Kemper Gunn House: It’s Unanimous!

Matthew Mandell — one of the leaders in the fight to move the Kemper Gunn House across the street, from 35 Church Lane to the Baldwin parking lot — sent this today to his email list, following last night’s RTM decision:

What an amazing vote last night: 34-0 to approve the move of Kemper Gunn and the 8-24, thus overturning P&Z. The smiles on the RTM members stretched across the room. They knew they did something historic and great. Generations to come will say this RTM, and those Westporters in 2013, had vision.

The public support for this project was overwhelming from the start. It was your input, your emails, your signatures and your voices which made this happen. Never underestimate the power of the people to make things happen. Now let’s take that into the voting booths as well and elect P&Z commissioners who will follow through on saving the house and for greater protection of our Town’s history and character. A bit on that below.

35 Church Lane -- also known as the Kemper-Gunn House.

35 Church Lane — also known as the Kemper-Gunn House.

If you were not there or didn’t watch on the toob, Morley Boyd, who led the appeal, delivered an A+ speech to start it off. We all knew why the house and location were key right from the start. David Waldman followed and improved on what he said last week and the momentum had begun.

The four Republican/Save Westport Now P&Z Commissioners stood as one and said they will be remaining on P&Z and will be there to help guide the house to its new home. Ron Corwin spoke in defense of the decision and was making sound points before veering off course.

The public was clear and unending in their support, including all three Democrat/Save Westport Now candidates for P&Z who all said they support moving and saving the house.  In contrast, not one of the Coalition for Westport Candidates was there, this after their Chair sent a second email to the RTM questioning the move. Their absence seals their fate in my mind for being against the move and preservation. I really thought they would be there to repair their image, but nope.

The RTM members who spoke cleared up any issues about parking and preservation of the house. Even if there were parking issues, some saying there weren’t, they were outweighed by the value of saving the house and what it will bring to Elm Street.

A rendering of what the house will look like after it is moved. View is south on Elm Street, with Villa del Sol restaurant on the right.

A rendering of what the house will look like after it is moved. View is south on Elm Street, with Villa del Sol restaurant on the right.

Steve Rubin used Robert’s Rules to create quite a moment for the vote. He called the question and asked for a roll call as well, this set him up to be vote first, which I know he enjoyed. Then yes, after yea, after I, after yes with enthusiasm came until the moderator said “it is unanimous, 34-0, to overturn P&Z.”  The room erupted in applause.

The house has not moved yet, and there is much work to do to get it there. Your continued support will be needed. You know I will let you know when a push from you will be needed on Kemper Gunn or on the next thing that will come up.

Again, thank yourselves for making this happen.

Matthew

39 responses to “Kemper Gunn House: It’s Unanimous!

  1. For the record: The Westport Coalition candidates stated and repeated on numerous occasions, publicly and when asked privately, that we supported the preservation of the Kemper-Gunn House. We questioned whether a parking lot was the appropriate location for such a significant building, and if the details of the agreement between the developer and the Town were in the best interests of the Town, but at no time did we state or prefer that the house should not be preserved.

    • John McCarthy

      By voting against and speaking out against the 8-24 application, as the leaders of your “Coalition” very publicly did, they were saying they were in favor of destroying the Kemper-Gunn house. Wordsmith it all you want, but the negative vote had only one outcome, one more historic house sent to the landfill.

      I want to thank the 3 Democrat/Save Westport Now candidates for P&Z for speaking in favor of the RTM’s reversal. I will be voting for David Lessing, Alan Hodge and Andra Vebell for P&Z. They understand the difference between doing the right thing and obstructionism.

      • Matthew Mandell

        Allow me to put John’s comment in perspective:

        Ron Corwin, Howard Lathrop and Nora Jinishian were the three lame duck P&Z Commissioners who voted against moving the house.
        Corwin and Lathrop were founding signers to the state in creating the Coalition for Westport party. Lathrop, their treasurer.
        Corwin, Lathrop and Jinishian together endorsed the CFW slate in a letter to the papers two weeks ago.
        Michael Nayor, as Chair of the party, sent 2 letters to the RTM questioning the move and seeking an affirmation of the P&Z vote. (note – only one other person in the scores of emails the RTM received was of like mind)

        No one from that party showed up at any RTM committee or full body meetings regarding this house or the downtown 20/20 study, although these were the biggest P&Z issues during the election. All three of their Dem/SWN opponents showed up and spoke in favor of moving and saving the house.

        The RTM voted 34-0 to overturn P&Z.

