'Shadows' of a doubt: Selectmen disagree over studying historic value of Baron's mansion
The question of whether Golden Shadows, the 1959 Colonial Revival-style structure that was once the private residence of the late Baron and Baroness Langer von Langendorff, qualifies for "historic" status should be answered soon.
The Board of Selectmen on Wednesday, in a 2-1 vote, approved a request from the Historic District Commission to have First Selectman Jim Marpe apply for a $2,500 Certified Local Government Historic Preservation Grant. The money will be used for a study report to determine if the mansion on the town-owned property known as Baron's South meets standards for local historic property designation. The study should take about four months, according to Francis Henkels, chairman of the HDC.
But one selectman is already questioning the building's historic significance.
"I doesn't seem historic to me," said Selectman Avi Kaner, who cast the dissenting vote. He said he hasn't heard "a compelling hypothesis" about why "this house is special."
And, he added, a historic designation "is premature because we don't know what the town will do with the Baron's South property," which was recently designated as open space by the Planning and Zoning Commission. Part of the 22-acre property is where members of the Baron's South Committee are still pushing for a senior housing/care project to be built.
The property once owned by perfume magnate von Langendorff was purchased by the town in 1999.
"Well, I don't want to have it designated and approved and then have to move it -- next to the Gunn House," said Kaner, referring to the re-location last year of the 130-year old Queen Anne-style structure from Church Lane to the town-owned Baldwin parking lot.
"What was the impetus" behind evaluating its historic significance at this time, Kaner asked.
"We became aware the house was undesignated and therefore unprotected," said Henkels. He said the matter was brought to him by a private citizen. Henkels added that a historic designation isn't always based on the age of the property, but it may qualify because of its significance to the town, because of its cultural influence or because a historic event took place there.
"What will be the town's financial obligation" if the building gets a historic designation, asked Marpe. "Usually historic properties are privately owned. We need to understand where that stands in the budgetary process."
"We are still looking into that," said Gail Kelly, a town attorney.
"This is a time for us to learn more about the property and this study should help us do that," said Selectman Helen Garten.
"I see nothing there," said Kaner. "You are hiring a consultant to tell you -- to tell me -- why this should be preserved."
He asked why the Historic District Commission's subcommittee, which will be overseeing the consultant's study, couldn't do that on its own.
Marpe said a study committee would have the opportunity "to get some arguably independent perspectives" on the matter. "I think this offers the opportunity" to have someone evaluate the structure "who has no dogs in the hunt."
"There will still be some controversy in the outcome either way," Marpe said.
Last year, a study committee was formed and overseen by the first selectman, but according to Morley Boyd, a former chairman of the HDC, who has been backing the house's historic designation for the past year, that committee "didn't do the job and the town was perfectly OK with that."
Boyd said, it was "only now, after we submitted our petition to the RTM that" the town is motivated to move ahead. The petition he was referring to was submitted in January asking that the structure be listed on Westport's Historic Resources Inventory and as a Local Historic Landmark property.
"We have been stonewalled at every turn in this," Boyd said. "This administration seems to have a phobia on open space and preservation, and that's disappointing."
"Certainly, the entire designation process would have been completed by now," Boyd wrote in a letter, dated April 6, to the RTM's Planning and Zoning Committee asking that the HDC oversee the process this time. The full RTM Wednesday night approved that request.
The Baron, a native of Austria, moved to New York City as a young man and trained as a chemist. He made his fortune with the Evyan perfume businesses that he founded, according to a 2013 article in the Westport News.
He created his signature "White Shoulders" fragrance in a laboratory on the estate, according to the Westport Historical Society's archives. He also raised exotic flowers in the mansion's gardens and greenhouse for use in his perfumes.
Von Langendorff died in 1983 in his mid-70s.
Besides a site for senior housing, the Baron's South property has also been considered as a possible site for a new YMCA, which instead relocated to its Mahackeno campus.
In mid-December, members of the School Bus Task Force toured the property, a portion of which is being considered for a new bus parking lot.
The mansion is currently used by the Westport Library for storage of boxes of books, records, board games and other items.