39 Cross Highway: Past Meets Present

Alert “06880” reader — and proud homeowner — Deborah Howland-Murray writes:

In 1985, my husband and I purchased our antique home at 39 Cross Highway. Like any house over 200 years old, the walls held undiscovered mysteries.

Decades later, they are beginning yielding their secrets. Sifting through original hand-calligraphed parchment documents, my son Galen and I are learning that our cherished home of 33 years was equally cherished by generations of one family, all the way from pre-Revolutionary times until 1927.

We are realizing that the story of our house is interwoven with the story of Westport. We are also finding out how precarious is the fate of our antique repository of history, and of those like it in Westport.

Our house tells a tale of a people birthing a country. Captain Phineas Chapman, farmer and carpenter, built his home on land acquired in 1742, the year of his marriage to Sarah Ketchum. The home housed their family of 10 children: 7 sons and 3 daughters. We have come to know the part they played, and the price they paid, in our nascent democracy.

39 Cross Highway

Capt. Chapman’s forebears arrived in 1635. His father, Rev. Daniel Chapman, was the first pastor of Greens Farms Congregational Church.

The minister’s male descendants were highly respected for their accomplishments. Phineas was made lieutenant in the Connecticut Militia in 1755, then promoted to captain for distinguished service in the French and Indian War.

His son Joseph was this area’s first physician. Sons Daniel, Albert and James bore arms in the American Revolution. James and Albert were highly decorated; Major Albert received the paramount honor of admission to the Society of the Cincinnati.

The oldest part of 39 Cross Highway is lovingly maintained.

Our home bore witness to Gen. Tryon’s wrath during the Danbury raid in 1777. His advance toward Danbury took him along Cross Highway, arresting patriots along the way — including Captain Phineas and his brother Dennie. The same fate befell Daniel in Ridgefield.

Upon his return, Tryon was thwarted from crossing the Kings Highway bridge by Benedict Arnold. Instead, he forded the river upstream and flanked Arnold by marching through Chapman farmland.

The 3 Chapmen men were transported to a New York City sugar house turned prison. The 2 older ones were eventually released. Daniel died there. His health broken by the dank, horrifically overcrowded conditions, Captain Phineas died 5 years later.

The 1784 distribution of Phineas’ estate shows that he left a parcel of land a bit over 1 acre and 20 rods, with “dwelling and barn.” As we followed the land deeds throughout history, this parcel and dwelling — the “old homestead” — remained constant in description.

At some point, Phineas Jr. (1766-1823) was instrumental in building a school diagonally across from his house. The Chapman family valued education. Many relatives — including some of his 11 children — graduated from Yale.

The Cross Highway schoolhouse. The back of the photo says “Cross Highway near Daybreak Nursery on green.”

Through marriage, the Chapmans became linked to one of the most influential families in Westport. Their cousin and admirer, Morris Ketchum, was a financier and locomotive manufacturer who brought the railroad to Westport. His meetings with friend Salmon P. Chase, Lincoln’s Treasury Secretary, led to the issuance of war bonds and the printing of our first paper currency.

Three Westport homes built by Capt. Phineas still remain: our own; the house built for Albert, comprising the oldest part of 150 Compo Road; and Dr. Joseph’s home (incorrectly called Charles Taylor House) at 268 Wilton Road, beautifully preserved and expanded.

268 Wilton Road

Ketchum’s Hockanum and others are nearby. Not located in a designated historic district, they are in peril of meeting the same end as the Redding home Daniel built with Captain Phineas, unceremoniously demolished in 2006.

Our research took on new meaning as I placed our home on the market. We met with representatives of the Historic Commission and the Westport Historical Society to determine what protections would keep our home safe from the developer’s bulldozer. I was astonished to find that there were virtually none.

Dedicated organizations have the power to forestall, but not prevent. Registering the house as a historical landmark will take more time than I have. And the restrictions are so severe that even an antique lover is dissuaded from purchase. There does not seem to be a middle ground.

I support progress. But there are uncountable new builds for sale in Westport. Is it progress to destroy homes that speak to us of our ancestors, of their sacrifice to create the democracy we enjoy? Shall we lose the opportunity they afford to teach our children about the entrepreneurial spirit that created our town, and country?

As a native Westporter, I sincerely hope not.

