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Woog's World / What's the value in saving one Victorian house?

Updated 5:15 pm, Thursday, October 3, 2013
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Matt Mandell is not a happy man.

The RTM District 1 member sends out periodic emails, related to Westport issues. Last week he focused on the Kemper Gunn House.

A proposal to move the more than century-old Victorian building from Church Lane across Elm Street to the Baldwin Parking Lot was denied by the Planning and Zoning Commission.

Calling it "one of the darkest decisions made by the Westport P&Z in the last decade," Mandell noted that the commission acted despite fervent -- and unanimous -- speeches in favor of the move by public speakers, the first selectman and both selectman candidates (plus 500 signatures on a petition).

"Lost on these commissioners was the value of spirit, history and character," Mandell wrote. "Reestablishing the streetscape on Elm St., creating retail diversity and having the town make some money from a lease and taxes were all forward thinking concepts, again ignored."

He noted that the RTM -- his own body -- has "a second crack at saving the house and doing what is right for our town." A new petition is in the works. An RTM P&Z meeting on Wednesday, Oct. 16 -- followed by a full RTM meeting the following Tuesday (Oct. 22) -- could reverse the P&Z decision. A two-thirds RTM vote is required. Mandell knows that's "a tall order." But he has faith that the public will be heard.

This one seems like a no-brainer to me. Kemper Gunn is a handsome house. It's in good shape. There can certainly be a multi-level parking garage in the Baldwin lot, with or without it.

Just as important, moving the house would send an important message to everyone in Westport: our past, present and future can co-exist.

In fact, they must.

Kemper Gunn is threatened because developer David Waldman is in the midst of a historic reimagination of Church Lane. He's worked hard to make Bedford Square -- the new name for what will replace the old YMCA and environs -- into a showpiece for Westport.

There will be retail and office space, plus residential units. Church Lane will be redesigned. Sidewalks will be improved. Downtown will get a much-needed jolt.

Waldman is hardly a novice. His renovation of the old Federal-style Sherwood House -- from falling-down house into the Spotted Horse restaurant -- has jump-started Church Lane. Waldman knows what he's doing. And because he grew up here, and still lives here, he's doing it right.

That's not always the case. A glance at WestportNow's popular "Teardown of the Day" feature shows -- almost weekly -- how many homes with Kemper Gunn-type bones are being lost.

From Greens Farms to the beach, from Coleytown to Old Hill, developers buy well-built, nicely scaled houses. They knock them down, bulldoze the lot, erect very large, many-gabled new buildings, then toss a couple of bushes in front and slap a high price tag on it.

"What can you do?" people say. "It's their property. So long as people are willing to play, they can do whatever they want."

Of course they can. But that doesn't mean those of us who hope to preserve a vestige of Westport's past have to like it.

As the rules are written, we can't do much. Demolition of homes more than 50 years old must be approved by the Historic District Commission. But that's a formality; unless there is a spectacularly historic reason for saving a house, like a president was born there, it's only a matter of time before its is pulverized into nothingness.

But downtown buildings are different. And if our homes are our castles, our downtown is our town square. It's the heart of what we are, the face we show to visitors. It's Westport to the world.

Over the years, downtown's heartbeat has slowed. Our face has grown wrinkles. Yet we all know older folks whose eyes remain bright, whose smile retains a special glow that is enhanced, not diminished with age.

That's not a perfect analogy, of course. People die; downtowns don't have to. Ours is on the cusp of revival -- thanks not only to Bedford Square but a host of other happenings, from the Downtown 2020 plan to fortuitious developments right across the river.

And -- as Matt Mandell does -- we all should ask: What will that revival look like? Will it retain some of the character of Westport -- the charming, still relevant architecture that reminds us of where we came from, and who we were -- or will we sacrifice one more century-old building because ... well, just because.

The RTM has the final say. What they decide -- when they meet in Town Hall, the former Bedford Elementary School building that now serves another great purpose -- will say a lot about the Westport of both the 1800s, and the 2100s.

Dan Woog is a Westport writer, and his "Woog's World" appears each Friday. He can be reached at dwoog@optonline.net. His personal blog is www.danwoog06880.