  2. I can’t tell the precise relocation spot from the rendering. I hope it will be in the corner directly abutting the C+ HT parking lot.

  3. Congratulations Matthew, and to all of those who worked so hard on first putting this deal together and then on the effort to put right the decision on approving the move of the house to Elm Street. I suspect that everyone in town who are interested in preserving the charm and character of Westport’s downtown area breathed a sigh of relief last night as this historic home was effectively saved from demolition and placed where it can bring benefit to the Elm Street streetscape.

  4. Great news! Congratulations to everyone who helped make it happen.

  5. Gloria Gouveia

    Now what? While we wait for the findings from two more planning studies, do we rely upon the generosity of other developers to donate the historic buildings they intend to demolish to make way for their own developments, and keep our fingers crossed that there’s another Town owned property near by?

  6. I do hope that readers of this 06880 post understand that this account was written by RTM Member Matthew Mandell, and not Dan Woog. The statements reflect Mr. Mandell’s own personal views and political positions; and his characterization of the presentations and participants should regarded as subjective characterizations based on his own personal biases and opinions. (And to add my own very subjective position, I am delighted that the Kemper Gunn house will be preserved and relocated, and I congratulate the RTM and Bedford Square for making this possible.)

  7. Matthew Mandell

    Denise: Then may I ask why none of you came to the RTM P&Z Committee meeting or the RTM meeting last night where a big P&Z related decision was being made; where discussions about future planning were happening. This was a big P&Z issue and your group was notably absent. The other guys showed. The Dem/SWN guys were involved.

    Nice to ask questions, ones that were more than answered a month ago, but the heart of the matter was not approving the move meant the house dies. Having your Chair toss specious reasons via email the RTM to not approve the move and then not show publically to back it up is tantamount to saying let it be razed.

  8. Last night the RTM did something unusual for Westport politics; we didn’t complicate simplicity. We did our homework, listened to the public, and asked the proper questions over the past several weeks before our vote. After the homework was completed we did another unusual thing when it comes to Westport politics; we applied common sense; we saw a “win-win-win” for the town, the taxpayers, and developer. It’s not like we voted to put a 100,000 square foot building in a AAA residential zone. We voted for preservation and progress!

  9. robert fatherley

    Dear Dan,

    It was quite a moment as both Bob and I were there.  Amazing how when united the people can make a difference.  I was, however, a bit surprised that the general public  such as we were not in attendance.  Thought the house would be packed but it was mostly the politicians running in this upcoming election who realized that they had to get on the bandwagon since they sensed that the tide was changing in favor of the move.

    At any rate, the outcome we wanted came forth and an amazing moment it was.

    Love the rendering presented…it will add such a “classic” note to otherwise boring Elm Street.

    You make such a difference in many lives with your reports (know I have said this before) but it takes citizens of “import” such as you to make others stand and take note.

    What intrigued me was that members of RTM  (8) responded to our earlier letter about the vote of support.  Friends, whom I had advocated to write also had received 12 or more as the time came closer to the meeting…talk about politics but we got what we wanted.

    Just an idea….as I drive around Westport I am intrigued to view what is the CURRENT trend in town.  At times it was Chemlawn….where has that gone?  Now it is all about TICKS…and GREEN thinking…we all knew this would be coming on the horizon.  Then there were endless nail salons…some still exist but walk into one and you can get a “high” from the chemicals. More now the endless trucks with lawnmowers who come in and erase the leaves that a family could enjoy raking (sending your article to my cousin in Virginia who still has her grandchildren gather and rake as a family. Also, I pass interminable trucks that cart land changing vehicles for TEARDOWNS WHICH CONTINUE TO HAPPEN FOR LARGER  AND LARGER HOMES …some of which are just a family with two children…My husband and I joke that we would need to phone each other as each of us would be lost in such a large house.  Our small house on Wild Rose Road equates to someone’s garage and now these big homes have THREE. Believe it or not we still get lost trying to find each other as we wander around in circles as our open environment allows trying to talk to each other.  If we lived any larger we would have to write….however, at least I would not have to walk 4 miles everyday if I lived in one of those giant houses. I do not  even call them homes but for me they are not even “cozy” which a home needs to be and a place where family can gather and converse and not go off to their individual destinations with all their digital equipment.  If I sound antique I am but I share with you your support for family values, history and in the moment of being.

    Last night, a member whose name I did not catch, contributed an amazing story about the Kempler family.  I hope you can grab that and expose others less informed, such as we,  to a continuing revelation of our local heritage.