19 responses to “39 Cross Highway: Past Meets Present

  1. This is fascinating local history.

    If the goal is to preserve the main original structure—I see there appear to be expansions that were done later—couldn’t that be done through some provisions in the contract of sale and the deed? Perhaps it would be worth consulting a real estate attorney about that.

    I passed by your home countless times as a kid and also a number of times as an adult, Good luck with this.

  2. I read with a mixture of sadness and hope today’s blog about 39 Cross Highway. I am sorry that the owner feels that the “restrictions are so severe that even an antique lover is dissuaded from purchase,” but pleased that the family has gathered so much information on the history of 39 Cross. When I bought my historic house on Cross Highway, I immediately sought help for its future preservation from the Historic District Commission, which created a study committee to research it, and coordinate its designation as a Historic Landmark Property by obtaining appropriate town and state approvals. In the seven years since designation, I have not felt that the restrictions are onerous, since the historic designation applies only to parts of the property that are visible from the street. When I had to replace the front entrance flooring, I used wood, not fake wood as instructed by the HDC; when I replaced the roof, I chose to use appropriate cedar shingles but I was not required to do so by the HDC, since I was replacing an asphalt shingle roof.
    I would argue that dedicated organizations such as the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation and Historic New England DO have the power to prevent demolition of historic properties in perpetuity through their easement programs.
    I would be very happy to discuss what local designation has done for my house and my peace of mind with anyone who loves their historic home, and wants to protect it for future generations, in the HDC office in Town Hall.
    I view designation as an honor not a hinderance!

    Edward Gerber, 93 Cross Highway
    Vice-Chairman, Westport Historic District Commission, and Trustee of the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation

    • Deborah Howland-Murray

      Hi ed, I’m sorry if i made it seem that it was only a hinderance to obtain designation as an historic landmark. The research was prompted in part by wanting to do just that, but to have the date of construction correct. The house has been listed as an 1880 house, but we feel this is incorrect, and if it relates at all, it is the newer, not older, section. It is something I am eager to pursue if possible. Unfortunately, and sadly for me, I must sell the house, so I do need to keep pragmatism in mind. Ideally, I can sell the house and protect it at the same time. This article was one small measure I thought could help. I would love to talk with you in more detail!

    • Deborah, we designated our street in downtown Westport as a Local Historic District back in 2005. It was the first new district in Westport in 30 years. Two nearby streets quickly followed us. 110% best thing we ever did; now we don’t worry about what’s going to happen if a house on the street sells – and selling has totally NOT been a problem.

      The running joke is that the town never tires of trying to boost the assessment of the houses in our District waaay beyond non-historic comps.

      The last sale in our district went to a young couple from the West Village who actually knew all about the famous artists that had lived in their new place. The very first thing they did is put up a historic plaque with those artists’ names on it. So I think historic districts possibly tend to attract people who like the romance and love the stability.

      Anyway, I can tell you first hand that there’s great pride and, like Ed, we view the designation as an honor. So, I’d say go for the designation; you love your house and it’s an important part of history. Plus, you don’t want to end up like my friend who sold his perfectly restored Craftsman style house not too far from you to some dude who told him he that he loved the house and was just going to do an addition off the back. Right. He instantly tore it down. That was something like four years ago. My friend is still shock.

      If you’re serious about preserving your house – and mental health – you need to choose to take matters into your own hands. It’s no big deal, people with cool historic places all over Westport have been where you are now, taken a look around at the destruction going on and have said “no mas”.

  3. What a wonderful history, thank you for sharing it, and good luck with your efforts to keep your home from the wrecking ball.

    I grew up in an historic house in Greens Farms that my family sold in the 70s. I too live I fear of my home being torn down because somebody buys but doesn’t the beauty and the history of what came before us.

  4. Beautiful old house. I agree 100% with the sentiment expressed in this nicely-written posting. We do have to move on from our history but we still need the roots around us to keep ourselves grounded.

  5. My Dad Frank Castiglia Went to the Cross Highway school house in the 1915 time frame.

  6. Thank you for sharing the wonderfully researched and documented history of your house on Cross Highway – I have improved my historical knowledge from reading it, and the pictures are wonderful. Your passion for local history and preservation is quite evident.

