It’s been just about seven weeks since I’d published Imminent Historic Teardown, an account of an historic home in Stratford, Connecticut, nearing its demolition by commercial developers. On October 26, 2012, demolition and waste removal began, with only about a quarter of the house remaining the next day:
Surprisingly (or perhaps not so surprisingly), this partial structure survived Hurricane Sandy, only to finally fall to a backhoe on the afternoon of All Hallow’s Eve:
What follows is an account of some of the more noteworthy happenings during the month leading up to the demolition, and some thoughts about what this event means to those of us determined to conserve historic structures.
The impending destruction of the house raised the ire of many. Both current and former Stratford residents familiar with the home shared their opinions about its forthcoming tear down in a forum on Stratford Patch, while locals and non-residents alike also posted comments on Imminent Historic Teardown.
Most objected strongly to the tear down. But one or two suggested that all the emotional energy, while understandable, was happening too late to be of any real use. And quite frankly, they were right about that. However, there are specific reasons why concerned folks often don’t learn of these things until it’s too late, and later in this article, I’ll discuss this point further.
Last Minute Salvage Attempts
My timber framing colleagues Jay C. White Cloud and Donald Polaski, having been alerted to the plight of the home, made a good many attempts to locate potential buyers who might be interested in the house frame. This was a long shot, as it was doubtful that house and frame could’ve been disassembled and removed from the site within the time lines required by the project schedule.
Nonetheless, an interested party was indeed found, and Don came down from Vermont to inspect the house. But he finally concluded that too many of the central timbers had been scarred by fire to be of interest to his buyer, who was looking for an aesthetically pristine frame.
I also offered to recover all the old, wooden window sashes. Although not all were necessarily original to the home, they were, nonetheless, still historic. But I was told the Connecticut DEEP required them to be disposed of as hazardous waste, given the high concentrations of lead found in their coatings. So rescuing the old windows didn’t seem to be in the cards:
Beyond that, there were no plans, nor any interest, on the part of the general contractor, nor the demo company, to recycle any of the old timbers, floor planks, or sheathing. This really was a shame, as not only does a good market exist for this old growth wood, but reclaiming it would’ve enabled this rare building material to be re-purposed elsewhere.
Historic Home Survey
Much to his credit, general contractor Brian Hulse, who seemed sincerely regretful about the impending loss of the home, allowed me considerable access to it, so a record of the place could at least be captured. I took many photographs and measurements, and uncovered a number of material facts about the Oronoque saltbox that revealed it’s architectural historic worth to have been considerable.
You might recall how, in Imminent Historic Teardown, I criticized Stratford’s Planning and Zoning Office, not only for approving a plan that called for the destruction of this home, but for their cursory decision that it held “little of historic value” — a conclusion apparently supported by nothing more than a claim, made by non-experts during a public hearing, that the home’s historic fabric some how had been eradicated, decades earlier, by a house fire.
But I found, quite to the contrary, that the house possessed a number of historically significant features that spoke greatly to the evolution of colonial architecture and timber frame construction in our particular region of Connecticut. So much for “little of historic value”. The final report, photos, and other artifacts from my historic home survey of the Oronoque saltbox are all posted here.
Why Did We Lose This House?
A natural question to ask, of course, is: if the Oronoque saltbox had demonstrable historic value, and could readily garner the support of many local residents, how could it have been destroyed so easily? In my opinion, this was an example of what your typical bureaucrat might call a process failure: there’s no one, single person or group to blame, yet plenty of blame (or perhaps accountability) to go around:
1) Officials of any municipality need to be conscientious stewards and protectors of their built heritage. While no one expects them to save every threatened historic building, most of us expect them to use all reasonable means available to prevent their demolition when demolition isn’t strictly warranted. This includes making informed decisions by consulting the right experts (no, that doesn’t mean development company engineers), and vigorously publicizing the plight of a threatened property, so others in a better position to do so might have a chance to step in and take action. In my opinion, Stratford’s Planning and Zoning Office didn’t quite live up to this expectation.
