The Gunn House

Get ready for the next Westport battle: What to do with the Gunn House.

Named after longtime owner Ben Gunn — who for many years housed his law firm there — the Queen Anne building has sat handsomely on the corner of Church Lane and Elm Street for 120 years.

When Bedford Square Associates began planning their new development — replacing the Westport Y and adjacent buildings — many Westporters worried that the Gunn House would be demolished.

BSA offered the structure to anyone, for just $1. There were no takers.

Gunn House -- 35 Church Lane -- was built in 1893.

Gunn House — 35 Church Lane — was built in 1893.

Now the developer has offered to move it across Elm Street, to the Baldwin parking lot. BSA will spend $150,000, in relocation fees and a new foundation. The Historic District Commission has approved the plan.

Beyond that, ideas for the structure — including who would use it, and maintain it — are unclear.

This may be the next downtown “controversy.” It’s sure to generate debate — from preservationists worried about what will become of the building; merchants and shoppers concerned about losing spaces in the parking lot; anti-BSA folks certain there’s an ulterior motive somewhere, and others with points of view we had not yet heard from and/or figured out.

That’s Westport. Arguing about old buildings and new construction is what we do best.

But it’s worth noting that this marks an important milestone: A developer has heard pleas for preservation, and heeded them.

With its own money.

The last time that happened was …

An artist's rendering of proposed new construction on the corner of Church Lane and Elm Street -- the current site of the Gunn House.

An artist’s rendering of proposed new construction on the corner of Church Lane and Elm Street — the current site of the Gunn House.

58 responses to “The Gunn House

  1. I thought the RTM voted to ban Guns 🙂

  2. Hysterical Society

    The last time that happened was with the Abel Bradley house on Sturges Highway. The developer wanted to tear it down to build a McMansion. After a lot of commotion about the historical significance of the property, he agreed to integrate the tinny Bradley house into the McMansion. The end result is a hideous looking house.

    BTW, a different developer offered $10,000 to move the house.

  3. Sank T. Monious

    It would look GREAT at the new Y at Mahackeno!!!!!

  4. Could it be a B&B? Or are the operating costs prohibitive?

  5. How about a used bookstore? down in C there’s a lovely one with seating and a well-versed owner. and perhaps a little cafe? The porch would be lovely in summer.

  6. That’s NC, not C

  7. This may be the time to deck the Baledwin lot. Recent floods mean that the lower areas need to be raised a few feet and an upper deck with the Gunn house as an anchor could be very attractive.
    Note: In the past I have opposed the decking of Baldwin. but I think the time has come. Right now it’s an ugly parking lot. It could be made attractive with some real planning.

  8. Matthew Mandell

    OK OK, let’s look at this thoughtfully.
    1. This preserves a house built in 1885.
    2. It will be located across the street, so it will continue to add to the character of the downtown.
    3. The new project will have more than enough parking, according to the regs, to cover the loss of 13 spots. This should in no way be a reason to build a parking garage in downtown and urbanize our community.
    4. It sets up a model whereby developers understand the need to preserve and to listen to the community. Both in saving this house and how these developers modified their plans visually to meet concerns.
    5. The town can then renovate and create incubator retail locations to bring in mom and pops to counter the mall that has become our downtown. How this can be done has not be solidfied, but offering an RFP to outside developers, of which David Waldman, would be one of them, would make a fair and open process.

    Would I rather not have it moved and stay where it is, yes, but the law allows its destruction, though it is on the national register. This is a good compromise and again sets a tone moving forward for the protection of the character of our town.

  9. Sank T. Monious

    Matthew, this is not meant as argumentative.Why does adding a second layer to PHP urbanize anything any more than it is already? What other options are there? Underground parking? Could the external design of the second layer be made in an aesthetically acceptable way. I was always impressed with the way CL&P disguised its power substations as colonial buildings. Yes it costs more but I think aesthetics in a beautiful town like Westport is what everybody’s trying to save.

  10. No one wants the house. If they did, they would buy it. Unless someone comes up with a bid the house is worth nothing. Spending tax dollars on a worthless house is almost as silly as spending $10,000,000 on a dog toilet.

  11. Why is it always the anonymous poster that has the most vitoral tongue and has to,cowardly, hide behind “anonymous”. Go do something better with your time….maybe a find a more productive hobby other than wasting space on Dan’s blog! Oh…and try to enjoy the rest of your day.

