Developer, Preservationists Battle Over Artists’ Property On Morningside Drive

The last time I wrote about Walter and Naiad Einsel was in 2016. The story was about their estate sale. Collectors flocked from many states to the 1853 Victorian farmhouse that for over 60 years had been home to the husband-and-wife artists. Both were inducted into the Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame.

Walter and Naiad Einsel

Walter and Naiad Einsel

The couple were Westport icons. They worked together and independently on book and magazine illustrations, posters, ads and package designs.

They were the first married couple to create stamp designs for the US Postal Service. They also produced 55 figures — with intricate details and moving parts — for Epcot Center.

And they were important members of Westport’s arts community. Naiad designed our Bicentennial Quilt, sewn by 33 women and on display in Town Hall since 1976. She earned a Westport Arts Lifetime Achievement Award in 2011.

Most importantly for this follow-up piece: In 2006 the Einsels received a Preservation Award for their South Morningside Drive home.

Now, in 2018, that house may not be preserved much longer.

In fact, a demolition permit has just been filed for the entire property.

As far back as 2007, Naiad was thinking about what would happen after her death (Walter passed away in 1998). Morley Boyd — then chair of the Westport Historic District Commission — spent plenty of time on her porch, discussing her vision for the future.

Ultimately, Naiad applied for a Local Historic District designation for her 2 contiguous properties. She and Walter had previously subdivided, facing the possibility that they might have to sell 1 lot — a square one, in front of Walter’s gallery — to fund their retirement.

Walter and Naiad Einsel’s South Morningside Drive house.

The Historic District Commission supported the designation. They hired a professional architectural historian to document the property’s history, and assess the structures’ architectural integrity.

That report cited the historic and cultural heritage of the structures, while noting that the site reflected the rich agricultural history of Greens Farms — and represented fast-disappearing open space.

Naiad died in April of 2016. The property was marketed as sub-dividable, and sold to a developer.

The development company redrew the lot lines, extending 20 Morningside Drive South all the way back to wetlands. The firm then submitted a Certificate of Appropriateness application to the HDC, to build a house at #20. Preservationists and historians called the design “stylistically inappropriate,” and warned it would  damage the historic integrity of the structures and their setting.

The Commission denied the request, citing historic open space and farmland as additional considerations. In response, the developer sued the town of Westport.

In the late 1960s, Naiad Einsel’s “Save Cockenoe Now” posters were seen everywhere in town.. Eventually, Cockenoe Island was saved: a nuclear power plant was never built there.

Next, the developer submitted plans to subdivide 26 Morningside South. Two new houses would be stuffed around the historic building.

The Historic District Commission — with only advisory powers — voted unanimously against recommending approval of the subdivision application. They sent their comments to the Planning and Zoning Commission.

The developer responded with a vague commitment to preserve the historic structures.

Assistant town attorney Eileen Flug offered her opinion: Open space and historic significance may be considered by the P&Z when weighing a plan to sub-divide.

The Greens Farms Association weighed in too. They said that the proposed subdivision of #26 — coupled with the development proposed for #20 — “drastically degrades if not destroys the district.”

They added: “We cannot imagine that crowding out one of the few remaining mid-19th century farmhouses in the town of Westport with 4 new homes aligns with town guidelines in favor of open space and historic preservation.”

The P&Z voted down — with only 1 abstention — the request to subdivide.

Which brings us to the present. Demolition permits have been requested for all 3 structures on the property: the 1853 farmhouse, a small barn that is believed to date to the same period, and Walter Einsel’s culturally significant barn-style studio.

Demolition would allow for “new construction.”

One of the demolition notices on the former Einsel property.

Neighbors, artists and others throughout town wonder: Who would buy an entire Local Historic District, knowing it had been the home of 2 beloved Westport artists, understanding all the regulations that apply —  then set about surrounding it all with other inappropriate buildings?

And — when that doesn’t work — destroy it all. Literally.

“The preservation of these structures and their setting is ensured by an ordinance enacted by the RTM,” Boyd says.

“That’s because it was determined by experts that the conservation of this collection of historic resources — together with their original setting — was in the public interest. And because the property owner at that time (Naiad Einsel) wanted it that way.”

I called Fred Ury — attorney for Morningside Drive Homes LLC, the Greenwich-based entity associated with the properties.

Citing ongoing litigation, he said he could not comment.

(Hat tip: Greens Farms Association and president Art Schoeller)

31 responses to “Developer, Preservationists Battle Over Artists’ Property On Morningside Drive

  1. Eleanor Sasso

    How did this property get into the hands of a developer in the first place.?
    Didn’t Naiad have any family to leave the property to…or donate it to the town of Westport to be preserved… as are many other historic sites..??
    This is baffling..

    • Properties which have a historic designation such as this one may be sold like any other. Westport has six Local Historic Districts, plus a handful of Local Historic Landmark properties which are single lots. In each case, an ordinance is indexed against the property in question which allows for the town to review and approve certain types of exterior changes. As for why the Einsel’s farm got into the hands of someone who is, to put it politely, not a steward, I do not know.