    Julie Fatherley  

  10. Very exciting and gratifying to listen as each member of the RTM was called and voted “yes,” to make it unanimous. That was a loud and clear message. “We have one opportunity to shape our places. After that, these places will shape our communities for generations.” The shape of things to come looks very good indeed.

  11. Sandy Soennichsen

    Why is the finger pointing already started: who was there, who wasn’t there…who cares? Maybe a lot of those residents who supported the idea now had second thoughts and didn’t like the plan, so decided not to show up. It’s not like it was the end of the world. It was a decision on whether an older house should be moved or demolished. For now its moved; if in ten years it gets torn down because of another development, so be it. The house was not “historically significant,” it was just old and in the wrong place at the wrong time. It was a smart developer who saw an opportunity to improve his posture with the town on his proposed project, and a relatively small price to pay for the income the completed project will bring in upon completion. And no one can point a finger at him and say he doesn’t care for the town but lets not forget, the original plan was just to tear it down and the developers were just as happy with that. My hat is off to the developers and to the vocal supporters who wanted to save the house, whoever they might have been. (They were all tax payers I hope.) However, in 10, 20 or 30 years, I hope voices then are still praising this decision. Now let contentment and harmony rule, with this decision obviously the world is now at peace.

    • Sandy – Regarding your statement “The house was not ‘historically significant,’ it was just old” I’d suggest that is just your opinion – which you are most certainly entitled to – but that view is not shared by Westport’s Historic District Commission, who did find the house to be [quite] historicaly significant and highly relevant to Westport’s past. I happen to have a great deal of respect for the HDC, and value their skill, wisdom and input as an advocate of historic preservation as we undertake the planning function throughout Westport.

  12. John: Restating the opinion we expressed numerous times – that we supported the preservation of the Kemper-Gunn house is not wordsmithing. Having worked with you on Gorham Neighbors to save the character of Gorham Avenue, resulting in it becoming a Historic District, I am disappointed that you have chosen not to accept what we clearly stated.

    • John McCarthy

      Denise, You do not want me to open up the Gorham Neighbors issue here. Trust me.

    • John McCarthy

      No one is going to read this, but here goes.
      Denise, I wish you weren’t now claiming on Facebook that you helped the Gorham neighborhood beat back a condo development. Because you didn’t. You gave me the name of a designer who charged us market rates. Thanks, you saved me a Google search. But you did nothing of substance and your claim that you “worked with” us, is laughable. Is this the type of exaggeration we can expect from you if you get elected to the P&Z? You weren’t with us when we went up against David Press, Corwin and Lathrop who sided with the developer who wanted to destroy our neighborhood. I see Press is also claiming he helped our neighborhood. He didn’t. Press, along with his Coalition partners (Corwin and Lathrop) gave into the developer every chance they could. Which is exactly what we expected from that Trio. Press on the P&Z again with Corwin and Lathrop pulling the strings? Wow, what a scary thought

  13. Sandy Soennichsen

    Jack…can you educate us and tell us who is on Westport’s Historic District commission? I’m only dubious because my aunt’s house when she lived in Norwalk is almost an exact copy of the Kemper Gunn house, and it still stands in Norwalk with several others of that style, and none of them have been granted any historical significance by anyone. So who is on our commission, hopefully a couple of professional historians and architects. I sure hope it’s not the same people that allowed Gorham Island to be developed the way it is now.

    • Ah, you seem to be focusing just on the house as an example of an architectural style, and missing the local historical relevance the particular house might have to the Town, such as who lived in it, what activities took place there, etc. (no disrespect to your aunt and her historical relevance.) There is much of that present with the Kemper-Gunn house. To answer your questions re: Westport’s HDC, I would direct you here: http://www.westportct.gov/index.aspx?page=174 and here: http://www.westportct.gov/index.aspx?page=54 . The HDC is chaired by Randy Henkels, with Vice Chairman Betsy Wacker and Secretary Grayson Braun, it has 5 sitting members.

      • Matthew Mandell

        Sandy – go to http://www.westportd1.com/kempergunn.html and find the information the RTM had at its disposal. Look for the committee report and the Myrtle Ave Historic District, which specifically spells out the historic nature of that house and the ones around it.

        The HDC is a charter created commission and the Town Plan gives them the authority over historic preservation. I know of one architect and an archeologist on it. The others are fine caring individuals whose professions I don’t know.

  14. What happened last night was the right thing despite whatever Mr Corwin’s ramblings were about. Was anyone from the coalition even there or took time to speak up on behalf of saving and relocating the house. Seems every other individual running for P&Z was there and spoke. Just wondering?

