Tour ponders if faded Golden Shadows could shine again
Walking into “Golden Shadows” is like taking a journey back in time — to the late 1950s to be exact. That was the decade when the Baron and Baroness Langer von Langerdorff tore down an existing structure on their 23-acre property — nestled between South Compo Road and Imperial Avenue — and erected a brick, two-story mansion. Although with just about 4,250 square feet of living space, it’s much smaller than the mansions routinely built today, said Selectman Helen Garten, who led a tour of the town-owned house Thursday morning.
Some call its style Hollywood Colonial, Garten noted, but it’s actually a Colonial Revival-style building with 12 rooms, Italian marble fireplaces, cedar closets and steel cabinets.
In the kitchen remains a 42-inch pink stove, with push-button features, that was “top of the line” for its time, said Morley Boyd, local historian, one of a handful of residents, town officials and members of the Historic District Commission on the tour.
“The stove is highly collectable for vintage dealers,” Boyd noted, saying a similar stove left behind at another town-owned residential property was bought from the town, restored, and then sold for “north of four grand.” Pink, Boyd noted, was the perfume magnate’s favorite color and it’s seen everywhere in his home — on walls, ceilings, bathroom sinks and tubs.
Pink, Boyd added, was also considered a patriotic color at that time, the result of a “pink kitchen campaign” started by Mamie Eisenhower, then-President Dwight Eisenhower’s wife, not only for patriotism but also for optimism following the end of World War II.
Garten recently presented to the Board of Finance a conceptual plan for all town-owned residential properties, like Golden Shadows, purchased along with its 23-acre tract in 1999. She said Thursday’s tour was actually a site visit as part of the process for possibly obtaining a historic designation for the property by the HDC, which has been requested by Boyd and 50 others in a petition filed in January.
Since the town purchased the Baron’s house, along with several adjacent structures, there hasn’t been any upgrade of the unoccupied building, said Garten, although the town does pay maintenance costs, which were about $15,278 to date in fiscal year 2015.
“It was solidly built and that’s why it’s been able to withstand this abuse,” Boyd said of the town’s neglect.
Garten agreed the town hasn’t done anything with the property. “For so long it just sat here,” she said. “Town officials thought they would hold on to the property until they figured out what to do with it.” She said unlike other town-owned residential properties, this one wasn’t rented out, probably because it’s so large.
For the past 15 years, books have been stored in the building by the Westport Library, which got initial approval from then-First Selectman Diane Farrell about 15 years ago.
The accumulation of books in the dining room was cited as the cause of the collapse of that room’s floor about two years ago. The floor has since been shored up, but still needs to be repaired.
After the floor collapsed, Boyd said an engineer repeated his previous advice to the library concerning the height and placement of books in the rooms of the structure. But, he noted, that advice wasn’t heeded. Books are still piled in most of the downstairs rooms.
In May, the town was slapped with a zoning violation for allowing the continued storage of books at Golden Shadows. The violation notice states that using the residence and a storage trailer to store the books is “not allowed” in a DOSRD2, or dedicated open space and recreation district.
If town officials want to upgrade the building for rental, the exterior brick would need to cleaned, patios repaired, window sills that are rotten need to be replaced and water damage to one bedroom needs to be repaired, according to the conceptual plan presented by Garten to the finance panel.
The house also needs a new electrical system, said Garten, adding she didn’t think it would be too costly.
And, if the house were to be re-purposed for use as office space, the winding driveway would have to be improved for fire and other emergency access and the structure would need to be brought up to fire code compliance for a commercial building.
Also there would need to be access for the disabled, said Garten, noting a portion of the front porch could be modified for a ramp and windows to the left of the main door could be made handicap-accessible.
She said going the residential route would require less initial investment, but the town could continue to bear the maintenance costs. Commercial use would require a larger initial investment, but the town could shift maintenance costs to tenants.
The group also toured a 1910 Tudor-style guest house next to Golden Shadows, which has 4,230 square feet of living space including five upstairs bedrooms that Garten said could be converted into apartments. That house was fully remodeled by the Baron during the time he was building Golden Shadows, said Boyd.
Garten said the town has paid $9,132 to date this year in maintenance costs at that unoccupied building, which has been used to train search and rescue dogs.
“We would need someone to partner with the town,” on such a project, adding the units would be either “affordable or senior housing” and might also provide credits towards the town’s affordable housing inventory.
Thursday, Boyd sent a memo to Carol Leahy, coordinator and staff administrator for the HDC, asking that the commission place on its July public hearing agenda a request to designate the guest house as a historic accessory structure “that is individually listed on the Westport Resources Inventory as a local historic property.”
“This is a treat to see an old house like this,” said Janet Rubel of the HDC of Golden Shadows. “I’m blown away by the attention to detail — the cedar closets and fixtures. This place needs to be restored.”
The Baron, a chemist and perfume magnate who developed the White Shoulders cologne from flowers he grew on the Westport property, is a classic example of the American Dream, said Boyd. The couple fled their native country, Austria, in 1938 and came to America. “They left their past lives behind and basically reinvented themselves,” he said
The Baron died in 1983; his wife had pre-deceased him, said Boyd. The couple is buried in Willowbrook Cemetery in a mausoleum — a pink one, of course.