[OPINION] Wondering About The Red Barn

Bob Weingarten is the house historian for the Westport Museum of History & Culture. He writes:

I get many questions about the status of historic properties. Recently I’ve received several concerning the iconic historic building at the intersection of Wilton Road and Allen Raymond Lane.

The former Red Barn restaurant was operated by the Nistico family from 1983 until its sale to the Westport Weston Family YMCA in 2015. It has remained unoccupied ever since.

A painting of the historic Red Barn property …

As part of the purchase, the Y created a limited liability company: 290 Wilton Road LLC. YMCA CEO Pat Riemersma called it “likely to be the last piece of almost contiguous (cell tower in between) property to our Mahackeno campus.”

According to the Historic District Commission Historic Resources Inventory list, the building was built around 1850 as the Augustus Draves Barn. In the 20th century it became the Red Barn restaurant.

The Red Barn in 2014.

The Nistico family purchased the property in 1983, and continued to run the beloved restaurant until 2014. It was very comfortable, with a large hearth that had been remodeled by well-known Westport architect Frazier Forman Peters in the 1930s.

The Frazier Forman Peters hearth.

The Red Barn was an “06880 Friday Flashback” in January 2019. Sally Palmer commented:

The Red Barn was witness to the passage of many major events in the lives of Westporters. It was used for baby showers, baby naming, office parties, weddings, birthdays, graduations, too many funerals, class reunions and naturally for dinner. It is more than just an empty building, and I miss it.

Since the purchase more than 5 years ago, the building has remained unoccupied. This bodes badly, since unoccupied buildings can deteriorate more rapidly than those in use. This is true for interior construction (floors, walls, flues, etc.), exterior facades and mechanical equipment (air handlers, heating units, A/C, etc.). I’d hate to see what the kitchen now looks like.

In November 2015 the Y said: “This is a unique opportunity for our YMCA — a long-term investment that allows us to preserve neighborhood values and, ultimately, utilize the property for the benefit of our members and the community we have served since 1923.”

Lining up for a sale of Red Barn items and artifacts, in June of 2014.

Later, Riemersma reiterated:

We purchased the property because it was likely to be the last piece of almost contiguous (cell tower in between) property to our Mahackeno campus that would likely come to market.

When we entered into the planning process for Phase II of our facility expansion, we considered using the property as a stand-alone site for our gymnastics program.

When we ultimately decided to place that program in the new wing we were left with no immediate plans for its use and that still holds true today.

At some point in the future, as private property owners, in order to ensure that the Red Barn use compliments the Y’s, the Y could look to enter into a long-term lease or sale of the property or continue to hold it, whatever option seems best for the Y’s future.

This is a relief. But after so many years I wonder how realistic it is. I believe that the Y’s membership and other Westport residents should be apprehensive.  Money talks, and future plans change depending on economic conditions.

The building has now been unoccupied for nearly 7 years, without a plan in place. I am interested in hearing what the new CEO plans for it.

25 responses to “[OPINION] Wondering About The Red Barn

  1. Steven M. Alder

    It’s been empty closer to 7 years, as opposed to the stated 5, no?
    Anyway, many of us drive by it multiple times a day just shaking our heads at the thought of a building that is rotting away day-by-day. The chances of anyone ever inhabiting that structure again: I believe ZERO.

    • As Bob noted earlier in his piece, the restaurant closed in 2014 — 7 years ago. I’ll change the last paragraph now.

  2. Seth Goltzer

    I think the Ys’ treatment of the Red Barn borders on the criminal. It is an integral part of Westports history and must be preserved. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was stuck by “lightning” one of these days so the Property could be used for other purposes…..

    • Jack Backiel

      You can not mention the Red Barn without mentioning the Arrow. And you can not mention the Arrow without mentioning their salad dressing. And you can not mention their salad dressing without a deep yearning for its exquisite taste.

  3. Barbara Kellerman

    I strongly support the general consensus. This building must be preserved! And everything must be done by the town to preserve it. It is not only key to Westport history; it is key to a large swath of the town that lives or works near it, or drives by that lot with its historic building(s) every day!

  4. Thanks, Bob and Dan for airing this topic. The issue goes beyond the building itself; we’re talking about a tax-exempt institution that has more money than it needs – thanks to donations by the local ultra-wealthy – and should be more transparent about how they spend it.

    Don’t get me wrong: I love the YMCA, and have been a longtime member of local Ys. Yet it’s hard not to notice that there is no YMCA in Norwalk anymore, and other Y’s in Bridgeport and its neighboring towns occupy rundown facilities with far fewer amenities than we enjoy here.

    Wouldn’t it be more fitting to the mission of the YMCA to have spent the nearly $3 million it used to buy the Red Barn to help restore Y facilities in Norwalk – or more ambitiously, to collaborate with the other wealthy Y’s in New Canaan, Darien, Greenwich and Wilton, to help fund poorer Ys on a continuing basis?