  15. I (and the Coalition) have never supported the destruction of the house. We did communicate our thoughts with RTM members beforehand and supported the saving. To be clear we do have reservations about the precedent of providing valuable land at below market rent to developers. Moving the house across the street is clearly the easiest move, and it would look like an improvement on the street scape. However for those that understand the economics it will reward developers over planners. As with any event where incentives drive decisions it is logical that another nine buildings (that’s all that will fit) will seek a home on the Baldwin lot. Obviously the town will only accept vintage buildings but having accepted one the precedent is established. At circa $55/sq ft in rent for a commercial building it’s easy to see there will be a long list of takers for land that the town will receive $14k/yr. So while the house will be converted into a shop (see the Spotted Horse, a nice example of keeping the exterior) and saved in some form it may not be located in a position that serves the town well for either providing parking or maximizing value of a scarce resource: our land.

    • David A. Waldman

      Mr. Payne,

      From your email I assume you have some form of a financial background and as such I am sure you will follow the following logic:

      Once my partners and I accept the gift from BSA and gain control of the house we will have to spend over $2.0MM renovating and leasing the home, bringing its systems up to todays standards and provide ADA access to all levels. Each floor is approximately 1400 s/f. In the RFP, which was sent out by the town and only 2, I repeat 2 “takers” responded , one of the most important aspects of the RFP was that the potential end users get a discount from market rent so as to allow more “mom and pop” stores to populate the downtown area. So, if I use your math on circa rent, but apply not only the 15% discount to market we offered the town in our winning RFP response, but the fact that 2nd and 3rd store space command only $30 per foot (already discounted by the 15%), our fully stabilized NOI, (net operating income), would be approximately $150,000. So, our group is willing to invest over $2MM and assuming all goes to plan, we will get in return $150,000 our investment. That equates to a 7.5% cash on cash return. Now, some could say that is a good return, and to be fair, those who would say that would not be wrong. However, if you factor in the risk, cost overruns, the time value of money, final rents, cost overruns and many more “unknowns” which accompany any type of historic commercial development, I think you would agree it is a fair return to our development team. If it was not a “win win” for all involved, maybe the “line of takers” would have been longer.

      Lastly, the location which was approved in the RTM’s decision to overturn the P&Z’s negative report was not considered because it was the closest or easiest, it was considered because it was the most logical and aesthetically consistent with its history. It related to its original neighborhood and in the end, acts as a screen for a very ugly parking lot (and if approved at some later date, a potential parking deck). All parties involved in this project, from the developers of BSA, the RFP winners, the RTM (spearheaded by Mr. Mandel and Mr. Bergman, the HDC, P&Z, the current First Selectmen and every potential future candidate (minus a select few) all knew what they were doing and thought long and hard to find the most appropriate solution. The RTM agreed and unanimously approved it and now, all parties will again work together to make it a reality.

  16. There is an old saying that a former boss used to drill into my head every time I started to ramble (which is often)….”don’t sell after the close”. The RTM voted and the house will be moved. Done deal and thanks to all involved for their passion. However, there is no need to spike the ball because we all have to work together today, tomorrow and in the future to make town government succeed.
    Shouldn’t we look at the partisan mess in Washington and promise ourselves that we won’t go there? Ramblings? That is not fair to Ron who has given this town countless hours of his time. We don’t have to agree, but we should always be civil.

  17. I wish to extend a truly heartfelt thank you to all the members of the RTM for saving a piece of our town’s heritage Tuesday night: You understood that the Kemper Gunn House was a vital part an inter-related collection of historic resources in the downtown area – that it was part of something bigger: the story of where we came from. I am especially grateful the caring efforts of Matt Mandel, Don Bergman, the RTM P&Z Committee, the Westport Historic District Commission, David Waldman as well as all the Westport residents who spoke up or emailed. It’s just another example of what a truly unusual and remarkable town Westport is.

  18. Don. The question is no longer about the house, you are right. But rather…who are we going to work with after the elections. Who will be on P&Z guiding the town forward? Should it be P&Z candidates, such as Vebell, Hodge and Lessing who took the time and effort to come to the meetings to watch and speak in favor of saving the house or a group who didn’t show up but instead tossed blindly over the transom…two emails missing the public’s position and embracing a flawed P&Z position which aggregated the community, especially those in the immediate surrounding neighborhoods like myself.

  19. Oh and I agree with everything Morley Boyd stated….except I want to thank him also for all his hard work and efforts surrounding research. You do not have to live here all your life to get the research done… But I am sure glad you cared enough. Thanks!

