Waiver denied on demolition of historic house
Updated 10:47 am, Wednesday, December 14, 2011
A Cross Highway homeowner was denied a waiver Tuesday that would have moved up his timetable to demolish an architecturally and historically significant house, one of the few dwellings in Westport "documented as being built by a free black."
Members of the town's Historic Commission District voted unanimously to deny the request of David Lewis to waive the remainder of the 180-day waiting period for his demolition permit application, which he filed in mid-November.
The town's demolition ordinance provides the delay in order to give the HDC and the public an opportunity to discuss alternatives to the demolition of a historically significant property, and commissioners hope to convince Lewis before the 180 days are up to find an option other than the wrecking ball for the historic saltbox at 108 Cross Highway.
"You ought to think twice before putting this house in the dumpster," said Morley Boyd, a former chairman of the HDC, during the public comment portion of the proceedings. Boyd was one of a handful of people who spoke against demolition.
"Are you aware of the public opposition to this demolition?" asked Commissioner Grayson Braun.
Commissioner Betsy Wacker said, as a homeowner Lewis is free to do what he wants with the property, but hopes he understands that he is under a magnifying glass locally and on the state level. "It would never occur to me ... to take down a house that had this pedigree," she said.
The house was built in 1806 by Henry Munroe, a free black man and farmer, and his wife Lyzette. It is one of two Westport locations listed on the Connecticut Freedom Trail. The second is the Green's Farms Burying Ground at the intersection of Sherwood Island Connector and Green's Farms Road.
In a letter to the commission supporting a denial of the waiver, State Historic Preservation Officer David Bahlman said the trail "utilizes sites throughout the state to tell the stories of the heritage and movement towards freedom of the state's African American citizens."
"The demolition of the property would be a great loss to Westport since it would remove tangible evidence of the city's historical diversity," Bahlman said.
Edward Gerber, a neighbor of Lewis' and an alternate on the HDC, was unable to attend the meeting but said in a letter "The Munroes made their house a way-stop on the Underground Railroad, aiding slaves fleeing captivity to reach their freedom."
Lewis was also unable to attend the meeting. He told commissioners via a publicly broadcast call over speaker phone that he doesn't really want to demolish the Munroe house and is willing to explore options to save it if such options do not pose an economic hardship on him. But he refused a request by Henkels to withdraw his application. Lewis said he was willing to exhaust the 180 days but not take the application off the table.
"My wife and my family lived in that house for eight years. It is our preference to have someone buy the house from us and preserve the home in its historic nature," Lewis said. However, the family had the house on the market for six weeks this fall and Lewis claims the only two serious prospective buyers reluctantly considered making an offer for fear they would face restrictions regarding modifications to the footprint or to update amenities.
Commissioners said the house does not sit in a historic district and therefore would not be subjected to restrictions. "Those concerns are invalid," Braun said.
Some commissioners were not convinced that six weeks were sufficient time to find a buyer. "In today's market that seems a very brief time to determine its marketability," said Henkels, adding that historic homes often hold their value in a down market better than new construction.
Bob Weingarten, a commissioner and realtor, said the average selling time for a house in Westport is about 93 days.
Lewis is currently renting the house to a tenant. He said work has taken him to the west coast through mid-2013, at which time the family plans to return to Westport. Asked by Braun why the rush to tear down the house if the family will be gone for so long, Lewis said it would take time to raze the house and build a new residence, one that would include another bedroom, walk-in closets, updated bathrooms and entertainment rooms. "Things that don't exist now in a practical format," he said. "When I move back to Westport I want to be able to move into a house that can accommodate my family," Lewis said.
"Then why did they buy it in the first place?" said one woman speaking under her breath.
"Ownership of a historic home is not an accident; it is a privilege and a choice that brings with it certain responsibilities," said Dorothy Curran, president of the Westport Historical Society in a letter to the commission.
Lewis said he plans to return to Westport in mid-January when he is willing to meet with commissioners to discuss options that could preserve the Henry Munroe House. However, Lewis told commissioners the town does not provide financial incentives to owners of historic homes to preserve them.
"Is money and demolition now the page marker that defines Westport?" asked Peter Wien, in a letter to the commission. Wien, who grew up in Weston and Westport but now lives in Colorado, said, "We fought a horrible war so that people like Henry Munroe could build his house and become a part of society as a free man. Is this how we are going to respect that and remember it?" he asked.