    • I, for one, am not anonymous and would have gladly expressed similar sentiments. But “Anonymous” beat me to the punch. Either way, care to address the substance Jamie?

    • @Jamie Why do people always make a comment about people that post Anonymous? Look at it from the other direction. If he posted with a name, how do we know that’s his real name? So does it really matter if someone posts anonymous? It’s a losing battle that simply wastes time on this blog, as I am doing here…

  12. If i understand the offer correctly, the house will cost the town nothing. Based on the proposal by BSA, the town would get the the 1885 Queen Anne house moved and placed on a new foundation, all paid for by BSA. The town can then put out an RFP to developers to lease the land and renovate the house. They can then dictate in the RFP what the ultimate use for the house will be, what type of tenants can occupy it (mom and pop instead of national) and more. In the end, the town gets a land lease payment from a developer and an additional 7000 s/f of space added to the tax role. Seems like Anonymous and Mr. Boten are wrong and in the end, the town is the winner, and a piece of history is saved.

    • What exactly am I wrong about?

      • You are not wrong. If the house were worth anything, it would be on the tax roles now. Where will the house be placed? On whose land? The value of the house is revealed in the marketplace. No one has presented any evidence that the house will ever be added to the tax roles, or that there will be no taxpayer funding of the effort to “save” the house. If private individuals want to place the house on their land and add it to the tax roles, they have not stepped up to do so. Jamie will never address the substance of the post.

        • You my anonymous friend are clearly not very intelligent nor have you taken the time to read the numerous posts on this and the previous articles Dan ran about this project. I don’t live in Westport but i have following this project for years. From what I have heard, read and seen, the house is structurally sound, historically unique and of substantial size, almost 7,000 s/f . The offer from BSA was to gift the house and the cost to move it onto town land so the town could then create and RFP to find a developer to develop the home, per the terms set up by the town in the RFP. Clearly this was a smart move by BSA. It allows them to move forward with there plans and at the same time try and assist in the preservation of this house. The ultimate fate now lies with the town and HDC to follow thru on the proposal. Once that process is completed, the developer would begin to pay taxes on the structure as well as a land lease payment to use the town land it sits on. If my calculations are correct, downtown properties pay almost $8 per foot in taxes. So this 7,000 s/f could generate over $56,000 in taxes (on top of whatever the land lease payments are to the town). The house is currently on the tax roll and has been a occupied office building for the last 40 years, contributing to the grand list all that time. The YMCA has NOT been on the tax roll EVER and if BSA is able to build the plans Dan posted the BSA development could add an additional $800,000 in taxes to the town coffers, not to mention all the jobs, diverse shopping, dinning, living spaces. It always amazes me when bloggers spew information which is clearly incorrect and written solely to justify there out of date and tired opinions.

          Get with the times people. Your town is finally coming to life. This project will clearly be a huge benefit to the town and its neighbors.

          • If the house is so valuable, why has no one stepped forward to buy it? If the house is so valuable why was it a tear down? If the house is moved to town land, then the taxpayer is paying for its relocation. Your argument is incoherent.

            • How is the taxpayer paying for the relocation. Clearly you had trouble following so i will dumb it down for you….

              1) BSA pays to move house and place it on a new foundation
              2) BSA gifts house and new foundation to town
              3) Town creates an RFP and find a developer to land lease the property, renovate it and bring it back to life
              4) Developer pays town the land lease and building is taxed like every other property in town

              As for the beginning of your comments, moving the house any further then across the street is not economically feasible and that is why no one came out of the woodwork to buy it.

  13. That tax dollars would be spent. On the contrary, it would create tax revenue and land lease revenue while preserving the old home.

  14. Hysterical Society

    The reality of these old structures (without land) in Westport is that nobody wants them. The developers are always offering them for a dollar and there are never any takers. The town should not be in the business of providing land for these unwanted buildings.

  15. Thank you Karen. You beat me to the punch. Frank…frankly I am with Karen on this one and you can be with that anonymous guy/gal. Said all I am going to say. David Waldman has presented a nice offer and trade off . Do any of you naysayers live downtown? Just curious? So many comes to the peanut gallery late in the game! Next time you should standup and voice your opinion publicly. You still have a chance! Good night.

