What happened at 1 Wilton Road?
WESTPORT — About two weeks ago, historic preservation advocate Morley Boyd was shocked when he drove by 1 Wilton Road.
In Boyd’s view, the house sitting on the property had been demolished. “The house wasn’t just any house,” Boyd said, but “probably the most high-profile, historic house in Westport, owing to the fact of its visibility and unique history over time.”
On Oct. 13, Boyd filed a Zoning Violation Complaint Form with the Planning and Zoning Department arguing, per town ordinance definitions, the Wilton Road structure had been demolished and thus required a demolition permit. The complaint initiated an investigation that halted construction at the property.
1 Wilton Road has a storied history in the town. As Boyd said, “Some decades ago, the Department of Transportation wanted to demolish the house to improve the intersection and quite a rue ensued in which the town pushed back.” “The house became a sort of symbol of the struggle between infrastructure improvements, ‘progress,’ and the needs of historic preservation.”
The house remained unchanged and, “owing to the very public conversation that had been had back in the day, it was understood the building was a sort of sacred cow,” Boyd added. Thus, “there was no historic designation on the house even though it’s listed in the National Historic Register.”
Lucien Vita bought 1 Wilton Road in 2013 for $692,500 and planned to move his architecture firm, Vita Design Group, to the location. As Vita described, “We’re more modernist in style. Our original thought was to take this building down and put up a modern building to show people what we can really do.”
In the end, Vita and his firm decided against constructing a modern building on the property. “We have respect for how people feel about the building, and we ourselves have respect for it, so we decided to do what we think is best for preserving it.”
The house is composed primarily of a two-story structure with a connected one story structure to the side. “The original portion from 1830 possessed many of the architectural qualities that made it part of the federal style architecture of its time,” Vita said, but, “the one-story portion to the side was added haphazardly in the 1920’s and had poor framing and was not as historically relevant from an architect’s perspective.”
“The proposed design intended to maintain the proportions and framing of the original two-story portion, but we wanted to bring the one-story portion more in keeping with the two-story portion,” Vita said of the recent construction at the house.
“All the people that reviewed it came to the decision that the plans did not constitute a demolition so we were under the impression that no demolition permit was needed,” Vita said of the town permitting process that led to the start of construction at his property two-weeks ago.
But once the investigation began, Building Official Steve Smith came to the property for a site visit. As Smith describes, “At the meeting the owner agreed and it was recommended that the applicant come in for partial demolition permit.”
“There’s a gray area to the interpretation of what constitutes a demolition and this was on the border, Vita said.”
Consistent with Westport’s demolition ordinance, buildings 500 square feet in size or larger and 50-years-old or more are subject to a 180 day demolition delay. The owner of the property then has the opportunity to appear before before the Historic District Commission to ask the balance of the delay be waved. Vita is expected to do so at the Historic District Commission’s meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 14.
In response to how he feels after the backlash against his project at 1 Wilton Road, Vita said, “What bugs me is that some people think we deliberately tried to sneak something past for financial gain. We just want the building to look good for the town and us as well.”