108 Cross Highway

There are teardowns. And then there are teardowns.

It’s one thing to buy a 1960s split-level on a private road, knock it down, and build a monster McMansion. Your neighbors may (or may not) like it, and the old house probably has little historical or architectural significance.

Then there’s 108 Cross Highway.

As reported by WestportNow.com, a 2-story “vernacular” may soon be demolished.

108 Cross Highway

It’s sad enough that the house is definitely old — dating back to 1805.

It’s sadder that it’s a handsome home, adding pleasure to the streetscape of that much-traveled stretch between North Avenue and Roseville.

But how about this:  according to the Westport Historic District Commission, the “Henry Munroe House” is one of the few dwellings in town “documented as being built by a free black.”

Henry Munroe, a farmer, bought the land from John Burr in 1802. His descendants were members of Green’s Farms Church. One was the housekeeper for Peter Sturges, at nearby 93 Cross Highway.

As America celebrates the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, Westport prepares to obliterate a house that predates that conflict by half a century. And was built by someone who himself was historically significant: a free black Westporter.

Because the home was built more than 50 years ago — waaaay more — the demolition application must come before the Westport Historic District Commission.  That sounds good.

Westport has been a town for over 175 years. Free black man Henry Munroe built his home on Cross Highway 3 decades before the founding of Westport.

However, the commission can prevent a teardown only if it is part of a Local Historic District (there are 4 6: Kings Highway North, Jesup Road, Violet Lane and Gorham Avenue, plus recently added Evergreen Avenue and 20-26 Morningside Drive South ), or a property owner asks for designation as a Local Historic Property (there are over a dozen).

If that is not the case — and, with 108 Cross Highway, it’s not — all the commission can do is impose a 180-day waiting period. That, supposedly, gives time for someone to propose an alternative to demolition.

Right now, Westport does not provide tax breaks or credits in exchange for protective covenants on deeds. (The money saved could theoretically be put toward renovation or restoration of the property — which might even enhance the resale value.)

The demolition application will be heard at a Historic District Commission meeting at Town Hall on Tuesday, December 13 (7 p.m.). A large turnout is expected. Many will argue for the 180-day delay, in hopes that a solution can be found.

For inspiration, just look across the street. For years, 113 Cross Highway was a dump. Despite its history as an 1800s farmhouse and (later) pioneering gas station, it was an eyesore — and in 2006, about to be torn down.

At the last second, Mike and Kim Ronemus stepped in. They bought it, then lovingly renovated it and several outbuildings.  Today it’s a jewel of the neighborhood.

They had to jump through countless bureaucratic hoops. But they persevered — and won an award from the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation.

113 Cross Highway -- a view of the renovations from the back. (Photo/Douglas Healey for the New York Times)

108 Cross Highway is in far better shape today than 113 was a decade ago. It’s also more historically significant. But — to paraphrase Thomas Paine — eternal vigilance is the price of preservation.

The 1st step takes place December 13, at Town Hall. All creative solutions are welcomed.

45 responses to “108 Cross Highway

  1. Many thanks, Dan, for highlighting this pending demolition. You’ve presented the historic facts well, and now the hope is that other Westporters will rally to the cause–either by attending the HDC meeting or writing letters to the Commission (at Town Hall). What is needed is someone who will buy the house for its historic significance and preserve it, as so many other people have done in town

  2. Preservation requires constant vigilance. Thank you Dan, for highlighting this latest threat. Westport has already lost so many of its historic treasures. I still mourn the loss of the elegant house that stood on Long Lots above the expansive lawn leading to Hall Brooke and the old Winslow mansion at the corner of Post Road and Compo Road. But those are just the BIG ones. When you don’t live in town anymore you are truly struck by all the major and minor losses. If I were plunked down on Roseville Road and asked where I was, I wouldn’t be able to say even though I drove that street dozens of times each week for 37 years. Its essential character has been completely changed with only a few exceptions. Although change is part of life and needs to happen, it is important to save the important gems for the sake of future generations. Westport is lucky to have you to remind us all of the essence of this special town. It might be an idea to post copies of this piece around town so that more people become aware of this possible loss.

