RTM overturns P&Z's rejection of Gunn House move to Elm Street lot
Saved from the wrecking ball. By a unanimous vote, the Representative Town Meeting on Tuesday night voted to move the historic Kemper Gunn House from its Church Lane property to a site in the Baldwin parking lot off Elm Street. The RTM overturned a 4-2 vote by the Planning and Zoning Commission last month that rejected the proposal to move the 1885 Queen Anne-style house, virtually ensuring it would be demolished to make way for the multi-use complex planned by its current owner, Bedford Square Associates.
"Once it's gone, it's gone," said resident Martha Constable, among more than a dozen residents and town officials expressing support for the building's relocation at Tuesday's special RTM session. She said the RTM would be "behaving absolutely correctly" by overturning the P&Z vote.
Wendy Crowther, who lives on Main Street, said she wanted to put "a human face" on the structure and gave a brief biography of Frederick Kemper, Jr., who lived there in the late 1880s. and early 1900s. "It's not like Washington slept there, but he was a significant resident," she said. The building later became home to the law offices of Colin "Ben" Gunn for many years.
"If the house could speak it would say `Let me keep standing,' " added resident Helen Block.
And RTM member Bill Meyer, urging to overturn the vote, said if the house were a person, "it would be an icon."
But not all spoke in support. David Royce of Main Street said he's familiar with the concept of renovating old buildings for new uses, but added, "This project tonight is a bad idea.'
Roger Leifer, a local real estate developer, agreed. He said he's won six historic preservation awards, "but I'm opposed to this."
He said Westport "suffers from its own success" that has caused "not enough parking" downtown and "sacrificing parking space is unacceptable."
"I understand some of the arguments based on the parking and I appreciate that," said David Waldman, a principal Bedford Square Associates, the development team that has offered to pay for the building's relocation to the Elm Street lot to make way for its multi-use project that will rise on the site of the Westport Weston Family Y.
But Waldman, who said he had only become "a preservationist by accident" added, he doesn't feel the loss of the 20 parking spaces to accommodate the house should have a negative impact on "the benefits of saving this house."
"This should be the easiest decision you should make all year," said Alan Hodge, a Democratic candidate for the P&Z this year. He said there is a "feel-good factor" to overturning the commission's vote. "When it's sitting there in all it's glory, you can say `Look what I did for the town.' "
Morley Boyd, of the Westport Historical Society, said that a 44-page document in town records compiled 28 years ago lists three dozen properties in the Myrtle Avenue District added to the Registry of Historic Places, and "one is the Gunn House." He said that after nearly three decades "we only lost one building."
He said if the RTM permits the building move it will "still remain in the district and maintain the integrity of the district." He said losing it to demolition would be like "if you remove words from a sentence -- you lose the entire meaning."
Besides the RTM's support Tuesday night for the relocation, about 600 residents have signed a petition supporting the move, said Matthew Mandell, RTM member.
Members of the P&Z also attended Tuesday's meeting to explain their vote.
Commission member Ron Corwin said his vote wasn't "for or against the Gunn House."
"I know of no sitting commissioner or any person running for the P and Z who favors destroying the Gunn House," he said. He said, among other things, he questions if the move would be the best use of limited parking space. "For me, it had the feel of rush to judgment," he added.
The RTM's Planning and Zoning Committee last week also had unanimously recommended that the full legislative body approve moving the Gunn House.
To overturn the P&Z vote, the RTM needed to approve two-thirds -- or 24 -- of the RTM's 36 members to pass. All 33 of the RTM members attending Tuesday's meeting voted in favor of overturning the P&Z.