[ And please don't remind me how all these decisions and approvals are matters of "public notice", and how this particular project was approved over a year ago. Yes, you're right -- on both counts. But the public notices posted on boards at your town hall, or buried in the pages of local newspapers, don't quite say things like "Oh, and by the way, the structure in question at lot number such-and-such is that well known Prairie-style bungalow designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and once used by FDR as a summer vacation home." No public notice is going to include that sort of information, in large part because it's usually in the best interests of those posting such notices not to reveal these kinds of details when the law doesn't require it. ]
2) Another big slice of accountability goes to me, and many like me, who claim to be advocates of their regional, built heritage, but don’t quite have their act together when it comes to discovering situations like this early on, and initiating any legal remedies that might happen to be available. These kinds of knockdowns almost invariably take preservationists by surprise, and often far too late in the process.
Local preservation communities, which presumably already have detailed knowledge of historically significant buildings in their areas, need to be more proactive in monitoring the proposals and applications being considered by their local P&Z commissions, as well as the permit applications filed with their local building departments.
3) I don’t blame Brian Hulse and his crew for any of this. Although I can’t reconcile myself to what they’re doing, they’re not the property owners; rather, just a team of construction professionals trying to earn a living in a very stagnant industry.
4) I know nothing about Arista Stratford, LLC, who’s listed as the most recent purchaser of the property at 7296 Main Street in Stratford. I suspect they’re a funding corporation of some kind, or maybe an agent for the actual purchaser. Technically, the demolition of the home is their responsibility, or that of their assign(s). But frankly, parties like these are simply too far downstream in the process to even fuss about. Presumably, they’ve purchased the property free and clear of encumbrances or restrictions, and with all necessary plans and approvals in place. And there’s no reason to expect them to care about the historic or cultural status of any existing structures on their land.
5) The previous owners of the Oronoque saltbox did the home a real disservice by allowing it to become so run down, neglected, and completely filled with trash, that it would’ve had little chance of attracting any serious buyers with longer-term intentions for the home. In my opinion, none of the damage I’d encountered in this house was so severe that it necessitated its demolition. But seeing a grossly neglected place often invokes a negative, psychological reaction in many that makes it all too easy to conclude it ought to be torn down, even if the building is still structurally sound.
And whether or not the past fire damage ultimately left the place structurally unsound and unsuitable for any form of re-sale, re-purposing, or transporting elsewhere, I can’t competently say. Rather, a licensed, professional engineer, with a solid background in timber framed structures, would be required to determine that. But I seriously doubt anyone like that was ever called in to look at this home, because it was already a foregone conclusion that the place no longer served any purpose, and it would be far more convenient and cost-effective just to knock it down.
How Do We Avoid Surprise Teardowns?
As I’d stated previously, town officials (in general) need to be good stewards of their built heritage. Many are, and some need to do better. But either way, local preservationists should never trust them in this role. I’m not suggesting they’re not trustworthy; rather, that it simply makes good sense for any local preservation community to actively monitor all decisions being considered by public officials that potentially impact historic properties.
Furthermore, it’s necessary to stay on top of these things in real time. We’ve already blown it when a plan is approved that we knew nothing about, or when we first realize a property is threatened because it’s just been cordoned off with fencing. The best way to protect threatened properties is through early awareness of the threats, knowledge of all legal remedies offered by local, state, or federal laws, and a willingness to intercede and directly participate in the process itself.
Finally, public awareness and support is paramount to these efforts. I’ve observed that many (if not most) individuals tend to look unfavorably upon the destruction of a cherished landmark. Local residents should be kept informed, and engaged as early as possible when historic properties are threatened, and provided with a means for expressing their displeasure. One thing the Oronoque situation demonstrated is the efficacy of using social media (primarily a local news forum and blog, but Twitter, Facebook, and Google Plus had also played roles in this) to acquire, accumulate, and make known to others, the opinions of supportive individuals.
In some future article, I’ll elaborate further on my above points, and attempt to draft a more definite, actionable framework that might better help local preservationists accomplish (or least begin working towards) these goals, especially for properties outside the protections of local historic districts, communities, or commissions, as both the Oronoque saltbox and the Smith-Tomlinson house had been.