National Hall renovation plan survives tough HDC scrutiny
Updated 9:30 am, Wednesday, February 15, 2012
The Westport Historic District Commission voted unanimously Tuesday, after protracted questioning, to support exterior renovations proposed to National Hall and an adjacent building on Post Road West in the town's Historic Design District.
The HDC vote paves the way for the developer to move the project on to the next municipal body for review, but that affirmative vote did not come without numerous questions about the complex's architectural continuity, as well as initial reservations expressed by two of the four commissioners present.
Despite the conglomeration of architectural styles at the six-building National Hall complex on the west bank of the Saugatuck River downtown, Commissioner Betsy Wacker faulted as out of character the proposed modern, three-story glass-box-like structure that would connect National Hall at 2 Post Road West with the next door building at 8 Post Road West.
"I have reservations to the design of the infill piece ... It adds another language that is not referenced anywhere else in the complex," said Wacker, who thinks the project should have more of an aesthetic relationship to the other buildings and materials used in the rest of the complex.
Chairman Francis "Randy" Henkels agreed, saying, "Conceptually, it might be better to get more unity than increase the disparity." Henkels said he would prefer to see more integration and less high contrast between the varying architectural styles of the existing buildings, which include the red brick Italianate landmark National Hall built in 1873 on the Saugatuck River west bank. Other styles represented in the complex are Federal, Greek Revival, Colonial Revival and Gothic.
"I don't think any of these buildings are talking to each other directly," said Brian T. Tolman, managing principal of Studios Architecture in Manhattan, the architect for owner Greenfield Partners' redevelopment plan for the National Hall complex. Tolman provided detailed narrative on the project's scope as well as drawings and photographs of existing buildings and the proposed changes, which will be scrutinized next by the Planning and Zoning Commission at a date not yet determined.
Tolman was among a half-dozen representatives of Greenfield Partners, a Norwalk-based real estate investment company, who attended Tuesday's HDC meeting in Town Hall. Greenfield Partners plans to revitalize the National Hall complex, a vacant downtown landmark that once housed the luxurious Inn at National Hall. Greenfield's plans include converting the site into mixed-use property with office, restaurant and retail outlets. Greenfield Partners also would relocate its headquarters to the space.
"The functional elements of the design make sense. It's logical. It's the architectural treatment of the exterior that I was questioning," Henkels said.
"I guess I would, ultimately, not object to it," Henkels said.
Braun said she had no problem with the glass structure and Gerber simply said, "I like it."
Wacker expressed concern that the glass connecting structure, or infill, would "steal the thunder" of National Hall, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1984. Wacker called National Hall "the grand dame" of the whole complex. "It (the infill) is not integrated into the plan. It looks dropped in. It's intentionally sticking out. If I'm looking globally at this project I'm not seeing the infill as an appropriate transition and addition to that location," she said.
Tolman said the infill addition allows the two buildings to operate as one, maximizing the usable space. "It allows the flow to be more gracious than what exists today," he said.
Wacker did not object to the proportions of the glass box, and she conceded that some of the elements, including maintenance of the building's exterior, "are appropriate and beneficial to the project."
Gerber called the exterior maintenance "Overdue."
The Planning and Zoning Commission last October approved a text amendment, submitted by Greenfield Partners, removing a ban on office use on the first floor of National Hall. The amendment also eliminates a cap that limited office use to 10 percent of the total gross floor area of all buildings in the Historic Design District where National Hall is located.
Meg Barone is a freelance writer.