Officials are investigating a “suspicious” fire at the National Susan B. Anthony Museum & House in Rochester, New York. The blaze broke out on early Sunday morning, destroying the back porch of the building, which once served as the home of the women’s rights leader, reports Randy Gorbman for WXXI News.
Museum president and CEO Deborah Hughes says cameras on the property showed someone on the porch when the fire began. The local office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) is working with investigators from the Rochester Fire Department (RFD) on the probe.
“We don’t know why someone would do this,” Hughes tells CNN’s Alaa Elassar. “It may have been a random or intentional act, or it may have been someone responding to the museum being a supporter of women’s rights since we are in a contentious era. It’s hard to know for sure.”
According to Spectrum News 1, Congressman Joe Morelle held a conference outside the museum on Saturday in support of the federal Women’s Health Protection Act, which would protect access to abortion. Hughes tells WXXI that she does not know of any connection between the event and the fire.
Speaking with CNN, RFD spokesperson Lt. Jeffrey Simpson says the interior of the house sustained some water and smoke damage but adds that the fire was essentially contained to the porch.
Hughes praised the firefighters’ quick work in removing photographs and other objects from a wall to protect them from damage while simultaneously extinguishing the flames, reports Rachel Treisman for NPR. Though the porch was over 100 years old, it wasn’t part of the original building constructed in 1859 and was not of particular historical significance, per WXXI.
Born in 1820, Anthony was raised as a Quaker and spent much of her life as an abolitionist and women’s rights advocate. She worked with fellow activists such as Frederick Douglass and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Anthony is widely considered one of the founders of the early women’s rights movement. But in recent years, she has faced increased scrutiny due to her racist remarks and exclusion of black suffragists from the mainstream movement, as Maggie Haberman and Katie Rogers wrote for the New York Times last year.
Anthony lived in the house starting in 1865, when she moved there with her mother and sister, according to the museum’s website. The house was the site of Anthony’s 1872 arrest for voting “unlawfully.” In 1892, when she was elected president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), she set up the organization's headquarters in the building.
The third story of the house, added in 1895, became the workspace where Anthony and fellow women’s rights campaigners researched and wrote the six-volume History of Women’s Suffrage. Anthony died in the house on March 13, 1906, 14 years before the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which gave some, but not all, American women the right to vote.
Hughes tells the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle’s Victoria E. Freile that due to the property’s status as a national landmark, the rebuilding process will be lengthy. The house will also need to be professionally cleaned to remove the smell of smoke. A message on the site’s webpage notes that the museum is temporarily closed but hopes to return to regular hours soon.
“It is so clear how much this house matters to the community, our neighbors and even our firefighters,” Hughes tells CNN. “They were deeply moved with not only taking the responsibility seriously, but feeling like this is a national treasure. What could have been really tragic, thanks to the amazing work of the firefighters, was a sad loss but we will be okay.”