      • Morley, was the option ever discussed of instead putting in some kind of deed restriction specifically calling for the preservation of the existing historic structures? Would that have provided greater protection? Thanks.

        • I don’t recall discussing a deed restriction with Naiad. In hindsight, it might have been a good option to consider. I just never dreamed that anyone would essentially target a Local Historic District this way.

  2. Annelise McCay

    My heart sank reading this.

    Annelise Grater McCay

    >

  3. Arthur C Schoeller

    A Historic District is established based on a recommendation by the Historic District Commission and a vote by the RTM. So as a town we decided to preserve these structures and property. We cannot let this plan by the developer to obliterate it stand.
    Art Schoeller
    President
    Greens Farms Association

  4. Imagine the greed and avarice enmeshed in the personality of the son of a bitch who would tear down this beautiful house…no less the barn and studio.

  5. Dick Lowenstein

    This historic district will exist with or without any structures on it, a point that was made at the previous hearings held by the Historic District Commission. That is something the developers are pretending they don’t know or hoping that HDC will forget.

  6. Carol Buffinton

    Historic districts and homes are an integral part of any town’s landscape. As development of new homes and commercial buildings begin to dwarf Westport, the town is losing its character and charm. Please say no to this developer.

  7. Tina Torraco

    This makes me sad. This greedy person is literally bringing Einsel out of her grave( so to speak) . Einsel went to her resting place knowing her properties were protected. Why on earth would anyone buy a Historicly Designated property and think it’s ok to alter it beyond recognition or erase it from existence . Westport is a town rich with history , it’s one of the reasons we are so very unique . Mcmansions and apartment complexes will come and go but to erase the footprints of the very people who contributed to this towns uniqueness is nothing short of tragic. This greedy Developer will have to deal with their own Karma!

  8. Michelle Benner

    I think the key sentence here is “ The property was marketed as sub-dividable, and sold to a developer.”

    Real estate companies and sellers are on the hook for this kind of circumstance just as much as out of touch developers. I hope we don’t lose this charming, historical property across from our beloved elementary school to a clearcut swath of cookie cutter, “farmhouses” sitting on rolled out turf with a few boxwoods & grasses thrown in for good measure.

    Plus, imagine the complications “development” would add to the morning and pick-up traffic along this stretch of morningside for greens farms school, especially threatening the safety if not prohibiting all together the few children and families who walk to school along this route.

  9. The greedheads, hedge-fund hogs and the generally filthy rich have been disassembling Westport for decades now and building monuments to themselves. Some streets, like Woodhill Road where I grew up, have had more than half of their original homes leveled and replaced with McMansions squeezed onto their lots that fit like skinny jeans on a fat, old rich guy. Money changes everything.

  10. Werner Liepolt

    The Einsels helped define the best of Westport. That they bequeathed an historic and artistic legacy should be honored by all involved. Money may figure in this, but we’re all much poorer if the Einsels‘ legacy is lost.

  11. Developers only interest is in discovering &monetizing opportunities. They can weigh the risk-reward cost for pursuing any obstacle and will try to prevail. This is a dispassionate business assessment made with a calculator and thier Lawyers. The only avenue Westport Town Hall has is to resist that effort based on what has been already decided is right and legal for the town and to defend its rulings. This disregard of the towns rulings on these issues will continue until there are strong enforceable penalties on the books for ignoring what has already been decided best for the town and its residents. Bottom-Line is you fight for your rights to control the town by those who couldn’t care less. As always the answers come from “follow the money”. Save westport now and every day by weighing in on whats worth protecting your home..town.

  12. Roseann Spengler

    This is a disgrace to the memory of my dear friend.

    So so sad but, apparently money rules.

  13. Valerie Seiling Jacobs

    By creating a Local Historic District, Naiad Einsel gave the town a precious gift. Our town officials have been doing their best in the face of a year-long assault by the new owner/developer–who seems determined to dismantle the District piece by piece. We must all support our town officials in hanging tough in the face of such a brazen attack on our town’s character.
    Valerie Seiling Jacobs
    Co-Chair, Save Westport Now

    • Eleanor Sasso

      WHO sold this property to developer? When the treasured artist passed, the property must have been left to SOMEONE or the TOWN. Unless there were liens to exceed the value of the house, non payment of taxes or bank foreclosure due to non payment of mortgage.
      ??

      • The trustees sold 20 and 26 Morningside South for a total of $3 million. This is a lot to pay for “residential” land that is non-waterfront.

  14. The Westport Preservation Alliance does not, of course, support the destruction of these historic resources and views the ordinance which is intended to conserve them as a solemn commitment by the town. This attempt to disrupt that agreement could be viewed as an assault on every Local Historic District in Westport. To that end, it deserves to be firmly rejected.

