Milford Faces Yet Another Historic Teardown

Yet another historic Milford, Connecticut home is now officially under threat. This time, it’s the former summer residence of Gen. Joseph R. Hawley. This Borough of Woodmont home was purchased on the 23rd of August, 2013, by Milford resident Doreen Watmough. On September 25th, Ms. Watmough filed for a demolition permit, citing the home as being in “irreparable condition”.

Gen. Joseph R. Hawley was an abolitionist newspaper editor who served as a Brigadier General in the American Civil War. Following the war, he became Governor of Connecticut, and then later served as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. Finally, he served for twenty years in the U.S. Senate. He was also responsible for building the Hartford Courant into a major newspaper.

Image of General Joseph R. Hawley .

General Joseph R. Hawley (Image Source:

There’s little doubt local investors are now emboldened by the ongoing Sanford-Bristol House situation, in which an historic home with significant legal protections was declared “appropriate for demolition” by Milford’s Historic District One Commission, after new owners William and Gwendolyn Farrell easily convinced them that the home was “beyond saving”.

[ I say "easily" because the due diligence applied by the Milford HDC in reaching their conclusion was, in my opinion, sadly inadequate; in fact, the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation's recent article "Local Historic Districts: Protecting Neighborhood Character" (Connecticut Preservation News, September/October 2013), cites the Sanford-Bristol House situation as a specific example of the need for much tighter decision-making criteria by HDCs, in general. ]

Mr. Farrell, who’s First Vice President of the Milford Historical Society (try figuring that one out), a candidate for a seat on Milford’s District Five Planning and Zoning Board, and teaches real estate investment classes in his spare time, publicly claimed he’d had no idea of the home’s condition before he purchased it. Yet, at the first pubic hearing on his demolition request, he’d readily presented his architect’s plans for a new, replacement home that would be reminiscent of the original, and these plans were subsequently found acceptable by the HDC.

Image of Gen. Joseph R. Hawley Summer Residence, Milford, CT.

Gen. Joseph R. Hawley Summer Residence, Milford, CT (left of photo). (Image Source:

Unfortunately, the Gen. Joseph R. Hawley residence has no legal protections beyond the ninety-day demolition delay ordinance, which has been enacted by Milford City Historian Richard Platt. So the only hope for this home’s survival is for its new owner, Ms. Watmough, to have a change of heart, perhaps after Woodmont residents have had a chance to voice their opinions on her proposed demolition.

For a town so rich in history, Milford is rapidly losing its vintage housing stock — as are many other Connecticut towns — at the hands of real estate speculators, local politicians, and their various appointees, who seem largely indifferent to the value of their city’s built heritage. Both the current Mayor of Milford, Ben Blake, and his challenger, Peter Spalthoff, have been oddly silent on these tear downs. Neither has yet expressed any substantive position on the future of historic preservation in Milford, Connecticut.

Postscript [ December 5th, 2013 ]

Ms. Watmough applied for a demolition permit for the Hawley House on September 25th, 2013, against which Milford City Historian Richard Platt subsequently invoked a ninety day demolition delay. Ms. Watmough stated she’d sell the home to any buyer willing to pay what she’d paid for it. So far, no such buyer has materialized (although the home doesn’t appear to have been actively marketed, either). If no purchaser is found, the Hawley House most likely will be demolished sometime after December 25th, 2013.

Post-Postscript [ March 5th, 2015 ]

The Hawley House was eventually torn down in late 2014, by Milford builder Greg Field.

#ThisPlaceMatters #HistoricBuildings #Preservation #MilfordCT #CTHistory

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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7 Responses to Milford Faces Yet Another Historic Teardown

  1. John, I simply do not know what to say anymore to what is going on in Milford? I do thank you for what you are doing and hope the state comes to there senses soon. If this was the U.K. none of this could occur. We need much better legal classification and preservation of our heritage architecture in this country…

    • John Poole says:

      Hi Jay,

      The situation in Milford is truly disturbing. Basically, indifferent, pro-tax-base politicians and elected officials and their appointed minions are handing the town over to developers. But unfortunately, a good many other Connecticut towns have officials behaving in similar fashion.

      At least Milford has Richard Platt (City Historian) and the Milford Preservation Trust, who are working hard to retain as much as possible of their built heritage. But their historic housing stock is rapidly dwindling, and being replaced with new development.

      I agree with all your points regarding the need for stronger legal protections. Connecticut has some of the strongest legal protections in New England, and yet houses here are disappearing at an alarming rate. Something’s not quite working right.


  2. Bill Smith says:

    Sheesh John! Wanna split a truck load of heartburn medicine?

    I wish I could understand the need to destroy something when reasonable alternatives exist. Milford shows the downside of relying on local committees. Often they work well but when you have a group that isn’t fully committed, knowledgeable or of sufficient spinal fortitude things go awry.

    My opinion is that decisions to demolish should be subject to extensive outside review. More so than decisions to preserve. Demolition tends to be pretty final and not something you can effectively rethink at a later time.

    I wish more people in your area appreciated the efforts you and others are putting forth for the sake of their descendants. You’re doing the right thing, John. Keep going, I’m sure you’ll see some success.

    • John Poole says:

      Hi Bill,

      Yes, half a truckload of heartburn medicine would do quite nicely! :-)

      Your points are totally spot-on, and I agree: Local commissions often work well, but when they’re comprised of official appointees who (mostly) know nothing, and care little, then forget it. They can fail their intended purpose miserably.

      Of course, in the case of this particular house, no commission, nor relevant preservation laws, apply. A big question is what to do about these unprotected houses. And yet, on the other hand, the Sanford-Bristol House was protected, and look how that’s turning out.

      You should read the CT Trust’s newsletter article, which I’d referenced above. It speaks to your point about the need for stronger guidelines in making tough decisions when it comes to demolition, albeit not in terms of binding legality. Demolition is the ultimate “irreversible renovation”, and as such, should not be decided upon lightly.

      And thanks for all your good words of support, Bill. I really appreciate them. But those sentiments go a thousand-fold to Richard Platt and the Milford Preservation Trust, who are far more deserving of them than I could ever hope to be!

      ~ John

  3. Hi John, agreeing with you…sell the house to someone who is interested in the historic renovation. Very sad to see homes like this demo-ed.

    • John Poole says:

      Thanks, Sandy!

      It’s so much easier to NOT destroy something, and just move on. But people ultimately want specific locations to new construction, and many don’t share this viewpoint, unfortunately.


  4. John Poole says:

    Thanks, Alexandra.

    What frustrates me the most is that these folks could just as easily leave these homes alone, allowing an opportunity for someone interested in preserving and re-using them to do so. These threats almost invariably come from recent buyers who have purchased these homes for their locations only, and otherwise are unconcerned about the significance of their history or architecture.

    And they always bring a story to the table. Here, the new owner claims she needs a smaller, retirement home. Well, fine. Go buy a modest retirement home in some nice location, and avoid the negative environmental and cultural impacts of demolition and new construction, as well as the controversy. Leave these vintage homes to restoration-minded buyers, who are in far greater abundance than one might suppose.

    ~ John

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