  5. Donald Bergmann

    Thanks Bob. My hope is the new Director of the Y, along with its Trustees and others, will in fact preserve the Red Barn. Indeed, it could come back as a restaurant though the Y might have to take a loss on the sale price. If a sale or a lease for a restaurant could arise, one way to accommodate cost and price issues could be a deferred purchase price or rental payout. We lost Positano’s by Old Mill Beach and the Three Bears, north of The Red Barn, which became a religious facility. The revival of a Red Barn Restaurant certainly sounds appealing, but it may take a bit of financial imagination and generosity by the Y. I hope the newly selected Y Director addresses the possibility.

    Don Bergmann

  6. Bob Weingarten

    I should have mentioned in my article that they Y should consider a prior contribution of $500,000 made by an individual who took preservation very serious. In 2012 Allen Raymond, a life long Westportor and the Westport Municipal Historian pledge this amount of money and because of this contribution, the road to the Y is appropriately named Allen Raymond Lane. But Allen was not the only one of the family to believe in preservation and history. His wife, as most of us know, was Barbara Raymond. She spent most of her time at the Westport Historical Society as the Chair Archivist and assisting in children programs, exhibits, etc..

    So, the new Y management should consider the thoughts, I believe, that the Raymonds would support and encourage preservation of the Red Barn building.

    • Wendy Crowther

      Good point, Bob. The Y should also consider that another enormous donation (40 million) was made to the Y by Ruth Bedford upon her death several years ago. Her grandfather, E. T. Bedford, donated the YMCA to Westport in 1923. Ruth and other Bedford family members supported the Y financially throughout its long history here. Luckily, the original Y building still stands at the corner of the Post Rd. and Main St. due to that support and to the many preservation-minded people who had the foresight to know it was historically important.

  7. Wendy Crowther

    Thank-you, Bob Weingarten and Dan, for drawing Westport’s attention to this situation. I’ve been concerned about this property too. Perhaps the Town of Westport’s Historic District Commission (HDC) could reach out to the YMCA’s new CEO (who starts May 1), and to its Board, to encourage the Y to explore designation as a Local Historic Property (with the HDC’s help). Not only would this designation provide some protection for the Red Barn but it would also make it eligible for federal and state grant money.

    Bob, until recently you served on the HDC and were one of the only members who were actually willing to walk the talk. Perhaps you can pitch the above idea to the current HDC. Based on my own experiences with the HDC, it did little to nothing to initiate interest in preservation efforts despite its regulatory and advisory role enabling it to do so. Perhaps they’d hear you better than they ever heard me.

  8. jacquesvoris

    Some additional information. Within the article there is mention and a picture of the “Frazier Foreman Peters Hearth”. That hearth in fact has two facades. The one facing east is down a few steps and older. The one facing west is up on the raised level and newer. The newer, west facing façade was built by my uncle, Homer “Larry” Mills in the 1980s, presumably during the renovations when the Nisticos took over the Red Barn. I do not know when or who built the older, east facing façade.
    Also, in the small bar area off to the right of the entrance, the bar was built by my other uncle, William “Billy” Mills.

  9. Bob Weingarten

    Wendy – good suggestion – but as you know the owner of the property must ask the HDC for consideration for designation. THE CURRENT Y – MEMBERSHIP SHOULD PROPOSE TO THEIR BOARD TO CONSIDER ASKING FOR DESIGNATION. The work and cost to determine if the structure is acceptable is done by the HDC. If the Y and the HDC decide to study the the designation, I would be glad to led this effort.

    But also your comment about grants is something the Y management should consider. I will send them information on this.

    • Wendy Crowther

      Though it’s true that the Y would have to officially ask the HDC to consider designation of the Red Barn, you and I both know that the HDC doesn’t have to wait for that to happen. Most owners have zero info about these preservation and grant possibilities. Therefore, the HDC can also be proactive by reaching out to to the Y with an offer to educate them on the process. Many historic properties are lost because the HDC isn’t proactive in this way.

      Thanks for the role you are playing thus far and for offering to do “something” beyond just “waiting.”

  10. As suggested by a friend and fellow member of the Y, it should be home to squash courts that would attract many enthusiasts, students, people who want to learn, as well as competitions to a new, first class development. In other words, it would pay for itself and be used frequently.

    • Bill Strittmatter

      Squash courts are an interesting idea. How many courts do you think would fit inside the old Red Barn?

      As for paying for itself, that certainly seems doubtful or we’d probably be seeing squash courts popping up all over town rather than shutting down.