    As a side note, there is some bitter irony here. In March of 1988, the Einsels, who were staunch environmentalists and preservationists, considered moving a historic house threatened with demolition at 170 Post Road East to their vacant lot on Morningside – just to save it. Unfortunately, the cost associated with moving the structure was cost prohibitive. I mention this only as it offers some idea of the couple’s public spirited love for Westport.

    If nothing else, we owe it to them to return the favor and stand up for something which helps make our community special.

  15. The 3 demolition permits were applied for on Friday through submitting an Application of Appropriateness . The developers have stated that the structures are deemed unsafe by structural engineers and unsafe for work by construction crews and for emergency personnel. I had concerns that the house would not make it through the winter without proper maintenance/mothballing. They are now claiming that it was in disrepair when they bought the house. The HDC sent the letter below at the end of November.

    November 27, 2017
    Dear Greens Farms Development Partners,
    While the Historic District Commission reviewed at its November 14, 2017 public hearing, your Certificate of Appropriateness Application dated October 31, 2017 for the proposed new construction at 20 Morningside Drive South, we did not have the opportunity to express our concerns about the maintenance and protection of the main house, the Elwood-Hughes House, c.1853 at 26 Morningside Drive South.
    As winter approaches and because we have not been informed of your overall development plans, we are asking that all appropriate measures will be taken to insure that this currently vacant structure is kept secure and heated. Given the apparent delay in rehabilitating the house, we are enclosing from the National Park Service a Preservation Brief on the stabilization and maintenance of this important historic resource.
    Any information you can share with us concerning your future preservation plans for the district would be much appreciated since it is our charge to preserve and protect the character of the entire district. We are unable to judge the visual impact of your proposed project without knowing the overall plan for the development within the boundary of the district.
    Sincerely,
    Francis H. Henkels, HDC Chair

  16. This is nothing less than “demolition by neglect!” I have visited Naiad and Walters house several times…last time was during the estate sale and the structure was in fine condition. I hope the courts see through this charade!

  17. Mary Cookman Schmerker SHS '58

    I am heart sick. This is such an important piece historic of property. Naiad Einsel’s Cockenoe Now posters seemed to be everywhere and contributed to the effort to save Cockenoe Island. Where would Westport be if the island had not been preserved? Surely everyone can band together to save this property from the developers.

  18. Arthur C Schoeller

    My latest information is that these Certificate of Appropriateness filings for demolition will be on the agenda for the September 11th Historic District Commission meeting. If you care about this property and historic preservation then come out and show your support. There are implications here for all local Historic Districts being threatened by development.

    Art Schoeller
    President
    Greens Farms Association

  19. Westport needs to stand up to preserve the character of the town. It is disgraceful that the Einsels tried to protect their home and property and shrewd developers found loopholes to make a profit. Very sad indeed. Will follow this story and support efforts to block the developers.

  20. Mary Surette

    They were a really neat couple. I remember walking from Assumption School to downtown to see the Bicentennial Quilt in 1976. Many years later, I was in the Historical Society gift shop when I picked up a postcard and remarked how much I liked that quilt and the memory of seeing it at age 10. Walter was in the shop and came right over to me and said his wife designed it and would I like her to autograph it? He then brought her over and introduced her to me. It was very special. That was probably 20 years ago. That was a brush with history that makes the property special to me. Others just see dollar signs. It is sad, but the concern should have been two years ago for preservation and restoration.

  21. Absolutely disgusting of the developer to let it fall into disrepair in order to try to demolish. A very dirty game indeed. There have been a few other instances called out here on this very blog about the same practice. When will it end? Perhaps someone has a connect to potentially get a news story and some press putting this developer in the hot seat?

  22. Stephanie Barnhizer

    It’s encouraging that Westport townspeople and friends are speaking out. The loss of history, the degradation of ideals and values, the get-rich motivations that steal from community are too often winning. Please get together and develop a strategy to counter this effort. You will be stronger and better for it as a town.

  23. Christine Baksa Harrington

    Please save this historical house

  24. If the P&Z votes against the proposal, the developers will surely take it to court. There, a totally disinterested judge will probably overturn the decision and allow the demolition and construction to go forth. I hate to be so negative, but I’ve seen this happen too many times.

    • Arthur Schoeller

      Bobbie the new home design and impact on the property for 20 Morningside was already turned down by the HDC and that went to court. So the Town of Westport is already in court defending that one. Once the subdivision plan for 26 Morningside was denied by the P&Z the developer went ahead and filed these applications for demolition. The HDC is using a St of CT grant to bring in a consulting engineer to evaluate the structures as another point of view vs the developers own engineering assessment. It is CRITICAL for anyone concerned to show up at the September 11th HDC meeting where these applications will be reviewed. This again has broader implications about defending open space in Historic Districts beyond just 20 and 26 Morningside. Everyone who has posted here PLEASE SHOW UP!
      Art Schoeller
      President
      Greens Farms Association