The feud between preservationists and developers has been raging in our community for years —does the economy have the last word?
The chilly winds of the economic cool-down have blown from Manhattan to Fairfield County, leaving the once blazing home construction market with a smoky haze over it. When financial heavy hitters hold tightly to their wallets, the pace of massively sized new construction homes slows — as does the rate of teardowns of historically significant homes. These days, with cooler heads, preservationists and developers are discovering that both sides of the argument have valid points: Some antique homes are too important, too beautiful to lose; and some antique homes have long passed their prime and should give way to a new, yet still architecturally meaningful home. There also is room for a home that embodies compromise — one that combines all the amenities and upgrades of new construction while preserving the original home’s irreplaceable charm and character (such as antique pine flooring and beams, a 200-year-old stone hearth or a hideaway crawl space once used by a Revolutionary soldier).
Not long ago, the bulldozer threatened to become the town symbol, with the number of demolition permits issued by Westport Building Department peaking at 110 in 1995. But the economic freefall changed that. In 2006 and 2007, permits dipped to 94 and 95 permits respectively; in 2008, they nosedived to 66. From January to March 2009, that number bottomed out at four.
“Up until the economic collapse, the teardown rate was slowing, but it wasn’t in the pits,” says Dave Matlow, who chronicles the “Teardown of the Day” in photographs and captions on westportnow.com. “Until very recently, there was an unwritten advantage among the builder/developer cartel … that Westport real estate prices were frozen … Builders/developers used to be able to buy a house/property for $750K to $1.2M (unless it’s a water view or waterfront property, in which case the property value is a multiple of that), build a 5,000-square-foot or larger replacement and put a multimillion-dollar price tag on it.”
Matlow’s photos of houses being reduced to rubble spark heated passions on both sides of the issue. Like many interested parties, he says he sees opportunities for both new construction and efforts to preserve the past. The public dustup mainly surfaces over historically or architecturally important homes, such as those once owned by founding families, which are especially hard to lose — or save, depending on one’s perspective.
The Ones That Got Away
Preservationists particularly mourn the loss of homes with historical or sentimental value, those antique buildings and homesteads that stand as monuments to Westport in its heyday, when the town morphed from a neighborly agrarian community to a thriving arts hub. Morley Boyd, former chair of the Historic District Commission (HDC) and now director of the Westport Preservation Alliance, speaks fondly of the now demolished c. 1915 William Main Arts and Crafts stone house — “an unbelievable structure” — that was located on Cross Highway. “A lot of people were upset,” he says, recalling the teardown. “It was a one-and-a-half-story Arts and Crafts–style home on its original setting, with all its original features — original siding, original windows, even original roof — beautifully scaled.” »
Disgruntled residents can rattle off a roster of home demolitions that caused sadness, outrage and protest. The loss of the 230-year-old Ogden Estate also on Cross Highway, for instance, remains a source of mourning for many in town. Last year’s demolition of one of Old Hill’s prestigious Brosnahan-Bernhard Estate, a stately eighty-seven-year-old, 7,822-square-foot Colonial Revival on a parklike 12.3-acre parcel on Sylvan Road North, engendered this reaction from resident Mary Ann West, who blogged: “This teardown is a sad statement about what we as a community hold dear to us. What will it take to make teardowns the exception rather then the rule?”
This reputation for demolishing with impunity is borne out by the numbers. Cites Dave Matlow, “The number-one place for number of demolitions is Greenwich, but Westport is the capital of teardowns on a per-capita basis.”
Yet contrary to popular belief, town officials are not sitting idly on the sidelines while the wrecking ball swings. Indeed, the town has bent over backwards to address the problem. According to Boyd, “Although Westport is the one with the target on the back, it was the first municipality in the state to approve the 180-day demolition delay. We’re also the only municipality in the state that has zoning incentives as strong as they are for historic preservation.”
He is referring to Section 32-18 of the town’s zoning regulations, which in 2007 granted homeowners the ability to use outbuildings as living spaces. If that particular passage doesn’t ring a bell, you might well remember what incited it: the c. 1910 Cross Highway Garage (Westport’s first gas station) and the c. 1835 William Meeker House, a Colonial, in front of it at 113 Cross Highway. “The owners bought a blighted property with a lot of outbuildings and needed an economic rationalization to restore them all,” explains Boyd. “The town basically said, ‘You can do whatever you want with them, as long as you keep them as tractor sheds.’ ” But seven outbuildings in disrepair was an investment that tempted no one. Ultimately, the HDC redrafted regulations so that owners of residential historic buildings and outbuildings could repurpose them for human habitation. “We’re the only municipality in the state to allow this. Subject to a special permit, you can use it as an in-law apartment, an income-producing property or in-home office, which is extraordinary. Up to this point, you had to preserve the structure as is; or, more likely, tear it down. As long as they maintain that structure, they can attach to it a valuable economic use.” The new zoning regulation encourages the preservation and adaptive reuse of older structures, including barns and other historic outbuildings, in addition to main homes.
The Meeker property, restored by architect Michael Glynn, has won a Historic District Commission Award and, most recently, a Connecticut Preservation Award.
