Tag Archives: 108 Cross Highway

Friday Flashback #77

February is Black History Month.

It’s a time to celebrate the many contributions and accomplishments of African Americans — and to reflect on our country’s often tortured relationship with race.

It’s a time to think about how Americans treat every person in our country.

And it’s a time to look back at how we did so in the past.

Alert “06880” reader — and amateur historian — Mary Palmieri Gai made an astonishing find recently. The Town Crier of December 15, 1949 ran this photo:

The caption reads:

For the first time in Westport history, a Negro attended one of this community’s town meetings. The group was especially interested in the debate on public housing.

It’s amazing — and embarrassing — to see what qualified as “news” nearly 70 years ago.

It’s also probably quite wrong.

Among Westport’s most historic homes is 108 Cross Highway. Built in 1805, it’s one of a few dwellings in town documented as being built by “a free black.”

Henry Munroe, a farmer, bought the land from John Burr in 1802. Munroe’s descendants were members of Green’s Farms Church.

Black families lived here throughout the 1800s and early 1900s. Some were servants and housekeepers. But others — like Munroe — were farmers, shopkeepers and businessmen, with a vested interest in town.

I can’t believe that 1949 was the first time a “Negro” attended a town meeting.

And I’m surprised that the Town Crier did not even dignify him with a name.

Which is one more reason why Black History Month remains vitally important today, for all of us.

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.)

 

108 Cross Highway: NOT 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.)

The usual Westport battle raged. On the 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.

108 Cross Highway

108 Cross Highway

A few months later, the house was taken off the market, and rented. It came back on last June. The listing price was $999,000 — reduced from the original $1.25 million.

Not long ago, Raveis realtor Amy Swanson was showing homes to Rachel Ember and Jeff Porter. They live on Eno Lane, but wanted something closer to their kids’ schools: Staples High and Coleytown Middle. They were thinking of contemporaries, but Amy took them to 108 Cross Highway.

They fell in love.

“It was so appealing,” Rachel said this morning. “It felt so pastoral and warm. And the barn is awesome. It’s a perfect place to hang out.”

Rachel and Jeff are the new owners of the old house. They closed on Monday (final price: $895,000).

The couple plan to renovate the kitchen and bathrooms, and do very minor touch-ups. But, Rachel said, “we definitely plan to keep it as is. It has so much character. That’s what we love.”

93 Cross Highway

Westport is filled with stories of charming old houses that turn into teardowns.  “06880” reported one of them just yesterday.

This is not one of them.

Two years ago Ed Gerber heard that the home at 93 Cross Highway was for sale. He knew it well.

Built in 1764 by the spectacularly named Eliphalet Sturges, it was owned for the next 144 years by the Sturges family.

George Hand Wright

In 1908 George Hand Wright — an illustrator, watercolorist and pastel artist who was a founder of Westport’s artists’ colony — bought the house and 30 acres of land, for a mere $300. He turned a small outbuilding into his studio. He and his wife Anne lived at 93 Cross Highway for nearly 50 years.

In 1947 Wright helped establish the Westport Artists Club, and later served as president. He died in 1951; Anne followed 3 years later. Wright’s nephew Frank Boylan inherited the property, and lived there another 50 years.

Boylan was Gerber’s godfather, and his father’s best friend. Growing up in New Haven and Fairfield (in his teens and 20s, he ushered at the Westport Country Playhouse), Gerber spent many happy days at #93. Two years ago, when the Boylan estate prepared to sell the house, representatives asked if Gerber was interested.

For 40 years, Gerber had lived in Washington, DC. But he was ready to retire from the FDIC. He knew if he did not act, 93 Cross Highway could be Westport’s next teardown.

He bought it.

Then he went to work.

Ed Gerber stands proudly in his refurbished living room.

Walls and ceilings needed painting and plastering. The maple floors needed refinishing. Gerber remodeled 2 baths, and the kitchen.

But the house had great bones. With massive stone fabrication, a handsome hearth and wonderful Wright-era furniture, it’s been lovingly restored to its past glory.

And it’s earned historic landmark status.

