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Touring Kemper-Gunn House, home to Westport history -- and Madoff documents!

Published 3:31 pm, Monday, August 4, 2014

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  • Selectman Helen Garten, chair of the Kemper-Gunn Advisory Group, gets ready to lead a tour of the historic house Monday morning. Plans are to re-purpose the structure and relocate it from Church Lane to the nearby Baldwin parking lot. With Garten are (from left) Matt Mandell, Representative Town Meeting and advisory group member;  resident Don Bergmann; Morley Boyd, a member of the Downtown Steering Committee, and Joseph Strickland, advisory group member and chairman of the town's Public Site and Building Committee. Photo: Anne M. Amato / westport news
    Selectman Helen Garten, chair of the Kemper-Gunn Advisory Group, gets ready to lead a tour of the historic house Monday morning. Plans are to re-purpose the structure and relocate it from Church Lane to the nearby Baldwin parking lot. With Garten are (from left) Matt Mandell, Representative Town Meeting and advisory group member; resident Don Bergmann; Morley Boyd, a member of the Downtown Steering Committee, and Joseph Strickland, advisory group member and chairman of the town's Public Site and Building Committee. Photo: Anne M. Amato

 

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Taking a step into the historic Kemper-Gunn house is like taking a step back in time.

Yes, it's musty inside and there's remnants of the last tenants scattered throughout the 130-year-old, Queen Anne-style structure, but visitors can't help but notice the original stained-glass windows, fireplaces and window casings that remain intact.

Members of the town's Kemper-Gunn Advisory Group on Monday toured the 19th-century house at 35 Church Lane with David Waldman, the developer who plans to re-purpose the structure into retail and commercial space. Relocating the building to a 0.13-acre spot at the nearby town-owned Baldwin parking lot is also part of the plan, while its current site will be incorporated into the multi-use Bedford Square project where the Westport Weston Family Y stands now.

"The inside is up for grabs if the town wants to archive them," Waldman told the tour group.

Morley Boyd, a member of the Downtown Steering Committee and a former Historic District Commission chairman, pointed out that certain items could be salvaged and sold to antique dealers, adding the original doors could bring in a minimum of $1,500 each.

While one fireplace is authentic, Boyd said another -- made of brick -- wasn't. "It's like a set piece for a ninth-grade production," he said.

Stained-glass windows, like the one in an old "butler's area" are also authentic, as are those on the third floor, attic space, in the "dome" area.

That section of the house became the focus of much discussion by Planning and Zoning Commission members who debated, over two meetings, if that feature of the home was a "dome" or just a decorative element consistent with Queen Anne-style homes before approving a special permit and site plan. They finally voted 6-0 with one abstention in early May, that it was an "incidental architectural feature" that is compliant with zoning regulations.

The attic space, Boyd pointed out, was most likely the maids' quarters back when the house was home to the Kempers and their three children.

Waldman also discussed preliminary plans for the house's interior, saying "a few tenants" who have already expressed interest in leasing space once the restoration is complete, "don't want the attic." He asked if a skylight would be allowed. Boyd said he didn't think that would be an issue.

Waldman is also considering replacing the building's lead roof with a wood one. He also pointed out that there are "no environmental issues" with the structure.

"This sends a message to every developer not to destroy and to make use of these types of buildings," said Matt Mandell, an advisory group member and Chamber of Commerce executive director, who has been a staunch supporter of the plan.

"What's nice is that the historic fabric is still in place," said Boyd, a research consultant who specializes in historic preservation and architectural history.

"This all makes basic sense," said resident Don Bergmann, who took the 8 a.m. tour. "David is working hard to preserve as much as he can," Bergmann added. "Let's see what happens."

While touring an old office space used by an accounting firm on the top floor, participants made their own "historic" find. It was a box filled with investment documents bearing the name of Bernard L. Madoff, the infamous Wall Street broker, investment advisor and financier, convicted of fraud in what is considered to be the largest financial fraud in U.S. history. That led them to ponder what else could be contained in the many office cabinets left behind.

It will take three days to move the structure to its new location, once all the permits are approved and a lease is signed with the town for the Baldwin space, Waldman said.

The Planning and Zoning Commission, by a 4-2 vote, with one abstention, on July 17 approved a lease agreement for the house's relocation. The Board of Finance has given its conditional approval for the lease. The Board of Selectmen will also hold a public hearing on the lease agreement for the town property at 35 Elm St. when it meets Aug. 13. A sign announcing that public hearing was placed on the Baldwin site Monday morning.

Garten said architectural plans for the house's exterior restoration are also expected to be available for review at the Aug. 13 meeting.

Moving the structure will also mean road closures in the downtown area, something Garten said would have to go before the Board of Selectmen to "work out a schedule."

Plans for the historic home will also be the focus of a presentation Wednesday at a special meeting of the Downtown Steering Committee. The committee has scheduled three public presentations to inform residents about downtown projects currently in development or planned.

The 7:30 p.m. meeting will include a presentation by Bedford Square Associates on the Bedford Square mixed-use development, which includes the plan to move and re-purpose the Kemper-Gunn House.

The house was saved from the wrecking ball last October when the Representative Town Meeting, in a unanimous vote, overturned a 4-2 vote by the P&Z that rejected the proposed move. New members subsequently were elected to the P&Z in the municipal election the following month.