  3. John McCarthy

    Dan, Thanks for a great piece.
    There are actually 6 local Historic Districts, with the last 2 (Evergreen Avenue and 20/26 Morningside Drive South) recently added. Some pages on the town website only list 4.

    If anyone is serious about preserving their own neighborhood, do what people in these 6 neighborhoods did, start the process to make your neighborhood a local historic district. We did it in the Gorham Avenue Neighborhood.

    The town has already put in place financial benefits/incentive to being in a local historic district, including the ability to have legal accessory apartments. Members of the HDC can go into more detail and help any homeowner start the process.

  4. Not for nothing, but this house is not visually appealing or architectually unique. The interior has likely be changed many times over so little of the original structure probably exists. I’m not sure I would go to the mat for this one. The story behind the house is more important and interesting than the house itself.

    • John McCarthy

      The value of historic preservation goes beyond aesthetics and architecture. The social, economic and political lessons that future generations can take away from preserved buildings is important to keep in mind.

      Fast forward to a Westport classroom in 2097: Yes kids, its true. Westport once had houses less than 15,000 square feet. Can you believe that people once lived like that?

      • The value of history lies in the stories we tell our children about the realities of days past. Safe to say that there are few, if any, parents who have driven their children past this house on Cross Highway to point out its significance. Do we want Westport to be a town that keeps up with the times or a relic of the past?

        • Actually, now that the story is known, parents may tell their kids the story about the house as they drive by. I know I will.

          I would love to see the board of ed modify the annual bus tour for 3rd graders so that it includes more of Westport’s history beyond colonial era buildings. This would be a nice addition to that tour.

          And life isn’t a series of black and white decisions as you suggest. As humans, we have the ability to live in the grey and preserve the past while keeping up with the times.

  5. Anonyomous 176-876

    If the Historic Society wants to preserve it, let them buy it. Free market and all that good cheer.

  6. The Dude Abides

    Why doesn’t the Westport Historic Society (are these people elected??) transfer the house at 108 Cross Highway to the property at 113 Cross Highway, sort of like how they moved the Saugatuck Church. Then we can recreate a tiny Sturbridge Village type model for those idiots who think we can go back in time.

  7. One of you do-gooders should buy it and spend your own money renovating it.

  8. When I read Dan’s article, I figured it would result in some comments supportive of restoration and others supportive of the right to sell and destroy historic buildings. I figured there would be intelligent responses by those seeking a way to maintain some historically significant buildings in town and I figured there would be intelligent comments by others supporting the free market and the right to destroy historical buildings if that is what the owner wants to do.

    What I didn’t expect (but probably should have) was that anyone would make an insensitive statement like The Dude Abides about our house, which really has nothing to do with 108 Cross, which we have poured heart and soul into. But we’re all entitled to our opinions. S0 keep ’em coming. I needed a good laugh anyway.

    Mike Ronemus, one of the idiots at 113 Cross

    • The Dude Abides

      I tell it like I see it, Mr. Ronemus. Qage up your insensitivity quadrant. Why there are decrepit schools in Bridgeport while you put your “heart and soul” and too much money in an old gas station is beyond my comprehension.

      • Dude.

        My insensitive quadrant is pretty well quaged up. Stop by for a fillup and maybe a set of matching glasses when you’re in the neighborhood.


        • The Dude Abides

          I run by there every day. You never wave back.

          • stop in for a drink if my dauchshund doesn’t maul you.

            • Dude: Definitely take Mike up on the offer (the drink, not the dog). He and Kim are AWESOME people!

              • Thanks Dan. The dog’s pretty cool too. And by the way, thanks for the article. I hope that something can be done to preserve the house but as I said, I certainly understand the competing interests that make preservation tough. Having gone through it, believe me, I know there are no easy answers. I’m just a sucker for these old houses with a history and character.

