Once again, one of New England’s early saltbox homes is facing an imminent teardown in the name of commercialism and historically insensitive development. This time, it’s happening in my own home town of Stratford, Connecticut.
Stratford is a very old, coastal town, originally established in 1639 by a band of settlers from Wethersfield, Connecticut, under the leadership of Reverend Adam Blakeman. Stratford has a large collection of interesting and well preserved historic homes, including the well known Perry and Judson houses, and the Boothe Homestead. So, it’s actually quite surprising to me that an early saltbox in our town would be treated with this kind of disregard.
The home itself is located at 7296 Main Street, in the Oronoque section of Stratford, and adjacent to the Oronoque Shopping Plaza. Architecturally, it appears probably to have been built around 1720-1740. And even though I’ve always been visually familiar with this house, I regret to say I know nothing of its origins, history, or early family associations. The home is not listed on the National Register, and a scan of the WPA Architectural Survey of Stratford buildings revealed nothing. And the home is not located in any recognized historic district or community, which at least would’ve afforded it some degree of protection.
According to an article by Stratford Patch, a purchase of both the historic home, as well as an adjoining property, with an old gas station, was completed the first week of September, 2012, for $1.1 million. General contractor Brian Hulse was quoted as saying that he wants to demolish both structures as soon as possible, but is waiting on a permit. The same article also quotes Hulse as stating that “a Mobil and convenience store that features a Dunkin’ Donuts drive-thru” will replace the previous buildings (however, the owner of an existing Dunkin’ Donuts nearby told me he knew nothing of any plans for a new Dunkin’ Donuts in the area).
I also spoke with Gary Lorentson of Stratford’s Planning and Zoning Office, and asked why his commission approved the application, apparently without any consideration of saving the historic building on the premises. He told me that this issue had been raised at a public meeting well over a year ago (the application was approved in August of 2011), and justification for not saving the home was based on the fact that fire had once damaged much of the interior, leaving little of historic import behind, and probably making the place difficult to save. However, several locals told me that, despite this fire damage, the house was subsequently repaired, and continued to be occupied for many years afterwards.
[ I should also point out that loss of interior fabric, even if extensive, doesn't necessarily detract from a building's value as an historic artifact. The interiors of most historic homes are seldom completely original. Very often, an old home's frame and sheathing are usually all that can be considered original. Everything else is often a mixed bag. In this case, despite the fire, the timber frame still stands, as does the exterior shell, and the historic windows and exterior trim seem to largely remain. So this home has hardly been rendered insignificant as an historic structure by the fire. This particular conclusion by the town, in my opinion, was cursory, and not consistent with preservation standards and practices.]
Just this past Sunday morning, I noticed fencing enclosing both properties for the first time, and also that surrounding trees had been felled. So the teardown must be drawing near. This afternoon, I took all the photos you see here.
Some readers may recall how, well over a year ago, I reported a similar teardown in A Sad Goodbye To The Smith-Tomlinson House (c. 1757), which occurred in Seymour, Connecticut. The travesty of this teardown was that owner Tony Mavuli, despite numerous public proclamations that he would be preserving the home, swiftly took the house down one weekend in early May. Many local residents were outraged, and few held back their consternation.
Like the Oronoque saltbox, the Smith-Tomlinson home was also an obvious and well-known visual landmark, overlooking a well traveled public road. Mavuli, who had intended to incorporate the old house into a new restaurant he was building, claimed that he decided to demolish it when two structural engineers determined the old home couldn’t be made to conform to modern building codes for a publicly accessible commercial building, to which I say “well, no kidding”.
My point here is that it’s all too easy to find a “highly compelling” reason to quickly demolish an old historic structure, rather than taking appropriate steps to preserve it, whether that consists of rehabilitation and re-purposing, moving it elsewhere, selling or assigning it on condition of move, or even approaching a non-profit dedicated to acquiring and preserving old homes for guidance or potential interest.
All too often, the true compelling reason is convenience, combined with maximizing return on investment, combined further with indifference towards, or ignorance of, what it means to preserve one’s local cultural heritage (for example, Mr. Mavuli had told me, in a personal conversation following the teardown, that he actually was preserving the Smith-Tomlinson home, because he would be incorporating some of its structural timbers into the interior decor of his new dining room).
Soon, the Oronoque saltbox, like the Smith-Tomlinson home before it, will become dumpster fodder at the hands of a backhoe operator, and future generations will forever be deprived the privilege of seeing it. Gone in a heartbeat, and in exchange for yet one more culturally stunted and impermanent gas station/convenience store/drive-though coffee shop (as if we didn’t have enough of those along Main Street and River Road). I only hope that, in some small, but meaningful way, my collection of photos here serves as a worthy record of the very last days of a grand old home, now consigned to the ages.
The earlier culture will become a heap of rubble and finally a heap of ashes, but spirits will hover over the ashes -Wittgenstein
1) The Oronoque saltbox was finally demolished throughout 26-31 October, 2012. Since penning this article, I’d subsequently published a follow-on posting, Oronoque Saltbox Requiem, that attempts to provide some insight into why these tear downs occur, and what might be done, going forward, to possibly reduce their occurrences.
2) Along with the comments posted here, a significant amount of additional commentary on this topic may be found on Stratford Patch.