That’s a no-brainer. Gerber is a member of Westport’s Historic District Commission, and a vice president of the Westport Historical Society.

Ed Gerber and 93 Cross Highway.

The Historic District Commission has little authority to deter teardowns outside of the town’s 6 designated districts. “What we have is moral suasion,” he says.

But many people in houses at least 50 years old can hardly wait to knock down anything old and charming, to build something new and big.

“Everyone asks us to waive the 180-day waiting period (for demolition),” Gerber says.

He points to 108 Cross Highway, an 1805 home built by a free black man that was headed for destruction. The HDC has met several times, by phone and in person, with the owner and his agent, to provide options to demolition.

Ed Gerber turns back to #93. Thanks to his hard work, reverence for the past and passion for the present, it’s assured of remaining a lovely landmark on a well-traveled road for many years to come.

Saving One Historic House

As Westporters debate the fate of a 205-year-old, possibly historic home on Cross Highway — it might be demolished; someone might buy it and renovate it — a Boston suburb did exactly what some “06880” commenters suggested doing here as a 3rd option:

Residents banded together to buy an old property.

According to Boston.com, a 250-year-old house in Belmont was ready to be demolished, and replaced by 2 new homes. But townspeople, along with a family that once owned the home, donated more than $80,000 to hire a New Hampshire home-moving firm.

108 Cross Highway, Westport.

On Saturday, the home was towed a mile, to a temporary site.

According to the website, “The move clears the way for development and gives advocates more time to find a suitable permanent location for the Clark house.”

Earlier, a local architect and Belmont’s Historic District Commission had lobbied the developer — who had the necessary permits — to delay demolition.

Architectural Heritage Foundation, a non-profit preservation group, purchased the house for just $10. They will serve as the building’s custodian until a permanent location is found. The AHF also paid police and fire costs for the move.

Residents still had to find a temporary site, and secure funding for the move. Saturday — moving day — was the developer’s final deadline.

Moving the Thomas Clark House, in Belmont, Mass. (Photo/Wickedlocal.com)

Among the many Belmont residents turning out to watch the spectacle was Dana Long — who, in a nice twist, is a native Westporter. A 1980 graduate of Staples, his parents still live here.

“Think about those guys who built this house 250 years ago,” he said. “How proud would they be to know it’s still there and worth enough to move?”

Sean McConnell, president of AHF, told Boston.com, “This is a really exemplary project of a community coming together around a precious historic building. People seemed thrilled the house was saved.”

No word, meanwhile, on the fate of 108 Cross Highway.

108 Cross Highway: The Sequel

Last month, “06880” reported on the proposed demolition of 108 Cross Highway.

The “Henry Munroe House,” I wrote, is one of the few dwellings in town “documented as being built by a free black.”

Henry Munroe, a farmer, bought the land from John Burr in 1802. His descendants were members of Green’s Farms Church. One was the housekeeper for Peter Sturges, at nearby 93 Cross Highway.

As America celebrates the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, Westport prepares to obliterate a house that predates that conflict by half a century. And was built by someone who himself was historically significant: a free black Westporter.

Or not.

An anonymous commenter just posted (on the original story’s “comments” section) that a descendant of the Munroes is disputing the Connecticut Freedom Trail information about the family — the reference to them being black, which led to a townwide controversy over the fate of the house.

108 Cross Highway

The commenter noted the words of the family member, who identifies himself only as “Mike.” On the Freedom Trail website, Mike has written:

I am a decenent [sic] of this Munroe family listed … as African Americans.

This is not correct. The term African American did not exist in that time era. The terms used were Colored, Black, Mulatto, Indian. My family has even been listed as Blackish on the census. People keep changing their race description to African American which is historically incorrect and in fact the family are American Indian.

….This is how history gets changed!

The person who posted on “06880” added, parenthetically, about the fact that the Munroes may have been Indians, not blacks: “Not that it matters or anything.”

But does it not matter? If the Munroes were not black, does that change the discussion about demolishing the 207-year-old house?

If they were Indians — or had mixed blood — does that make a difference?

“06880” readers: What do you think?