            • The Dude Abides

              Teddy Wakeman and I used to stop by YOUR ole Texaco station in the mid-50’s. It was half way between my house on Hitchcock and his parent’s farm. Used to buy Chicklets which seemed to be forever covered with dust and seemed to typify the entire operation there. You dog does say hello . . . but doesn’t wave.

  9. David J. Loffredo

    The more thoughtful comments are on WestportNow where you have to post your name.

    • Westport.Now is boring. If you think most of the names on it are accurate, you probably aren’t David J. Loffredo either.

  10. maybe i missed it, but how many people were documented as being ‘free black’ back when the house was built?

    westport’s involvement in underground railroad, and subsequently the civil rights movment, is something i find so interesting. i’ve always felt that the people that i think of as ‘the core of westport’ would be willing to be part of that ‘underground railroad’ situation again if it were ever necessary.

  11. Wendy Batteau

    “The mission of TEAM (Together Effectively Achieving Multiculturalism) Westport is to achieve and celebrate a more welcoming, multicultural community.” Since, arguably, the preservation of 108 Cross Hwy bears on this mission, perhaps Team Westport might contribute a statement to the discussion.

    • “Contribute a statement to the discussion”….lest anyone forget, this discussion centers around private property!
      I have been loathe to enter the fray of the teardown v. developers circle jerk. As a realtor in town, this is a lose/lose argument personally, and I thank Professor Woog for my anonymity. On the other hand, as a person with insight into the market and the needs and wants of buyers and sellers, I am fascinated with the hue and cry of those who think that their opinion about a home they pass by on their way to someplace else matters one iota! If an appointed commission could superimpose restrictions on the private property of homeowners (and I mean beyond existing zoning laws), NO property would be safe from a “taking”. Who are we to tell those folks at 108 Cross Highway what they “should” do with a home they loved enough to purchase and live in for a time? They tried to sell their home…AND NO ONE WANTED IT. Antique homes have become increasingly harder to sell – taking much longer to find a buyer and often at a deeply discounted price. I personally visited the Westport Historic Society hoping to garner their assistance marketing another wonderful antique home. I offered to create brochures with NO personal marketing – believing that their clientele would be most interested in my listing. Their response – not unless you pay to be a member/advertiser. See – it IS all about the money.
      I have no idea why the current owners need to sell. Job loss or transfer? Divorce, death or downsizing? Life changes and sometimes hard choices must be made. WE don’t live there, and we don’t pay the bills. WE should practice minding our own business and hope these folks find a buyer who will – like them – live in and love the property. WE have no business minding their business.
      Bless you Mr. Ronemus for having the vision and the means to realize your dreams. I enjoy driving past your restored home on my way to someplace else.
      Mr. Loffredo – the other blog doesn’t have a more intelligent discussion – it’s just full of people who agree with you and want to deprive homeowners of their full property rights.

  12. The Ronemus family once applied for a demolition permit for 113, so why should there be any objection to an application for a demolition permit for 108? Perhaps the owners of 108 are merely going through the proper steps to eventually win an award from the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation.

  13. David,
    Thoughtful comments? Gimme a break. All 33 WN comments support SAVING THE HOUSE, including your commentS. WN is for suckups, not honest ( if anonymous ) opinions that really present two sides of the questions posed by Dan. 06880 is interesting, controversial, and fun to read. WN is the opposite. Even your comment on 06880 had more guts than yours on WN. I enjoy your remarks, but pleeeez, get real about any comparison between the blogs. 🙂

  14. Dan, on a somewhat related topic, what happened with the building at 157 Riverside Ave? Has that been resolved yet?

    • I believe it’s still in the 180-day waiting period, right?

      • Thanks, I am hoping for a chance to take a look at it next time I visit. I can’t believe that I lived there so long and visited so often and never new the significance of that location. I may have seen it driving by but couldn’t identify the building based on the photos you posted. I think in the case of that building I would only support preservation if the band themselves wanted to undertake the cause, it sounds like it really is in bad shape, but I do at least want a good look at before it’s gone.