If you are concerned about town teardowns, don’t blame the Historic District Commission. According to Matlow, “The HDC does not approve or disapprove demolitions.”
Carol Leahy, HDC coordinator, explains that its role is to help preserve the historic character of the town and designate individual properties and districts. Moreover, she says, “Property owners must invite designation, which then attaches regulations to the property. The commitment these owners make passes on to future owners.”
Under Boyd’s watch, the HDC initiated proceedings to add the Lower Greens Farms Colonial Burying Ground and Evergreen Avenue to its roster of historic districts, which include Kings Highway North, Jesup Road, Violet Lane and Gorham Avenue. In these designated areas, certain exterior changes visible to the public must be discussed in public meetings and approved by the HDC before work commences.
What about homes that are not protected? “HDC can defer the demolition for up to 180 days and encourage restoration and create public awareness,” Matlow says, “but that’s about it. Community outcries are, in most cases, just noise. The reasons: first, the cries come from very few and the few are the same people each time; second, the builder/ developer/seller responds with, ‘Why didn’t you do something about it in the past? Why did you wait until now?’; and, third, by the time the community knows about it, the old house has been allowed to rot.”
Sometimes, though, community voices do change the fate of an old home. Case in point: 131 Sturges Highway, known as the Abel Bradley House, built in 1800. The Westport Minuteman reported that the home at “the center of a protracted legal battle between preservationists and developers” was saved by the collaborative efforts of owner and developer Mark Iuraduri of IK Builders, Don Miro (then chair of HDC), a group of preservationists, and Southport architect J. P. Franzen. Backlash to the proposed demolition resulted in a happy conclusion for all: Franzen offered a design that preserved the cottage while adding a new house with twenty-first-century features.
Miro, of Miro Builders, says, “The duration on the market is often quick when historic homes have been preserved and modern amenities have been added.” He suspects Colonials hold up better than a modern home because they are designed well for New England winters but recognizes that famous designers are attached to certain projects, saying, for example, “Architect Roger Ferris’s designs are much more conscious of codes today.”
Westport architect Peter Cadoux recalls a property in Weston that was also destined for demolition but, instead, was saved and fully restored. “For some people, antique restoration is more difficult to envision than the plans for a new house. They see a compromised structure with a potentially never-ending maintenance program,” he says. “Others see an opportunity to own a piece of history and are willing to restore a home to its original splendor on the outside while including all the more advanced mechanics on the inside. The result: A solidly built home with the features and dependability of a new home and yet a constant reminder of our historical heritage.”
What motivates people to preserve homes is part business, but it’s also appreciation on an almost emotional level. Jill O’Shea won HDC awards for two of her area projects. “Homes from the pre-1800s are my favorite because they have larger post-and-beam structure. They hold up really well over time,” she says. “I don’t use the word ‘renovation,’ I call it ‘revival,’ because you have get down to the structure to see where there is compromise. These weren’t built by architects … with this, you have to improvise, because you don’t know what you’ll find.” It’s easy to believe her when she says, “It’s my favorite thing to do.”
Sign of the Times
The plaques that adorn the town’s historic homes are granted by the Westport Historical Society, which is independent from Town Hall. Bob Weingarten, a local Realtor, is in charge of the program, which allows homeowners to display their appreciation for the historic and architectural value of these homes and to raise awareness of the preservation issue.
To illustrate, Weingarten ticks off a roster of local historic homes that have been spared demolition and won awards from the HDC in 2008. One of the more visible examples is the McLaury House at 99 Myrtle Avenue, just opposite the Westport Historical Society. It was a plan of preservation drafted by a group of volunteers appointed by the first selectman. Its transformation can be seen at westportct.gov/government/boards/mclauryhouse.htm.
Another particularly poignant save is the von Schmidt House at 38 Evergreen Avenue, part of the Evergreen Historic District. This Colonial, built in 1927, is a blend of historic preservation and new construction by Anne Leepson of Grayson Construction in Westport. She says she kept as much of the landscaping, house and artist studio as possible and points out original floorboards and oak beams in the living room as well as original windows, stairs and closets. “I loved one of the original sinks, and I thought it was important that the studio floors had the actual paint from the actual work of its original celebrated owner,” she says. The house has a new large master bedroom with a handsome view.
Speaking generally, she says, “We should be able to enjoy our town, and one of the things that made us unique was that many interesting and artistic people who came here and built the avant-garde of their day. Some kept old family farms or Connecticut homesteads. Why tear all these down to build the same house all over town?”
Bob Weingarten, who is in charge of Westport’s house plaque program, saved his Hillandale beauty, a former Chaise House (a barn used to store a chaise, or single horse-drawn cart) built in 1805 for Simon Couch. The barn was converted into a house in 1975 and was subsequently modified by Weingarten (he added dormers and a front door). It won a 2007 Preservation Award for adaptive reuse and for Weingarten’s meticulous documentation of the home’s history.
The house is one of 190 homes identified on a town map from 1842, of which 123 are still standing today. Weingarten says, “Although lots of houses were demolished in the last few years, just consider that of the 282 homes demolished, only two were from the 1700s and three from the 1800s. So the percentage was .01%. I think that this is outstanding and shows that Westport residents do cherish their heritage.”