Plan to demolish historic building prompts outcry

Plans for the future sometimes don't include links to Westport's past.

David Waldman, founder of David Adam Realty, a brokerage and property management company, has a grand vision for Church Lane, one that includes restaurants behind two of his properties on the Post Road, along with a courtyard and parking. He even hopes that, at some point in the future, a section of Church Lane could be set aside for pedestrians only.

"I want to create a vibrancy," Waldman said.

However, the demolition of an early-1800s Federal-style building would clear the way for Waldman and his partner Jay Bower's vision to become reality. That prospect has angered some people, who have written and e-mailed the Historic District Commission to register their displeasure with the proposal.

Janet Aley, 84, said she became aware of the impending demolition of the John Sherwood Mansion House when she drove by the historic structure and saw that a demolition notice had been defaced. The message scrawled on the sign read: "This is an obscenity."

Aley also strongly opposes demolishing the structure. "I just feel it furthers the deterioration of the quality of downtown in the name of the all-mighty buck," she said.

The demolition, however, is not a done deal.

Waldman met with the Historic District Commission last week -- which chose not to waive the waiting period for demolition -- and agreed to work with commission members and "evaluate every alternative that is brought to us."

Possible alternatives to demolishing the building, he said, include dismantling and moving the structure or restoring it in place.

HDC member Francis Henkels, an architect, checked out the building last week with Waldman and his initial investigation found that it's probably structurally feasible to save. However, Waldman said it would not be economically feasible to restore the house to its original character based on how much he and his partner could charge for rents. As such, Waldman told the Westport News that to save the building and keep it where it is, a benefactor would have to come forward, or perhaps funding from the state or another revenue source could secured for preservation.

Waldman, along with various partners, owns a number of Westport buildings that are decades old, such as the YMCA building and the Patagonia building (formerly Westport Bank and Trust), so he's not anti-historic. He believes, however, that 26-28 Church Lane is in bad repair and that in this current economic environment he can't invest the money needed to preserve the structure without outside help.

The HDC is trying to assist.

"We are investigating some grant money through the Endangered Building Fund," said Maggie Feczko, chairman of the HDC. Feczko has her fingers crossed about securing aid, because she would hate to see the building disappear.

"We have very few buildings left from that time period,' she said. "It's a beautiful example of that Federal-style architecture."

While Waldman is the contract purchaser , according to Carol Leahy, staff administrator for the HDC, the demolition permit was actually filed in July by Jay Sherwood, Kim Sherwood and Jan S. Cavanagh.

Fezcko said she is grateful Waldman is willing to work with the HDC, "and we hope we can come to a conclusion that is a win-win for both of us."

The structure, which is on the HDC's Historic Resources List, was once located on the Post Road, but was relocated in 1924 to make room for Westport Bank and Trust. It was also used as a hotel at its previous location, according to Leahy.

"The importance of this structure is not only that it's an excellent example of a Federal-style building, but it makes an essential contribution to the streetscape," she said.

Henkels added: "I think the historic character of Westport would be seriously diminished by the loss of this house." He noted the two-story building pre-dates the town's incorporation.

Bob Weingarten, a member of the Westport Historical Society, said demolition could cause the quaint street to lose its "flavor."

The HDC will likely next discuss the John Sherwood Mansion House at its Sept. 14 public hearing, when people will have an opportunity to comment.