Out of the Woods / The urgent need to preserve our past
Dorothy Curran, president of the Westport Historical Society, got it right last week when she said: "Ownership of a historic home is not an accident; it is a privilege and a choice that brings with it certain responsibilities, both to the prior owners who have sustained it through many eras of change, adversity, and `progress,' and to the community it honors by providing daily visual reminders of a proud, shared American heritage."
She was referring, of course, to the town's Historic District Commission's wise decision unanimously denying David Lewis' request to waive the six-month waiting period for a demolition permit application for a historic house he owns at108 Cross Highway. The house was built in 1806 by Henry Munroe, a free black man and a farmer, and his wife, Lyzette.
Not only is Lewis' intention to demolish this historic building wrong-headed, but it is an insult to the town's sense of history and respect for a free black man who helped to shape this town's physical and cultural heritage. The Historic District Commission -- which rarely makes news --s hould go one step further and deny the application to tear down the house.
It is heartening to see town officials stop yet another individual from changing the character of Westport.
In a story by Meg Barone in last Friday's Westport News, commission Chairman Francis Henkels disclosed that 24 letters had been received by the panel urging denial of the waiver and asking that the Henry Monroe House be preserved.
Moreover, in a letter supporting the HDC's decision to deny the waiver, State Historic Preservation Officer David Bahlman pointed out that the house is one of two locations listed on the Connecticut Freedom Trail, the other being the Green's Farms Burying Ground at the intersection of Sherwood Island Connector and Green's Farms Road.
Bahlman was quoted as saying that the Trail "utilized sites throughout the state to tell the stories of the heritage and movement towards freedom of the state's African-American citizens." Indeed, we have a scarce record of blacks' contributions to Westport as it is. We should treasure any evidence of black history in our town, which has been open to everyone for several generations after a tenuous beginning. It's part of what makes us special.
Another commissioner, Betsy Wacker, added pressure to slow down Lewis' controversial application by stating that Lewis is free to do whatever he wants with the house, but she hopes he is aware that he is under a magnifying glass locally and on the state level. "It would never occur to me," she said, "to take down a house that had this pedigree."
Commissioner Grayson Braun asked the owner, "Are you aware of the public opposition to this demolition?"
And Edward Gerber, a neighbor of Lewis' and an alternate on the commission, sent a letter to the hearing stating: "The Munroes made their house a way-stop on the Underground Railroad [for slaves] fleeing captivity to reach their freedom."
This incident is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to preserving what we most treasure about our town: our physical and cultural heritage. Some homeowners and landlords of some of the chain stores in Westport have spoiled Westport's original character enough.
Every now and then, some people make a gesture like building a local movie theatre or providing affordable housing -- First Selectman Gordon Joseloff and Second Seletwoman Shelley Kassen continue to wage their campaign for a combination of affordable and housing for the elderly on Baron's South. But all of the great ideas to bring back the past or even preserve what we have seem to be washed away by a powerful wave of a penchant for profit.
In a word, that's what this town is all about these days.
How can we put an end to the gangrene of greed?When is enough enough? When and how will we wake up and restore our longstanding values of community first and material gains second?
The other day I was shopping in a mom-and-pop store in Southport, and the shopkeeper asked me where I was from. When I told him Westport, he said, "Westport is not what it used to be."
I nodded sadly in agreement and realized that the perception of our town as a thriving cultural and art center and as a place for people of all ages to gather is on the wane. Yes, we have the wonderful library and a modest, makeshift Arts Center. But the personal aura of Main Streret home-grown shopkeepers is all but gone.
I have lived here since 1968, when Westport had a real small New England town feeling. Those were the days when you could walk down Main Street and know almost all of the shopkeepers by first name, and they would know yours. It was intimate, personal, and warm. It's no fun, anymore.
This is a season of joy and celebration. I celebrate the great traditions of our town and hold up a mirror to all of the unwanted, unpleasant changes that have taken place or that may be still on the drawing boards.
Let this column serve as the magnifying glass of what Betsy Wacker reminded us. Let us hold that glass directly over those who put profit over preserving the past. Perhaps we can shame those folks into putting Westport first.
Woody Klein's "Out of the Woods" appears every other Wednesday. He is the author of "Westport, Connecticut: The Story of a New England Town's Rise to Prominence."