  15. To answer POP…The Westport Historical Society is the wrong place to go to market historic properties. The Connecticut Trust is the place you need to go. The myth about antiques being hard to sell usually applies only to the brokers who are used to selling new and shiny oversized homes with so many mismatched architectural details that, even Palladio himself might have gone into seizure mode staring at the …well builder specials… As for Mike and Kim Ronemus…they are special people who experienced the joy of saving a piece of Westport History. They combined the character of the original structure and architectural features with all the modern amenities. It simply can’t be done by installing reclaimed barn wood in new, infill construction. With so much inventory on the market, why take a house that has survived so many years and adds to the unique character of Westport.

    • FYI, as their agent I disagree!! There is nothing more exciting than selling an interesting property…with character and charm… If we find a buyer we’ll sell it…

    • I really don’t think it’s a myth that old houses in horrible shape are difficult to sell for more than land value around here.

      And regarding the architecture of builder’s specials, not everyone appreciate Palladio’s values (Sorry, but I myself had to Google him). It’s fine for people to pick something they care about like architecture, but it’s just snobby when they look down on others for not sharing such an appreciation.

      I don’t know you, but I do know some snobs who would probably look down on your clothes, your car, your watch, etc. Please don’t be one of these people.

    • As someone with a son who suffers from a seizure disorder, I find your use of the phrase “seizure mode” highly offensive. If you had ever witnessed somebody having a grand mal seizure, especially someone you love, you would perhaps feel the same. It is not a joking matter, and your reference hearkens back to the days when people with epilepsy were referred to as “spastics.”

  16. Carl Addison Swanson

    The unique character of Westport comes from its people and not the structures that cloud its landscape. Anybody who puts strong emphasis on buildings is either being pretentious or stroking their ego.

  17. There’s no doubt that I would like to see 108 restored, but I’d be the first to admit that I’m not willing the pay for it. I’m more in agreement with the first Anonymous post that a building that has been or will be highly renovated is not really restoration: maybe that’s my bias from autos (in my opinion, you don’t take a classic car, stick in a brand new engine, power seats, XM satellite, etc. and call it a restoration).

    I’d like to see all the people who complain so loudly about tear downs put down some of their own money towards their cause, like Mike and Kim Ronemus did. I would think you’d have a good chance of finding a realtor to work pro bono to sell your house and then purchase this property with the condition that you list it as an LHP (if the current owners will still sell it). It would be great publicity for a realtor.

    I’d also like to know if the tear down complainers would be willing to put a protective covenant on their own home with or without it currently being a historically significant home. After all, aren’t all homes here worthy of being saved from becoming a future McMansion? You might not be able to do this via the Historic District Commission, but I think that if there’s a true will to do this, there would be a way.

    My guess is that the vast majority of the complainers wouldn’t do either of these things. Or course, it’s always easier to tell other people how to spend their money or treat their assets.

    Anyway, I hope someone will rescue 108 Cross. You will have my appreciation. If nobody steps up though, I’ll console myself knowing that the construction of the new house will create jobs and some much needed stimulus to our economy.

    • John McCarthy

      “I’d also like to know if the tear down complainers would be willing to put a protective covenant on their own home with or without it currently being a historically significant home.”

      I did.

      • I really do think it’s great what you and your neighbors did in with Gorham Avenue. I’m curious though if someone can elect to put a protective covenant in the deed of their home without getting a bunch of neighbors together (which is tough) or the having the approval of the Historic District Commission. I really do think that all the tear-down complainers should try to put this into the deeds of their homes: although maybe mortgage companies would not allow them if they have a mortgage.

        I basically get tired of hearing people (and there really aren’t many here in this particular discussion) saying what is essentially: “other people should spend their money on causes that are important to me,” especially when these people aren’t doing everything they can for that cause.

  18. Arthur Champlin, Esq.

    Gee, the tear down complainers versus the renovation huggers. Just another controversy and another day in Westport.

  19. I think it’s negligent of you and westportnow.com not to contact the owners. They have been in close contact with the historic commission and have been open to discussing the possibility of maintaining the 2 front parlors and plan to keep the barn (the only original portion that maintains materials and look of original home). They also have not sold the property…

    • “Negligent?” If every news story needed the permission of the actors, there would be no news. Everything the Professor has written is of public record, regardless. Stop whining.

