Saved by the bells

A two-alarm fire in the historic Swedenburg House at Southern Oregon University Thursday morning was contained before it could spread into the attic, Ashland Fire & Rescue officials said.

Firefighters responded to automatic alarms in a second-floor office where the fire originated and were able to contain it mostly to that room, said Chris Chambers, AFR public information officer.

The 107-year-old, colonial revival-style home at the corner of Siskiyou Boulevard and Mountain Avenue was empty when the fire started, and no one was injured, Chambers said.

AFR responded to the call at 6:32 a.m., and triggered a second alarm after arriving on scene five minutes later.

"We thought we had an attic fire when we were first pulling up," Chambers said, "so, like in any fire, a quick attack was really critical."

Chambers said firefighters rushed into the building with an extinguisher and hose line to knock the flames down.

Eighteen firefighters from AFR, Jackson County Fire District No. 5 and Medford Fire-Rescue and five engines responded to the fire.

"The automatic alarms were really a saving grace," said Chambers. "It could have very well saved a lot of money in damages to the building."

The cause of the fire has not yet been determined, Chambers said, but an investigation is under way.

With the help of Ashland police, firefighters closed a one-block section of Mountain Avenue, between its intersections with Siskiyou Boulevard and Henry Street, for about two hours.

Although SOU officials have not had an opportunity to thoroughly assess the damage caused by the fire and its smoke, Drew Gilliland, director of facilities management and planning for SOU, said a preliminary damage estimate is about $50,000 to $80,000.

Chambers said firefighters also had to tear down a few walls in the office where the fire originated, to check for still-burning embers.

The university has insurance on the building, known as the Plunkett Center, and will likely have to relocate some of its occupants while repairs are made, Gilliland said.

The Plunkett Center houses about 10 people for SOU's offices for development, alumni relations and SOU Foundation.

Originally known as the Chappell-Swedenburg House, the Plunkett Center was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982 by the National Park Service.

The house was built in 1904 for the family of prominent Ashland citizen Charles Chappell. Chappell, who served on the City Council, died before the home was completed, but his family lived in it until 1919. Dr. Francis Gustavus Swedenburg bought the house after that, and his family owned it until 1965.

Southern Oregon College obtained the property in 1966, and it served as an art center for students until 1969. University officials planned to tear the building down then, but students successfully petitioned administrators to save it.

"There is so much history behind it," said Doreen O'Skea, director of alumni relations at SOU. "It would have been an absolute tragedy to see it burn down."

Reach reporter Sam Wheeler at 541-499-1470 or email

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