Relations between real estate developers and preservationists are often adversarial.
But in Westport, a collaborative effort between a local developer and a town commission has saved at least two historic structures downtown, earning both state honors for the adaptive reuse of the John Sherwood Mansion.
David Waldman, a partner in the development team for Bedford Square, as well as other local projects, and the town's Historic District Commission each will receive a Merit Award from the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation at a ceremony Wednesday in the Hall of Flags at the state Capitol in Hartford. Merit Awards will also go to individuals and organizations involved with eight other historic-preservation projects throughout the state.
The Connecticut Trust's annual preservation awards recognize outstanding achievements in protecting and enhancing significant historic buildings, landscapes and communities in the state, with the goal of inspiring others to do the same.
Waldman preserved the John Sherwood Mansion, at 26-28 Church Lane, converting it from residential to commercial use. The structure, built in 1808, now is home to the Spotted Horse Tavern and offices.
"It was my intention to remove the house to make way for what I considered to be something that was more important at the time," Waldman admits. Through numerous meetings with the HDC and Maggie Feczko, then the commission's chairwoman, Waldman said he was persuaded not to raze the building.
"In the end it was clearly the right decision, which is evidenced by the success of the Spotted Horse. By listening to them I believe I've created a better project not just for me as a developer but for the town as well," said Waldman, who also saved the Westport Bank & Trust building, which now houses Patagonia.
He also has agreed to move the Kemper-Gunn House, another historic structure on Church Lane, to a town parking lot on Elm Street rather than raze it to make way for a section of the Bedford Square project.
Bob Weingarten, a member of the Historic District Commission and house chairman for the Westport Historical Society, nominated Waldman for the award.
Letters supporting the nomination came from First Selectman Jim Marpe and Edward F. Gerber, a member of the HDC and president of the historical society. The HDC also sent a letter without considering that it also would receive the same honor.
The HDC was not part of the nomination, but was selected for the Merit Award by the preservation trust.
"They clearly were an important factor in the process. Westport's Historic District Commission really plays a very active role in the town beyond just the actual designated historic districts. They serve as an advocate for historic properties throughout the town of Westport," said Christopher Wigren, deputy director of the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation.
In his nomination letter, Marpe wrote: "By presenting a 2014 Connecticut Preservation Award to the 26-28 Church Lane property and its developer, the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation would send a strong message to developers that restoration and rehabilitation of historic structures, rather than demolition, is beneficial to the vitality and history of downtown Westport."
"Without Waldman's change in attitude towards significant historic buildings we would have further requests for demolition rather than attempts to save our town heritage," Weingarten said in his nomination.
"If you rip down all the old structures you're just going to have new buildings," he said.
Wigren said he hopes the collaborative work between developers and the HDC in Westport serves as a model for other municipalities, particularly in light of the new state law that authorizes towns to set up historic preservation ordinances.
"I'm encouraged that the Connecticut Trust viewed us as a participant and is rewarding us for our effort. When you're an organization like the HDC you wonder how viable these efforts can be so it's nice when you have a success," said HDC Chairman Francis Henkels.
Henkels called Waldman's Sherwood Mansion project "a precedent-setting success."
"This is the primary reason for our demolition delays to give us an opportunity to start a dialogue with people," he said.