WOOG’S WORLD: 180 Cross Highway has been saved
180 Cross Highway has been saved.
It’s a gorgeous 2.9-acre property near the Fairfield border. There’s a saltbox built in 1728, a barn from the late 1700s, and a pair of legal (pre-1959) cottage apartments.
This old house and the rest of the land have seen a lot. In 1777, the British marched past. Heading to Danbury to burn an arsenal, they took brothers Benjamin and Daniel Meeker prisoner, then sacked the home. It was already half a century old.
Decades later, owner Sally Schilthuis preserved the house and neighborhood by preventing construction of a Merritt Parkway exit nearby. That’s why, instead of an Exit 43, there’s a five-mile “no man’s land” in Westport and Fairfield.
Though the Cross Highway area was slow to change, some homes succumbed to McMansionization. Not 180. That house stood — one of fewer than 10 remaining nationwide of original medieval Colonial revival construction.
The result was gorgeous. It was also costly. Yurkiw and Van Wie lived in the barn and rented out the saltbox. When the tenants wanted to buy, however, they ran smack into zoning regulations that prohibited “subdivision” of land like that.
It did not matter the owners offered to add covenants to keep, in perpetuity, the historic house as a single-family dwelling, to forever maintain the facade, and do whatever else would be necessary to make sure no future owner could move — or demolish — it.
Though many neighbors applauded Yurkiw and Van Wie’s efforts to keep the Cross Highway streetscape — and history, a few did not. This being Westport, they hired a lawyer.
There were hearings. The couple and their friends marshaled all their historic, architectural and environmental resources.
Lawyers huddled, and wise heads prevailed. A waiver allowing Yurkiw and Van Wie to sell their house was granted. One small piece of land was saved. A handsome pre-Revolutionary War home will now remain standing, while a cookie-cutter house that loses value as soon as it’s built remains unbuilt.
That’s great for 180 Cross Highway. But what about the rest of Westport’s vanishing stock of historic homes?
This is a fraught topic. Voices on the other side — not just the lawyer for the Cross Highway neighbors, but homeowners on streets less historic than that. Those who believe anyone purchasing property has the right to do with it as they please, and others who say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, thus questioning why an older structure should be loved more than a bigger, more modern home — have valid points.
But so do the folks who want historic structures to be maintained and preserved. There is something important to be said about the value they bring to a town like Westport.
The value may be financial. Anecdotal evidence suggests buyers are attracted to neighborhoods with historic homes, even if they live in a larger, newer model.
The value may be aesthetic. Historic homes do not overwhelm a street. They’re surrounded by trees, bushes, gardens — parts of the property that have been there for decades.
The value may be environmental. Big, new homes have changed the topography of our land, creating problems with runoff that are exacerbated by the clear-cutting of trees.
Yet, the greatest value of historic homes may be intangible. Their history connects us with our past.
We may not even know the heritage of a house. Driving by 180 Cross Highway, for example, we may have no idea that we travel the same route the British took, before America was even a country. We may not realize there was a musket ball lodged in the front door (or that sometime in the mid-20th century, it went missing). We may have no clue the neighborhood is so quiet because, 80 years ago, the home’s owner revolted against some highway bureaucrats.
We may not know all this, but we understand somehow that something went on there. At some level, we realize today, in 2016, we are connected to the land and the people of 1916, 1816 and even 1716.
We did not get here on our own. Historic homes remind us the past is not just prologue. It is also the present.