    • Oh, SORRY that I did not say anything publicly. So I guess that means I have no right to voice my opinion after the fact on Dan’s blog? Give me a break.

      Anyway, I really do not have much of an issue with the house. I just don’t appreciate being labeled and having assumptions thrown around. If there is a taker, then let them take the house. Great. If not, tear it down. The town has no right spending our taxes on moving, maintaining, restoring, etc., etc. an old building.

      • the town is not spending anything. It is getting something which will add to its revenue base and tax, not to mention saving a house which would otherwise be torn down.

        • Nathan Detroit

          A 7000 sf, 100 year old fixer upper does not come without serious financial strings attached. While the BSA offer is gracious, there is no doubt the town will incur significant expenses long before the 1st property tax dollar is received. Unless their going to make it the new clubhouse at Longshore, the town has far more pressing priorities than figuring out what to do with a house the private sector has given up on.

  16. Frank…you still have it wrong…come to a meeting at townhall and speak up. Your opinion counts just as much as the next Westporters. Also, the First Amendment and Dan uphold your right to blog what you will.

  17. There have to be serious complications with this property, which would explain how a 7,000 sq foot property in prime downtown Westport could not be sold/given away for $1.

    That said, why not try to preserve this beautiful piece of history if the appropriate studies are conducted, etc. and give feasible estimates that the property can be renovated for a cost of $___________? This building will very likely attract tenants willing to pay prime $$$ for space in such an intriguing and historical building that is situated in a great location.

    You may want to read what New Canaan did in spring 2011 with respect to a historical home called the Harwinton House, which was in danger of being demolished:

    http://www.harwintonhistory.com/Harwinton_House_Progress.htm

    Sadly for Harwinton, the town has not been able to come up with the $350,000 still needed to renovate the home, and thus the house apparently sits piecemeal – waiting to be reassembled – in Harwinton. The town received a $150,000 STEAP grant from the State in FY 2011 to move the house from New Canaan. Westport could apply for a STEAP grant of up to $500,000 for a project such as this. Westport received $200,000 in FY 2011 for the Leavitt Pavilion renovation, while Fairfield received $400,000 in FY 2012 for Penfield Pavilion and $100,000 in FY 2011 for the Sturges Gardner Cottage renovation. Westport did not receive a STEAP grant in FY 2012.

    • If this building were likely to attract tennants, it would have them now. Clearly it is not economically viable as commercial property as it is. Without taxpayer funded subsidies, it is unlikely to ever be economically viable.

  18. I understand your point, but I don’t think we necessarily know that it is the property is not economically viable overall. I think it is pretty obvious that the location is very good, given the success of other establishments such as the Spotted Horse and the new BSA development. It is likely that the building and the town’s zoning laws for that area are the problem. It would be interesting for the town to talk to the developers who considered the property, to learn the key overriding issues that made them walk away from a $1 investment.

    Perhaps Indian artifacts are believed to be on the property:

    http://www.westportnow.com/index.php?/v2_5/comments/abel_bradley_house_site_may_contain_prehistoric_indian_remains/

    Instead of just giving up and tearing down the Gunn House, I think it would be worthwhile for the town to gain a firm understanding of the property’s issues and have discussions with the developers who considered the property to get their feedback.

    • The building will not stay in its current location. Why should the town take on this white elephant? We know that no one has stepped up to take on the finacial burden of maintaining the building on another site. What more evidence do you need before you conclude the building is not economically viable? Yet another town funded study?

  19. Matthew Mandell

    I cannot believe how this stupid conversation goes around in circles. The house is not worthless and could stand as an office for decades where it is. BUT!!!! Mr. Waldman has multi-million dollar plans for the property and has the right to raze it (which sucks), otherwise someone would have bought it and used it as is.

    SOOOOO to save it, and rightly so, he has offered to move it and gift it to the town, for good will and no special treatment. It is viable, it is historical, it offers character to downtown, offers diversity in retail and it will add revenue to the tax roles all without any stress on our parking infrastructure.

    That’s it. This is such a no brainer and a positive and future model as to how developers must work with the town.

    • Hysterical Society

      The model for how developers must work with the town must be defined by Westport, not the developers.

      We need to dedide what the town plan is and adhere strictly to it. I think I missed the section of the latest Dowtown Plan that advocated the dumping of old unwanted houses on town-owned land.

      • A town plan would benefit those who make it. We don’t need no stinkin’ plan so insiders can line their pockets.

