Woog's World / 2 dozen sides to this story
Published 8:54 am, Thursday, January 19, 2012
You could call it one of the most historically significant houses in Westport: the 1805 home of a free black man, Henry Munroe, sitting handsomely on one of the most well-traveled roads in town.
Or you could call it a small, old place, architecturally undistinguished and seldom noticed, in need of major, expensive renovation, yet constrained by so many regulations it's almost impossible to fix.
There are at least two sides to every story. And, depending on which side of the fence (or stone wall) you stand on, that's how you view the controversy swirling around 108 Cross Highway.
On the one hand, there's the obligation to preserve history. How many towns -- even in New England -- boast such a direct, visible link to an era when being a free black man was unique? How many have structures dating back to the presidency of Thomas Jefferson -- and in such a visible spot?
On the other hand, there's the right of a homeowner -- someone who pays hundreds of thousands of dollars -- to do whatever he wants with that property. How can a government demand that anyone preserve a structure with tiny rooms, low ceilings, unworkable space?
Yet why should we -- Westport residents and our elected officials -- let anyone destroy a bit of our heritage? Shouldn't there be rules governing how our streetscapes look? What would happen if landowners did whatever they pleased with their property? There must be safeguards to protect not only history but also the character of our town.
But who is to judge what that "character" is? Who is to say that old houses are good, and should be preserved at the expense of more modern ones? How old is old? What about homes built in 1905? 1945? 1965? Where does the line get drawn, and who does the drawing?
Hey, wait! The homeowners knew the house was old -- and thus historic -- when they bought it. They had to understand it would need maintenance, improvements, work -- and that some of that work would have to be approved by various town bodies, including those overseeing our history. The owners signed a deed with their eyes wide open.
No, wait again! Let's look at all those regulations. If they're too onerous, no one will ever buy old houses. Which means no one will ever sell one.
And clearly, we're not talking about a truly original structure here. Over the past 207 years, additions have been made to the Munroe house. What, exactly, are we talking about preserving? Why can't more additions be made? Or -- as in the case of demolition and a new home -- addition by subtraction?
Well, the counter-argument goes, the town's inventory of historic homes is dwindling. We must do everything in our power to preserve this one. After all, they're not making old houses any more.
Yeah, well, that's what happens. Old homes deteriorate. They rot. They fall victim to age, or fire, or whatever. That's life. Out with the old, in with the new.
And yet, old homes add so much to town. They make our streetscape livable. They show the diversity of housing styles. They send a message that there is a wide range of ways to live, including in houses with small rooms and no entertainment center.
But doesn't it all come back to a homeowner's right to do whatever he wants with the property he paid for?
No! Not when you're talking about a free black man from 1805 -- someone special in history.
Hold on! New evidence shows that Henry Munroe might not have been black. Descendants claim he was actually an American Indian. What does that do to the argument? Is there a hierarchy of oppression? If he really is a Native American, that means he built a home on land that -- at some earlier point -- had been seized from his ancestors.
What if -- hypothetically speaking -- Henry Munroe had been white? Would that make his house less historically significant? Why? 1805 is still 1805, right?
In the end, isn't it all about property values? Don't old homes raise the value of an entire neighborhood? Who wouldn't want to live in -- and sell -- a home in a charming, historically significant area?
The people who say that new homes raise property values, that's who.
Okay. Shouldn't we ask the homeowners to speak publicly about why they bought the Munroe home, what they planned to do with it back then, and why they want to demolish it now?
No, we shouldn't. They don't need to defend themselves. Do we ask everyone who buys a 1960 split-level or a 1975 glass house to explain their motives and thought processes? Of course not.
There are too many different ideas to sort out here. Heads swim. In the end, it all comes down to the character of Westport.
But what determines Westport's character? The houses on our roads? The people who live there?
Can we really separate them?
Then again, can we afford not to?