the cause of the fire "accidental in an abandoned structure due to smoking materials." No further details were available.

No one lives at the shotgun row houses. They were bought by a developer, Old Growth Ventures, back in 2019 with hopes of restoring them. But since then, not much progress has been made.

Neighbors in the area say the homes being vacant for so long has created problems.

"What's happened over here is they haven't worked on them in about a year and they've had vagrants move in," neighbor Tony Baiamonte III said. "So, that's probably what caused the fire."

No matter how the fire started, neighbors just want something to be done about the houses.

"What they need to do is either tear it down or burn it down or clean it up. One or the other," Baiamonte III said.

This neighborhood is now known as Midtown or Fourth Ward, but its original name was Freedmen's Town, a thriving Black community built by former slaves.

After the Emancipation Proclamation, many former slaves came to Houston forming a community on the banks of Buffalo Bayou, but since Houston was still racially segregated they had to do it all themselves, right down to the brick streets.

Old Growth Ventures provided the following statement:

"Thanks to quick action by HFD a small fire on the back deck of one of the Historic Victor St shotgun row houses was put out last night with minimal damage to the historic structure.

The houses, for which we won a prestigious Preservation Houston Good Brick Award, and are listed in the Houston Architectural Guide, have been the subject of a long running effort to completely restore the last original Shotgun row in Houston's Freedman's Town. We are the only private developer in decades that has invested in saving Freedman's Town and these houses, and specialize in historic preservation. However the Victor St Historic Preservation Project has been frustrated with delays with city permitting and platting, and returning the remaining three houses that had been donated by a prior owner to 4th Ward RDA and moved down the street and left to deteriorate, delaying a 9 month project to multiple years. We believe those are mostly behind us now thanks to the efforts of city leaders like Director of Planning, Margaret Wallace Brown, the City's leading preservation advocate, who took a personal interest in the project. I'd like to thank the few neighbors who look out for the neighborhood and our project.

The project and neighborhood have been plagued by repeated drug and homeless break ins despite security measures at these and other historic houses awaiting restoration in the neighborhood. These are issues we have not had in other Houston neighborhoods. The HFD arson investigator informed us trespassers who broke through the fence and smoking on the back deck caused the blaze. We are working with the City of Houston and again contacting HPD to clear trespassers who are damaging this and other properties. We've invested in Freedman's Town like we did historic properties in the Heights and Old Sixth Ward, and would like the neighborhood to take the same pride in itself and heritage than we do. I'd ask neighbors if you see people trespassing or damaging our cultural heritage sites like this one, please call HPD and report a crime. Let's look after our neighborhoods and cultural heritage together."

SEE ALSO: Community members celebrate return of Historic Freedmen's Town bricks