    I hope you reconsider Historic Landmark Property designation, as doing so would accomplish your preservation goals for this unique and important property, and the HDC may be able to expedite the process. I do admit there is an impact on the resale of the property, not because of onerous restrictions but simply because the property will not be available for a tear-down (which is what you fear) and that is often where the highest selling price is found.

  7. As usual, the comments of people such as Ed Gerber and Jack Whittle resonate with me. For various reasons, some good, some not good, the value of land in Westport can exceed the value of land and buildings, including when those buildings reflect magical history and, for many, magical aesthetics. I too would hope that a further analysis of the difference between the sale price of the existing property after being made subject to historic designation protections and the sale price to a developer who will tear down this house and build a house and embellishments that maximize the developers profit be compared, with the goal of absorbing that difference as simply a small price to be borne to do what seems, at least to me, right.
    Don Bergmann

  8. Dear Deborah –
    I have been admiring your beautiful and irreplaceable home for years, and cross my fingers every time I pass by that it will be preserved. Thank you for pursuing this.

    I recently sold my c.1728 house up the road from you on Cross Highway (my Meeker boys were also taken to the Sugar House prison after the Danbury Raid) and I had attached a far more “severe” preservation restriction on the property than any of the types you seem to be considering. My preservation restriction did not dissuade the buyers, in fact, they were grateful that I had done so much to protect their house!

    Dan, you do such a public service running preservation stories. My favorite line of yours, from a Jan. 4, 2017 story about 86 Cross Highway, is: “There’s something about Cross Highway. For some reason, it’s become the epicenter of preservation in Westport.” Deborah, I hope you become part of our Cross Highway tradition and strongly encourage you to work with Carol Leahy, the Historic District Commission Administrator, to create a Local Historic Property. It looks like you have most of the historic research already compiled which should expedite the process. If there’s anything I can do to help, have Dan give you my e-mail address.

  9. Why wasn’t the Einsel house protected as such? It seems they had done a good deal of work towards that end?

  10. Short answer with the Einsel house is that the house is sitting on land that can possibly be subdivided, and that apparently hadn’t occurred to anyone at the time the Local Historic District was created. It’s a unique situation in a unique district with a lot of money at stake, whereas 39 Cross Highway is a more typical situation. As Morley indicated, there are many houses (probably about 150) in Westport that are being successfully protected as Local Historic Properties or as part of Local Historic Districts.

  11. Deborah –
    You should have a joint meeting with Carol Leahy and someone from Planning and Zoning who can help you figure out the best options for preserving your house given your acreage, zoning district, and the subdivision regulations. Also, Westport has a few preservation tools you may not know about and which may offer you more options. In Einsel’s case, she was trying to preserve the setting and not just the house, which I don’t think applies to you.

  12. Live in the Gorham Avenue Historic District and Rhett values continue to excel northward!

  13. Annelise McCay

    I found that out when I inquired regarding the Einsel house on Morningside Drive, that bears a plaque, but is marked for demolition.
    I find this heartbreaking.
    Annelise McCay

  14. Ellen Cunningham Kelly

    My mother and father purchased 39 Cross Hwy in 1972. We lived there just a short time, but I have lasting memories of every nook and cranny of that house. I remember the closet underneath the front staircase, which I used as a “clubhouse”. I once crawled in, fell asleep, and my mother thought I had run away from home because she couldn’t find me! The picture shown above was our living room- the kitchen was in the back of the house to the right as you walked in the front door. I remember the “deck” above the front porch where we would often hang out as kids. I loved that house. We later moved to 16 Cross Hwy. where we lived for a few years. #16 has quite an interesting history as well. I am all for preserving the antique homes in any town rather than dozing them down to build anew. Preserving history is important. Thanks for sharing and the research on the home!
    Ellen Cunningham Kelly
    Essex, CT

  15. I grew up at 39 Cross Highway. My family lived there from 1960 to 1972. My brother, Peter, and I found “buried treasures” in the attic rafters… -books, hand written letters, newspapers, other publications, old stamps, all of which we donated to the Historical Society at the time, after we staged our very own public “Museum” showing on the property. I have lived away from Westport and out of the country since 1972, but maintain my strong and loving memories of the amazing house at 39 Cross Highway. I hope that Deborah Murray is able to both sell and ensure some kind of preservation of this amazing and important structure. Wendy Ader Jones