Woog’s World / The little house at the big intersection
The little house on the corner was hard to miss.
Built in 1830 — five years before Westport was founded — and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it had been a grocery story, a vulcanizing business, a tire and battery emporium, a liquor store and, finally, a yarn shop.
The owner is Vita Design Group. Known for projects like the Geiger development at the site of the former garden center across from Greens Farms Elementary School, and a new glass house on Compo Beach Road near the Minute Man Monument, the local firm bought the building four years ago.
During that time, there were negotiations with builders and town officials to move it to the former Save the Children site, which is under development as a retail and residential complex. Relocating the building across and north on Wilton Road would free up that traffic-clogged corner for a turning lane.
It never happened. Eventually, Vita Design announced plans to rebuild the one-story portion of the old house with a steeper roof, and put new siding and details on the two-story wing. The idea was to integrate historical features with a “slightly modern touch.”
Westporters stuck at the light — and that means all of us — watched warily as scaffolding went up. We became concerned when parts of the building went down. Then we were aghast as much of that history disappeared. Right in front of our eyes.
Finally, some citizens had enough. Local preservationists Wendy Crowther and Morley Boyd complained. Late last week a Westport building official, representatives from the Westport Historic District Commission and Westport Preservation Alliance, the owner of 1 Wilton Road and other interested parties agreed the scope of the work was not a renovation. It was a demolition.
Work on the original structure was halted. Vita Design went back to the town to obtain a (retroactive) demolition permit. Because the building is older than 50 years — way, way older — it is subject to an automatic 180-day delay period. At a public hearing on Nov. 14, the HDC will review what’s going on. Vita Design may be asked to preserve at least some historic continuity.
1 Wilton Road has already, and irrevocably, changed. But it’s not the first time that corner will look dramatically different.
For nearly 40 years, the quaint little building — and whatever takes its place — has huddled beneath a massive concrete office park. The Wright Street complex overpowered what was once wooded land. A root cellar dated to the 1700s (and, in the 1960s and ’70s, provided shelter for a well-known homeless Westporter known as Herbie).
Through a series of bungled deadlines, miscalculations and missed opportunities, the town paved the way for this enormous structure to be built on a residential road. It has loomed over Westport ever since.
That was not the first time an office structure changed the character of downtown. The first was when the Giegerich building — the soulless concrete box on Riverside Avenue, near that (yes) Wilton Road intersection — went up in the early 1970s. Then came the green-glass monstrosity on Gorham Island. It replaced a white Victorian rooming house that had seen better days, but certainly could have been rehabilitated.
We’ve dodged a few bullets, of course. A B. Altman’s department store proposed for what is now Winslow Park would have altered our town forever. And the mind boggles at what a nuclear power plant — proposed for Cockenoe Island by its owner, United Illuminating — could have done to all of us here. Only a concerted, multipronged effort — spearheaded by this very Westport News — doomed what some citizens argued was a good-for-business-and-the-tax base, perfectly safe idea.
The first national company to move to Westport, Stauffer Chemical, constructed its large, but largely invisible headquarters on land right next to Interstate 95 Exit 18. Stauffer is no longer in business, but the office park remains. Few Westporters even know it’s there, though, so seamlessly does it blend into the meadows and hills that still surround it.
I thought of all this last week, when the Historic District Commission announced recipients of its annual Historic Preservation Awards. The winners span the gamut, architecturally and geographically.
Mark Yurkiw and Wendy Van Wie were cited for their rehabilitation of the barn/cottage at 190 Cross Highway, a fabled homestead on the path the British took as they headed to Danbury. The owners got a special permit that helped them save a 1728 saltbox house too.
Wakeman Town Farm was cited for its rehabilitation of the late-1800s farmhouse. A new roof, front porch and educational kitchen have breathed new life into what was already a town treasure.
Other honorees include preserved homes in the Greens Farms, Compo and Coleytown neighborhoods.
Historic rehabilitation is not easy. It takes time, money, energy and vision.
Those four things have always defined Westport. Only we can determine if they still do.
Dan Woog is a Westport writer, and his “Woog's World” appears each Friday. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His personal blog is danwoog06880.com.