A Sad Good Bye To The Smith-Tomlinson House (c. 1757)

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.

Site of the Ephraim Smith home. Most of the house now sits in the blue dumpsters to the right.

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 pile of ancient timbers that, but a few days before, formed the house frame.

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.

Scribe marks at the end of a brace. You don’t see things like this in modern home building, that’s for sure.

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.

Kitchen fireplace and beehive oven. How ironic, the wooden key hanging over what had been the kitchen fireplace. There is also a tulip from where a stove pipe had been let in.

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 former Ephraim Smith house (photo by the Valley Independent Sentinel and used with permission)

Additional Information

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.

The Derby Historical Society published this article on the destruction of the house: Historic Seymour House is Lost.

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)

[Added 9/27/2012]

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)

[Added 7/10/2015]

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.

About John Poole

My interests include historic homes, architectural preservation and restoration, improving the energy performance of old houses, and traditional timber frames.
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18 Responses to A Sad Good Bye To The Smith-Tomlinson House (c. 1757)

  1. Lys says:

    I was so shocked when I drove by–I loved that house, and the prior owner’s planted flag. I thought they were about to replace the windows! Argh.

    • John Poole says:

      Thanks, Lys. As did I. I didn’t like the fact that the windows were gone, but I thought, well, the old windows might not be well suited for commercial use. But my jaw hit the ground when I saw the destruction.

  2. Amy Good says:

    I find it difficult and sad when this happens. Timber frames can stand the test of time and I would have sooner seen the structure repurposed, as well or at least honored in some way. I bet it was heartbreaking, John.

    • John Poole says:

      Absolutely Amy. And ditto on the longevity of timber frames. Hopefully, the timbers will be reused. Even though I had no direct connection to this place (other than seeing it most days and knowing something of its history), it really hurts to see it destroyed. Thanks for commenting.

  3. Ginny Powell says:

    How difficult would it have been for the current owner to put an ad in the local paper offering, for 1 day only, the opportunity to remove/dismantle unique features of the home? Be it lighting, cabinetry, doors, or hardware. Habitat with Humanity offers that service for free. It may not have saved the home (which should have been saved) but at least parts of it would live on. Shame on the owner.

    • John Poole says:

      Hi Ginny. Actually, the owner claims he’s going to salvage and re-use most of the original timbers for decorative elements in the new structure he’s building. But quite frankly, the house never should’ve been destroyed in the first place. In my opinion, this home was destroyed because the owner found that it couldn’t be approved for use as a modern, commercial structure (big surprise there, huh?), and destruction was just more cost-effective than attempting to save it.

  4. Wow. I thought the old homes in New England were better protected than that. What a terrible loss, especially for someone like you who has some personal history wrapped up with the house, too, John.

    • John Poole says:

      Very good points, Allison. Usually, they are. Unfortunately, none of the previous owners had taken any steps to place any sort of preservation covenants or restrictions on the home in the past. The town of Seymour also lacks an official Town Historian, someone who, at least in my area, has to OK the demo of an historic property before the local building department can issue a permit for demolition. So there was an unfortunate “perfect storm” of omissions that finally lead to this happening.

  5. Paul Hamtil says:

    John, I live nowhere near you but still feel terrible for the destruction of this home. Maybe due to realizing the history, or the construction methods and materials of an era bygone. Maybe it’s just the loss of hope that others should also recognize the value of an old historical building. Unfortunately, economics and convenience predominantly drive this American world. It makes your job even more critical as a preservationist!

    • John Poole says:

      Paul, thanks for all the kind words. Yes, I do indeed suffer from a certain sense of resignation that so many people just don’t see the value of these old buildings. They are treated as curiosities by many, as places nice to visit, but not to be taken seriously these days as actual homes. Much of what I attempt to do in my writings, and also by my concrete actions, leading by example, is to try, in some small way, at least, to nudge folks away from that commonly held perspective. Thanks for commenting…always encouraging to hear good words from like-minded folks!

  6. Dave Loda says:

    First the Buckingham House around the corner, now the Tomlinson House…… just another example of how financial ignorance trumps legacy. What these owners don’t seem to understand is that with some creativity one can make money and build businesses with legacy resources. Knocking down a significant piece of history because it is convenient to build a modern nondescript building is both short sighted and deprives everyone of an important piece of their ancestry. Unfortunately, many decisions are made solely on financial considerations, which drives ignorant behavior like this regardless of a structure’s historical significance – just look at Yankee Stadium. The Babe is rolling over in his grave for sure, as are now the Tomlinsons.

    • John Poole says:

      Dave, you couldn’t have made a truer statement. Especially when thought of in the context of legacy. The unfortunate, irreversible, future legacy of the current owner is that he has deprived forthcoming generations of local residents of a key item of their cultural heritage, whereas he could’ve been the guy to preserve it. It seems to me there were so many other (commercially-viable, as you point out) options. For example, the house could’ve been maintained as a museum directly adjacent to (if not a part of) the new main building. It could’ve been leveraged as something to attract people to the new site. Maybe even used as a venue for event photos (wedding party, etc.). Just a little foresight could’ve preserved the home and also could’ve enhanced the commerical aspects of the new business. So much of our local heritage here is quickly disappearing, in part because of this lack of vision.

  7. Lys says:

    Is there a precedent of building owners intentionally leaving windows open to create water damage that would lead to agreement on demolishing of a property?

    • John Poole says:

      Hi Lys. Yes, sometimes, when a building department refuses to issue a demolition permit for a protected building, the owners will deliberately neglect the building so as to hasten its deterioration, until it reaches a point where it is no longer safe to occupy, and has to be torn down. But I don’t believe that was the case here, even though the windows were apparently removed for a long time. As far as I know, the town of Seymour never refused to issue any demolition permit on the basis of the Ephraim Smith house being an historic or protected structure (in fact, there were no protections or restrictions in place on this building). Frankly, I think the windows were most likely sold to a salvage yard, the owner fully intending to demo the house, and re-couping costs wherever he could.

  8. Shameful indeed, John! It goes to show that not all of our priorities are the same. This country would be a very different place, physically, if only we protected more of our buildings the way many of us would like. When I lived in Tampa, the number of cigar factories that could have been wonderful mixed-use buildings, lofts, boutique hotels, were all flattened! Their replacements were far less interesting.

    • John Poole says:

      Architect Dude, you are spot-on! One of the biggest problems I have with all this is the gradual loss, not only of fine buildings, but of the vernacular architecture associated with a particular location. Here in New England, it’s these old saltboxes and colonial homes. In Florida, as you mentioned, those old cigar factories, as well as countless examples of the “Cracker Style” that was peculiar to old Florida. By contrast, why is Savannah so beautiful? Because it’s classic vernacular architecture has been largely preserved. When ever these older structures are destroyed, what replaces them nowadays is often totally inconsistent with the vernacular architecture. So not only are buildings being destroyed, but the sense of place, as well.

      • Lys says:

        Just an aside–an example of “doing it right” is Quaker Hill just up 188 from Rt. 34.

  9. John Poole says:

    Hello Alexandra. Yes, legacy is a very important thing, isn’t it? The idea of it motivates me continuously in my own preservation work. One should always think carefully about what sort of legacies one will eventually leave behind. There was no respect for history here. Nor for an old house that survived 254 years, just fine, until some one decided it that it needed to be converted into a modern restaurant, and then finally destroyed when they found it couldn’t. A real affront to all those past generations that had enjoyed and been well served by the Smith house.