Time Will Tell



Photography by Stacy Bass

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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.

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