  11. Dick Lowenstein

    Rather than confront the new director with this persistent issue, I’d start with the Board of Trustees (https://westporty.org/about-us/volunteer-boards/)

  12. Celeste Champagne

    I agree with the preservationists (and not the squash court proponents). I am sad every time I drive by and see it unoccupied and disintegrating. The dream would be to see it restored to its former restaurant status, but that is unrealistic. But I can dream.

  13. James Richards

    Shhhhh….between us kids….here is what I’ve heard. The Y has had an ongoing debate about what to do with the property for several years since they figured out they don’t have an immediate use for it with, I gather, vicious arguments breaking out among the various factions.

    The libertarian faction simply wants to sell the property to the highest bidder and let them do with the property as they please like the Nistico’s did. I gather the Y has received an unsolicited offer from the Carlyle Group backed Newport Academy who wants to develop the property into one of their high end teen rehab centers. What the buyer would do with the old Red Barn in this scenario would obviously be up to them but, if it is Carlyle, probably disappears sometime overnight.

    The SJW faction wants to further the Y’s charitable mission by turning the property into low income housing to improve the towns diversity and further social equity. In furtherance of that goal, with the help of Westport’s state legislators, a provision was going to be slipped into an unrelated bill at the last minute bringing Connecticut’s 8-30g statute in line with Massachusetts law which does not allow lack of infrastructure to be a reason to reject an 8-30g development. That will essentially force the town to extend the sewer line to the new property thus increasing the allowed density of the units (50-75, half low income, all affordable) turbocharging the towns equity efforts. In line with that, the old Red Barn building will be repurposed as a test of concept Stop & Shop Country Market (subsidized by the town, if necessary) to serve the needs of the new development. The development tentatively will be named “Hate Has No Home Here Village”.

    The conservative faction has a similar plan to leverage 8-30g or, preferably, the new zoning legislation regarding development around main streets (Rt 33 to be designated as such with the help of New Haven legislators) except theirs will be a 10 story Trump Westport Tower replete with gold plated fixtures in the market rate units. In this scenario, the old Red Barn will be converted to a fitness center and common gathering center for use of the residents. Or the Trump Presidential Library. I gather there is a debate whether to leave it red or to add some gold highlights. This obviously is being endorsed by the Trump loving Westport Republican Party though, oddly enough, our local Democratic legislators have seemingly been coopted into the the plan by the promise of a few “affordable” units which will really just be used for the live in super and assistant super.

    Finally, there is the old hippy faction that wants to turn the place into a cannabis retail location. They would keep the VT rustic look and hope to locally source from WTF among other local suppliers. They think this is the best preservation alternative and won’t suffer much from the failed septic system as they will just put a port-a-potty out back for employee use only.

    Seriously folks, I know nothing. However, if you want “someone” to “save the Red Barn”, how about stop spending other people’s money, gather up some like minded friends, and do something yourself. Make the Y an offer.

    Turn it into the Remarkable Theater. Make it a Westport History Museum and take all the town momentos that the Westport Historical Society seems to be tossing aside. Whatever you’d like.

    Maybe have Sen. Haskell and Rep. Steinberg direct some of that state bonding money to Westport to finance your efforts. I’m sure they can trade their votes on something for some cold hard cash. Or maybe hit up Himes for some federal money (earmarks are back, baby).

    • Nancie Rinaldi

      Timely article Dan. Just yesterday I wondering about fate of the Red Barn.

    • Oh my god, James, you had me on the edge of my seat right up to this line: “except theirs will be a 10 story Trump Westport Tower replete with gold plated fixtures in the market rate units.” It took me that long to see the parody, brilliant writing! Thanks for the laugh!

  14. Michael Lonsdale

    Unfortunately at present it qualifies as a “blight” property as it is vacant and rundown with a oil tank out front and an ailing structure. How great would it be if they refurbished it and turned it into squash courts with a cafe serving healthy food for Y members and others.

  15. That is too funny that the commenter above used the word
    “blight” since that is the exact word that entered my mind 20 minutes ago as I drove by! The roof is clearly in bad shape and god knows what else is going on externally, as well as internally!!
    Nobody will be buying that building. It’s either the Y stepping up, or nobody.

  16. Cathy Barnett

    Mentioned above were some unique ways to use the Red Barn; Remarkable Theater, Westport History Museum, etc. Since it is right off exit 41 and a short parkway hop to Exit 42, why not have a visitors center.

  17. The Red Barn was quite famous in it’s lifetime. The Mobil guide use to publish a book (I believe) it was called Famous Inns of the United States. Our Red Barn had a post and picture. I asked the Nisticos if they had a copy and they did. I suggested they gift it to the Historical Society, I don’t know if they ever did.

  18. The Y has made no efforts to maintain it- its not in their interest to- they are clearly waiting for it to become in such disrepair that there is no other path forward than to demolish it.