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Bizarre fire burns frat house; blaze startedin secret room

Bizarre fire burns frat house; blaze startedin secret room

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Lee Newspapers

MADISON - Madison fire officials are investigating a bizarre fire Friday at a historic house on the near West Side.

The fire, started by a candle, was in a hidden room off the basement of a home at 106 N. Prospect Ave.

The house was designed by influential Chicago architect Louis Sullivan around 1919 and is now owned by a UW-Madison fraternity.

When firefighters arrived shortly after 6 a.m. Friday following an internal alarm from the house, they couldn't find the source of the fire.

Those who live in the home hampered the investigation, said fire department spokesman Jon Frank.

"The members of the house weren't real forthcoming with information on where the fire was," Frank said. "It was hidden from us. You could not tell a room was there."

It's unclear if the fire department will seek charges against the members of Sigma Phi fraternity, but Frank said the department "is going to look into it."

The fraternity's chapter president, Rob Johnson, refused to comment on the incident. The 2003 assessed value of the house is $705,000, according to the Madison city assessor's office.

Firefighters were called back to the house Friday shortly after 5 p.m. for additional ventilation, but no fire was found, according to the Dane County 911 center.

The house, in the University Heights Neighborhood, is known as the Bradley House.

The house was a wedding present from Chicago plumbing magnate Charles Crane to his daughter Josephine and her husband, Dr. Harold C. Bradley, a professor of chemistry at UW Hospital.

Finding the house too big for their needs, the Bradleys sold it in 1914 to the fraternity. After a disastrous fire in 1972, the house was rebuilt and, in 1976, was designated a National Historic Landmark.

Damage from Friday's fire is estimated at $15,000. Because firefighters couldn't initially find the source of the fire, they shot water down a vent that was exuding smoke, Frank said.

The 12-foot by 20-foot room, used for meetings and other fraternity activities, was apparently added sometime after the house was built. The room contains candles, a podium and has church-style pews for seating.

There is only one way into the room, which has no windows and is underneath the back yard, Frank said. "The room does not meet any kind of code for what they were using it for," Frank said. "We've told them they can no longer use the room."

Ed Mirecki, UW-Madison fraternity and sorority adviser, said he'll review the incident to determine if Sigma Phi should be asked to make any changes in safety procedures.

The university works with fire and city inspectors along with the alumni boards who typically own the fraternity and sorority houses to make sure that homes are safe. Sigma Phi is one of only a few Greek houses not on Langdon Street, Mirecki said.

"We have an interest in student safety wherever they might be," Mirecki said. "We're trying to get the right things to happen and make sure they're safe places."


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