  20. Jamie. My response was driven by the word “ramblings” to describe Ron Corwin. I used to run a Board in town and I know that the best approach, in the words of Rodney King, is “can we get along? Can’t we just all get along?” – even when we disagree. Lots of work to do going forward, no doubt. I would just ask everyone to recognize the efforts of our town volunteers and avoid using words that are, frankly, pejorative.

  21. Thank you Don for your common sense and reasoned approach. Pejorative language and misrepresentations of stated viewpoints have no place in the dialogue. They serve to confuse rather than inform.

  22. Why did none of the CFW candidates for P & Z attend the RTM meeting?

  23. We had stated over and over again, in writing, in public and in personal conversations, that we supported preserving the Kemper-Gunn house. Our concern had been whether a parking lot was the appropriate place for such a significant building and whether enough thought had gone into alternative locations and arrangements with the Town. The RTM meeting was to vote on overturning the P&Z decision and not to discuss new business about the Gunn house. We are pleased the Gunn house has been saved.

    • Denise, with respect, you have not answered my question; I am surprised that this is causing such difficulty to you and your colleagues.

      Moreover, it is absolutely incorrect and therefore misleading to say, as you do that the RTM meeting was “not to discuss new business about the Gunn House.

      The RTM’s review of the P & Z was not constrained by the evidence that was presented to the Commission. Please refer to Section A 162-25 of the Westport Code of Ordinances which specifically permits the RTM “to receive additional comments and materials outside of the original record.” Had you or any of your colleagues attended, you would have heard Ira Bloom confirm this when he told the RTM that it could hear the original application de novo. In other words the RTM could treat this as a completely fresh hearing of the same application that was before the P & Z.
      Because of that, it was critical that anyone with an interest and/or concern about the issue should attend and be heard. This would have allowed you and your colleagues to express the concerns you appear to have had and those concerns would have become a matter of public record, and have been taken into account by the RTM in making its decision.

      I will therefore ask again, why did you, Glenn Payne and David Press not attend the RTM meeting, or at least send in a written statement to be read into the record?

  24. Alan, the only difficulty is on the part of those who choose to neither hear nor accept our position. Our concerns were conveyed in 2 written statements to the RTM and our position articulated many times over. .

    • Denise, can I assume from your response that you felt that it was not necessary for you or any of your colleagues to attend the RTM meeting?

  25. Alan, with all due respect, you do know the meaning of assume? We have exhausted this conversation. See you on the campaign trail.

    • Denise, in the context of my last comment the meaning of “assume” that I had adopted was “to suppose to be the case, without proof”, and the reason I adopted that meaning was because you had not given any explanation for your absence from the RTM meeting and so I was forced to try and infer an explanation from your response. That was why I asked whether such an assumption would be correct.

      I agree that we have exhausted this conversation because it seems that you are either unwilling or unable to explain your absence from the RTM meeting; an explanation that, in my opinion, the voters of Westport are entitled to be given.

  26. Sounds like more of the same ole political gibberish… Answer a direct question with a question.

  27. Don, all I can really say that from what I understand…if most board and committee members conducted themselves as you have…we would be way outfront. We are fortunate to live in a town with so many people like yourself that give so much of their personal time to serving. My description of rambling was describing what I believe was a personal and off topic remark by Mr. Corwin that had no place at the podium. I sincerely apologize if you found my remarks out of line.

  28. I remember standing on the porch of this house as a little kid with my parents – Ben Gunn, a friend of my dad’s from The Mt. Hermon School, answered the door and hustled us in. Ben and his wife were in a panic, in the throws of trying to retrieve the car keys that their curly-haired toddler, David, had just flushed down the toilet. We all gathered in a downstairs bathroom and peered into the bowl. Someone was fishing around in there with a wire hanger. The gleeful Gunn boy was dancing around thinking the whole thing was a real hoot and MYSTERIOUSLY NOT GETTING A SPANKING

    so I guess the memory stuck with me.

    In recent years, I’ve been to the funerals of both my dad and Ben Gunn. Ben had became a most admired, kind and dear friend – he was a fascinating guy, an orphan himself, with a genuine photographic memory. His contributions to our town and community are immeasurable. Most of Ben’s gifts will remain as mysterious as that day of no-whacking, as he was a modest man, but I know of several people who owe their college degrees to Ben’s generosity.

    John Gunn attended Mt. Hermon with me, and David was a bit younger, so that was

    Wow. Over 50 years ago. Is that possible?

    Maybe when the house is moved and renovated, I’ll knock on the front door. Ask to peer into the toilet bowl.

    Judy Hart
    East Meadow Road