      • Seriously? The owners are being criticized without any information regarding their situation or intentions. If anyone would like to purchase the house and preserve it or restore it, that us an option…no whining here…just offering the full picture, whoever you are.

        • You must be reading some other article. I find a certain bias in the Professor’s tone on demolition in general but I don’t find any criticism per se of the present owners. Personally, I think property owners should be allowed to do whatever with their property without some approval of an unelected board. But certainly you supposition that there was any malfeasance involved in its reporting and/or the need of property owners to be consulted before any writing is ridiculously naive. And I did go to law school and apparently, whoever you are, you did not.

  20. The HDC hearing concerning 108 Cross Highway was held last night and I feel terrible for the owner, Mr. Lewis, and his family. They have lived in that house for 8 years and now they want a roomier home. They are even willing to sell the property.

    Already, the overstated histories (hint: the CT Freedom Trail is NOT the same as the Underground Railroad) and veiled threats (“you’re going to be under tremendous scrutiny, and there are groups in this state that are going to be upset”) have begun.

    Mr. Lewis was cordial to the HDC and agreed to meet with them for a site visit. I would have told them to that I had no interest in further discussions and that I would wait out the 6 months in peace.

  21. From the book Greens Farms Connecticut, the Old West Parish of Fairfield, pg 59 in the chapter

    “Aunt Lazette Hyde (Lyzette Monroe) lived in her own little house on the back road off the Turnpike, now the home of Michael Bowers. Notwithstanding her pipe, which Mr. Birge remembers her smoking as she sat in his grandmother’s kitchen, telling stories with great gusto with his grandfather and Betsy, Aunt Zette had the dignity and manner of a cultured lady, for she had served in the family of the Norwalk Bissels and the Jesups. Her name indicates that she had come from slaves of the Hyde family.”

    Take a look at the 1820 census (Fairfield , CT pg 243 M33_1: image 178 enumeration date Aug 7, 1820) for Henry Monroe’s son : there is one person listed as free Colored under 14 and 5 listed as slaves.

    1820 United States Federal Census
    about Henry Monroe
    Name: Henry Monroe
    Home in 1820 (City, County, State): Fairfield, Fairfield, Connecticut
    Enumeration Date: August 7, 1820
    Free Colored Persons – Males – Under 14: 1
    Slaves – Males – 14 thru 25: 2
    Slaves – Females – Under 14: 1
    Slaves – Females – 14 thru 25: 2
    Number of Persons – Engaged in Agriculture: 1
    Total Slaves: 5
    Total Free Colored Persons: 1
    Total All Persons – White, Slaves, Colored, Other: 6

  22. Since we are adding to the historical record, here is some information which indicates that the Munroes may have been Indian, not Black. Not that it matters or anything.

    A descendent of the Munroes is disputing the Connecticut Freedom Trail information which is the basis of the recent concern about 108 Cross Highway…


    Mike says:
    This is concering the information you have listed under Munroe. I am a decenent of this Munroe family listed above in the Westport section. In the following information from your web site they were listed as African Americans:
    Lyzette Hyde Munroe, wife of African American
    African American Dorcas Hyde
    In 1802 African American Henry Munroe (d. 1821)

    This is not correct. The term African American did not exist in that time era. The terms used were Colored, Black, Mulatto, Indian. My family has even been listed as Blackish on the census. People keep changing their race description to African American which is historically incorrect and in fact the family are American Indian.

    The articles you published above have even been altered from the originals. This is how history gets changed!

    You really need to find the correct information to publish. Can you please let me know where you got this information so I can get it corrected.

    Thank you for your time and understanding.

    Comment #1 on 07.13.11 at 2:59 pm
    Steve says:

    Every jot and tittle on this page is from the CT Freedom Trail website. I appreciate your frustration and support your quest to set history right. Good luck in contacting them.
    Comment #2 on 07.13.11 at 4:45 pm