A historic home that stood watch over the changing face of downtown Westport in the 128 years since it was constructed might have become a victim of the most recent push for progress if not for the efforts of preservation-minded residents and officials, and the developers' willingness to work to save it from the wrecking ball.
The fate of the stately Queen Anne-style house at 35 Church Lane was called into question last fall when developers of the proposed Bedford Square Development project announced that the Victorian structure, circa 1885, did not fit into their plans for the creation of a 90,000-square-foot, mixed-use complex of retail, office, restaurant and residential spaces on the site of Westport Weston Family Y and abutting properties.
During a Tuesday walk-through of the vintage structure, named the Gunn House for the late Colin "Ben" Gunn who opened his law practice there in 1954, Bedford Square partner David Waldman confirmed the developers are willing to donate the house to the town and cover the costs of relocating it to a site in the nearby Elm Street municipal parking lot. He first suggested the relocation option at a joint meeting of the Historic District Commission and the Architectural Review Board last October and reiterated it to First Selectman Gordon Joseloff the following month.
The current location of the house interferes with the Bedford Square project's parking specifications and ample parking is needed for the project to be viable.
"It can't be integrated into our project (but) we're excited about the possibility it could be saved and still be part of the community," said Waldman, who is also president of the Westport-based commercial real estate firm, David Adam Realty.
"Because we have to take all the power lines down anyway, all the work we're doing preliminarily makes it feasible and economical to move it across the street, and that's where it belongs," Waldman said, adding that the Spotted Horse restaurant on Church Lane is housed in an 1808 historic landmark building, the Sherwood House, which was also moved from its original location. It once stood where the Patagonia store currently sits, he said.
"While this building cannot be incorporated into our plans for the Bedford Square development project, out of respect for those who would like to see it preserved, we have offered to relocate it. BSA (Bedford Square Associates) has offered to move the structure to the Elm Street municipal parking lot, is prepared to donate the cost of moving the structure and will also gift it to the town as a gesture of community good will. BSA is also willing to pay for the cost of constructing a foundation for the structure," said Karen Johnson, of Charter Realty & Development Corp. in Rye Brook, New York, and spokeswoman for BSA, in a press release issued Tuesday.
The balance of the improvements would be dictated by the ultimate use of the structure, she said, with Waldman adding that there is flexibility of use. The house could be residential, retail, office space or medical use.
Johnson told HDC members Tuesday the house, in its new location, could generate revenue for the town.
"We have formally requested that the town of Westport consider this option as a viable alternative in order to preserve the structure," Johnson said.
The proposal was discussed Tuesday night by members of several town bodies, including the Historic District Commission and the Architectural Review Board -- as Waldman and Johnson shuttled between meetings in Town Hall.
HDC Chairman Francis Henkels said that commission's informal position was to preserve the house on its current site, "but it's not a likely outcome," he said shortly before the HDC voted unanimously to support BSA's proposal. Henkels and a handful of others liked what they saw on the tour of the house interior.
"Structurally, it looks like it's in really good shape," he said. Henkels was unconcerned about some areas of water damage on the ceiling, which he said could easily be repaired.
HDC member Betsy Wacker said the house is worth saving because "Victorians are by their very nature vernacular. They are all so very different ... This is our Victorian. This is important," she said. Wacker said the town has an opportunity for a great outcome, but it will take a lot of different entities working together to coordinate the move.
There are others on board with the preservation proposal.
Don Bergmann, a member of the RTM, said during the walk-through Tuesday he is "a big proponent of moving it over to Elm Street. It's the only way it will be saved, and it will continue the transition from the end of the Y building to Elm Street, from pure commercial to pure residential."
But at a December meeting of the Downtown 2020 Committee some members expressed concern about relocating the house to the municipal parking lot. "I'm really concerned about taking a prime piece of public land," said committee member Craig Rebecca Schiavone.
Joseloff is scheduled to tour the house on Jan. 17.