108 Cross Highway: Preserving History, Preventing A Teardown

In June 2011, 108 Cross Highway came on the market. From all indications, it would be the next Westport teardown.

An uproar ensued. The 2-story “vernacular” — with a barn — on the well-traveled stretch between Roseville Road and North Avenue was built in 1805. Records indicated it was one of the few Westport dwellings constructed by a “free black man.”

(That assertion was later challenged. The “Henry Munroe House” may, in fact, have been built by an Indian.)

108 Cross Highway

108 Cross Highway in 2011.

The usual Westport battle raged. On one side were those decrying the destruction of a handsome old home — one with historic significance.

On the other side were those who say that property owners are free to do whatever they want. After all, it’s their money.

The house was taken off the market, rented, then put back on. Jeff Porter and Rachel Ember had been thinking of contemporaries. But when realtor Amy Swanson showed them 108 Cross Highway, they fell in love.

They closed on the property in January 2014.

Nearly 2 years later, the house still stands. The new owners have redone the porch, repaired the chimney, added a paddock fence, restored and refinished the original wood floors, and remodeled the side entry and kitchen in a style appropriate to the home (sourcing reclaimed barn wood).

They also repaired the barn’s rotted siding, and reconfigured the garage doors in a more traditional carriage style.

Today, 108 Cross Highway looks better than ever.

Rear view of 108 Cross Highway, showing a new fence, walkway and covered porch.

Rear view of 108 Cross Highway, showing a new fence, walkway and covered porch.

In fact, it’s one of this year’s recipients of a Preservation Award from the Westport Historic District Commission.

The barn and pool.

The barn and pool.

Too often in Westport, structures like these fall victim to the wrecking ball. We close our eyes, wring our hands, and move on.

The next time you pass 108 Cross Highway, open your eyes wide. Put your hands together, and linger awhile. It’s a wonderful sight to see.

108 Cross Highway, today.

108 Cross Highway, today.

The kitchen, with reclaimed barn wood flooring.

The kitchen, with reclaimed barn wood flooring.

(The 2015 Historic Preservation Awards will be presented by 1st Selectman Jim Marpe, Historic District Commission chair Francis Henkels and commission members on Monday, October 26, 7 p.m. in the Town Hall auditorium.)


11 responses to “108 Cross Highway: Preserving History, Preventing A Teardown

  1. Congrats to the owners who have renovated this pretty home! It’s instructive to look at the comments to Dan’s pieces on this house in 2011-12. So many were dismissive of historical preservation: “it’s private property – the owners should be able to do what they wish.” The problem with this line of thought is that in times like these, it is not a homeowner making the decision, it is a developer who can make more money with a teardown + McMansion business proposition, vs a renovation. So, day by day, we are losing the historical charm that makes this area so attractive to begin with.

  2. Jacques Voris

    A quick search of some Internet resources tells us the following about Henry Monroe. He was born in Connecticut about 1800 (sometimes list as 1798 or 1799 or 1800). He is definitely living in Westport from the 1850 census through the 1880 census. He is listed as “Mulatto” in 1850, but for the others listed as “Black”. He is married to a woman named Phebe. She was also born in Connecticut about 1810. She is always listed as “Mulatto”. During this time frame he seems to have stayed at the same home. He is present on the 1867 map of Westport. The value of his real estate holdings declines however from 1860 to 1870. He starts with $3,000 worth of land and $1,000 worth of personal estate in 1860, but by 1870 he only has $1700 worth of real estate. There are never any children listed in the household, but an Amelia Monroe is sometimes listed as well. She is always noted as “servant” or “keeping house”, but the exact nature of the relationship is not listed.

  3. BRAVO, BRAVO BRAVO to you, Dan, for another nod to “Preserving New England,” to Peter and Jacques for their thoughtful insight in light of it, and especially to Jeff Porter and Rachel Ember for throwing their hats into the ring and going for Preservation. Once a treasure like the Munroe House is gone, you can’t unring that bell: it’s gone forever and for anyone who would have otherwise loved to admire, or indeed, cherish it. These properties are now a precious few and need the care and thoughtful insight that you all exhibit here in this “Henry Munroe House” discussion.

  4. Dan, Great story and our appreciation to the owners. This should provide hope to others and support the efforts of so many who appreciate and realize the importance of preserving the beauty, grace an proportion of so many older homes. Don Bergmann

  5. Jill Turner Odice

    Thanks for posting this. It’s nice to see that somebody respects the history of the town and this beautiful home! Even though I no longer live in Wspt. it still makes me sad to look through the “Teardowns of the Day”…So many wonderful old homes I would give anything to own, torn down to be replaced by modern houses…it makes me want to cry…I just hope there are more folks like them who can appreciate the quality and beauty of these old homes, that buy them up before they are all gone.

  6. Great story Dan. And a great outcome. My thanks and appreciation to Rachel and Jeff! The Munroes were highly regarded members of the Greens Farms Congregational Church and are buried in the section of the Lower Greens Farms Burying Ground where African Americans were interred (although there are evidently a number of family members buried at 108 Cross Highway as well). There is a family story that Phebe used to sit on the front doorstep on Sundays and cast disapproving looks upon those traveling into town bent on frivolity. My guess is that she and Henry are smiling today. We all are.

  7. Bravo!!!!!!
    Well deserved award– it’s beautiful! What a nice home you have created… And thanks for keeping the house~

    Betsy Phillips kahn

  8. John F. (J-period) Wandres

    When I was a kid growing up in Weston, our family lived for a year in a barn on Lyons Plain Road, across from the little church. It creaked in high winds or damp weather and oozed the aroma of ancient white oak along with a haunting remainder of the animals that once called it home. I was hooked on barns then, and am still to this day.
    The Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation lists only two barn structures in Westport as “historic:” the Gault Energy Barn at 124 So. Compo Road, and the Mills Farmstead at 29 North Avenue.
    I live in Portland, now, and am involved with the preservation group Restore Oregon. Of the 11,200 barns still standing in the state, more than 150 are listed as more than 100 years old; 23 have been standing for more than a century and a half — built before Oregon became a state.

  9. Great decision and dedication! Thanks for preserving what makes our town have authentic character.

  10. Nancy Hunter Wilson

    Now, maybe wires could be put underground? Just an idea.

  11. Wonderful happy ending story. I commend the Ember family for preserving a piece of Westport history. My heart sinks every time I see an antique house being demolished and a McMansion being built. It’s a sad statement about greed winning out over preservation.