Just a few days ago, the last remaining historic saltbox house in Seymour, Connecticut, was razed to the ground and converted to dumpster fodder, all in the interests of commercial development. The Smith-Tomlinson home, built by Ephraim Smith in 1757, had been used originally as both a stagecoach stop and an inn for travelers, on what was to eventually become present day Route 34.
It sat on the east side of Route 34, facing directly south and overlooking the Housatonic River. I used to pass by this house nearly every day, and I recall how the previous owner planted annuals each spring on the sloped front yard, in the pattern of a large red, white, and blue American flag that shown brilliantly in the afternoon sun.
A few years ago, the home and property was purchased by local entrepreneur Tony Mavuli, who made numerous public pronouncements that the home would be preserved and re-purposed as part of a planned, commercial building. Not necessarily the worst possible fate for an antique home…at least most of the house would continue to survive and find good use. Or, so I thought.
Just a few days ago, I noticed the windows had been removed and the house appeared to have been gutted. The renovations were now seriously underway, I thought. It will be interesting to see where this all goes. Yesterday afternoon, I was mortified to discover the house completely gone. It had been thoroughly razed. Sadly, the home had no covenants, registrations, or other restrictions protecting it. Nor does the municipality have an historian or any stay of demolition provisions for historic properties. After sitting proudly in that location for 254 years, a well preserved and highly visible historic home was converted to a pile of trash by a single backloader. Only the chimney column remained standing.
The fate of the Ephraim Smith house underscores the shameful disregard that all too many people have for these noble old homes of our distant past. No attempt was made to save this house. It wasn’t moved. It wasn’t offered for reduced sale on condition of being moved. It wasn’t carefully disassembled, cataloged, and packed away in storage to await some interested future owner looking for an historic home to renovate and reuse. Instead, an outstanding piece of our local, cultural heritage was swiftly dispatched to the ages. Completely lost to future generations. And all within the blink of an eye.
The following article on the Ephraim Smith House demolition was subsequently published by the Valley Independent Sentinel.
Another article was then published by the Sentinel about how Seymour officials are now considering adopting a stay of demolition ordinance for 100+ year old homes. Much of this effort is being driven by my good friend Marian O’Keefe, Curator of the Seymour Historical Society.
Recently, I came across this page on the Electronic Valley virtual tour web site, showing the Smith-Tomlinson house back when it was painted red.
Another thoughtless tear-down, with almost zero notice, and following promises to preserve by contractor-purchaser, of an 18th century home in Pennsylvania: Penrose House, c. 1749, destroyed May 20, 2011.
Postscript (One and a half years later)
The Smith-Tomlinson house was subsequently replaced with a restaurant called Tavern 1757, which apparently attempts to recapture the “spirit” of the original homestead. The About Tavern 1757 page states: “The lounge area … is complimented by stone and reclaimed wood from the original building dating back to 1757!” It neglects to say, of course, how all that stone and wood was reclaimed precisely because the original building from 1757 had been demolished in 2011.
Many accuse preservationists of being unreasonably hardened and immovable in their objections to new development and sprawl. But if that’s true, consider how the practice of historic materials reclamation (fundamentally a noble undertaking) is being perverted in the above by those who laid waste to an historic building. Perhaps you’ll better understand why preservationists are so implacable.
This sort of casual, public finessing of the destruction of historic properties, casting it all in favorable light, after the fact, is something that happens just all too often.
Post-Postscript (a little over four years later)
Today, Tavern 1757 is under new ownership. The About Tavern 1757 page I’d cited previously has been reworded, and now is a little softer in its claims of recovered historic materials. It also makes reference to a period map of the area, replicated on a foyer wall, depicting the current location.
I’d also recently stumbled upon this gem of a quote by former owner Tony Mavuli, who’d demolished the original Smith-Tomlinson House in May of 2011, in a Valley Independent Sentinel article about the opening of the new restaurant: “We saved every piece of lumber from the old house. We saved every stone from the old house. A woman, Anna, from the original owners, the Tomlinson family, stopped by the other day. She was visiting from Washington state. She was very pleased.” Priceless.