  20. How much would I love to see a B&B with a tea room located in the downtown area? Take a page from Southern California, Santa Monica has small retail shops on the ground floor of their parking structures, perfect for tailors, shoe repair etc… allows added security of the structure while giving small businesses a place to thrive.

    • Great idea. When the town puts out the RFP, you should submit and offer and open a B&B.

    • Sadly, I am one of those Westporters who help keep the median income levels down, if there are financial interests out there, let me know and we could investigate the possibilities.

  21. Thanks Matt…you happen to get it! David Waldman gets it…many people who live nearby get it. It is a no brainer and can be used. Look at the Sherwood House…now a popular, attractive and I can only assume profitable venture. This can work to with a good tenant.

  22. Hysterical Society

    I totally get it….

    Some people want the town to save every old and aestetically pleasing house that is a possible teardown. Since the town cannot do much to prevent teardowns, now they want the town to assume ownership and responsibility.

    • no, you still do not get it. The town would assume nothing and would only allow there land to be used, at the expense of the developer. The town would get INCOME from taxes on the property and land lease payments made by the developer. The cost to renovate the house would be paid for by the developer, not the town. It would cost the taxpayers nothing. It would generate INCOME for the town.

      Now do you get it?

      • Hysterical Society

        I already had it.

      • You’re missing the principle of the argument, which means you probably will never get it. Talk all you want but there will be hidden expenses (and losses) accrued from taking on such a building, and the taxpayer will foot the bill. I promise you that and would gladly bet on it.

        • You are wrong and I will take the bet. If it goes thru town will mark income which will far exceed any expense.

        • You are right, he will never get it. Some people see taxpayer owned assets as a free good.

      • You don’t get it. The land on which you would place this building is worth something. Thus, the taxpayers of Westport would be subsidizing whatever commercial interests took over the building and moved it. This is not tough stuff, you should be able to figure it out.

        As to the worth of the building, the only way to find out is to have someone buy it. If the price is $1, then that is what the building is worth. So far I have not heard or one bidder for the building. If there are none, then what is it worth?

      • Then put up your own money and buy the building, move it to a piece of privately own land, and operate it as a commercial enterprise.

  23. Allen’s Clam House and Barron’s South (and Winslow Park) are examples of how the town manages assets like the Gunn House – benign neglect followed by opportunistic wish fulfillment. It’s a nice old house, but the town’s track record suggests that acquiring the property without a valid use/need is something to avoid.

  24. The Gunn House was viable as a commerical property but the land/development opportunity proved a lot more valuable. The question is whether it’s worth sacrificing parking spaces in the Elm St lot to relocate the Gunn House. Before tearing it down, why not conduct an RFP to determine the value of the Gunn House on Town land? Beyond the financial return, adaptive re-use of historic structures can add to the fabric of downtown.

  25. Matthew Mandell

    Yo Annon or is it Annon, not sure who is talking…. The land to be given up is parking. There is no tax revenue from parking anyway. So if there is more parking created where it once was, in the new project, then this is not a loss. If its razed, then there is no retail space, office space or housing to generate tax revenue and diversity in shopping.

    And here’s the big one for you fearful of taxes on this issue. Even if it costs the town a modicum of money in the short term to get an RFP out so others bear the expense to then preserve the house and the character of downtown with the long term being a net positive in taxes, then why not?

    Hey the BOF, split along party lines, with the Repubs in favor, is spending $6K to do a mapping of where deer are. THEY MOVE. Now if that is not the worst waste of tax dollars, I can’t see why dealing with this house can be bad.

    • You have no idea of what the long-term net will be. Why should the town risk any taxpayer money? Want to post a performance bond for the future tax revenue?

  26. Matthew Mandell

    Do you really believe that 6000sq ft of space in downtown Westport, divided among retail, office and housing wouldn’t be worth a lot and taxed based on it?

    • The market will tell us won’t it? BTW on what land will the building stand? Who owns that land? What is a building without land worth? If you think it is a sure thing; put in a bid.

  27. Mary Ruggiero

    I would love to know when the move is planned. It would be great to witness some of it – and the preparations – which are quite interesting. How about a tea shop and book store – used or new. Something we don’t have, or haven’t had for quite a while. I put this out about 4 posts into the melee.
    And if my lot were big enough, I would have bought it!