Tag Archives: Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation

Unsung Hero #174

Bob Weingarten nominates Carol Leahy as this week’s Unsung Hero. He writes:

For 22 years Carol Leahy has served Westport. She started as a part-time employee in the selectman’s office, then in 1990 was named full-time Historic District Commission administrator and certified local government coordinator. She retired in 2018.

Prior to those posts, she was active in the League of Women Voters, including board service of for a number of years.

In her role as Historic District Administrator, she helped countless Westport homeowners understand preservation issues for their homes.

Carol Leahy

She obtained funding for preservation projects from the state. She also assisted the Historic District Commission by setting up agendas for monthly meetings, notifying homeowners, providing town reference material and documenting meetings for public review.

Leahy created the annual preservation award program, which recognizes owners of residential and commercial properties who demonstrate outstanding efforts to protect the historic character of exterior structures. She helped the HDC with the awards presentation, preparation of award narratives, and the annual display of house award photographs.

Among her many achievements, she helped restore the Minute Man Memorial.

Leahy is a lifetime Connecticut resident. She moved to Westport in 1972 and raised her 2 children, Wendy and Michael, here.

After she retired, HDC members decided to fund a Westport Museum for History & Culture plaque to honor her contribution to the town. The ceremony was held recently via Zoom.

1st Selectman Jim Marpe says Leahy “played a critical role in organizing and structuring the work of the Historic District Commission. Her knowledge and understanding of the grant funding and historic designation opportunities made her the go-to person for Westport residents looking for support in designating historic properties. Her positive and professional demeanor created a calming presence in all her Town Hall interactions.”

Last year, Leahy received the Janet Jainschcigg Award from the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation. At the ceremony, State Senator Tony Hwang said Leahy “made history come alive, working with both developers and owners of historic properties.”

(Do you know an unsung hero? Email nominations: dwoog@optonline.net)

Eno House: The Sequel

Yesterday’s post about LandTech’s plan to save the Eno Foundation building generated plenty of comments.

Some referenced the handsome waterfront estate directly across Saugatuck Avenue. Owned by Foundation founder William Phelps Eno — the father of modern-day traffic devices like stop signs, pedestrian crosswalks and 1-way streets — it was one of the most majestic mansions in Westport.

Yet as several commenters noted, it met an inglorious end.

Here — with research help from alert “06880” reader/amateur historian/ace realtor Mary Palmieri Gai — is the back story.

I could not find any photos of William Phelps Eno’s Saugatuck Avenue estate. Here is what the property looks like today, after subdivisions.

According to a January 7, 1996 New York Times story, Eno’s estate commanded a sweeping view of the mouth of the Saugatuck River and Long Island Sound. However, the 119-year-old, 15,000-square foot, 32-room 1877 Colonial Revival — featuring an inside hall with 8 fluted columns, a ballroom with an octagonal entryway, built-in organ, and bathrooms tiled in marble — had been unoccupied for 9 years. In wretched condition, it was being offered for a bargain price.

One dollar.

The only caveat: “Cash and carry. You buy it, you move it.”

Oh, yeah: It could not fit under the nearby railroad bridge. So it would have to be put on a barge — all 200 feet of it — and floated down the Sound.

Over the following months the Maritime Center, Anthony Quinn and Diana Ross all expressed interest. But the $500,000 moving cost — and $1.7 million price tag for restoration — scared them off.

The Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation tried to shop the mansion for use as a museum, B&B or inn.

Sherwood Island State Park was interested too. On November 19, 1996, the Times noted that thanks to loans, gifts and pledges, the Eno mansion would be floated 2 miles away, to Sherwood Island State Park.

Sitting on land donated by the state, it would be open to the public for exhibits about Connecticut’s historic homes, as well as conferences and celebrations. The top floors would be used as offices by non-profit preservation and environmental groups.

Sherwood Island State Park: one possible site for the Eno mansion.

A house mover was hired. He planned a system of pulleys to tug the house to the barge. At Sherwood Island, huge dollies would pull it a mile inland. The process would take 3 months.

But, the Times reported 2 months later, the State Department of Environmental Protection reversed its initial approval. After 200 people signed a petition opposing the move, the DEP acknowledged there were too many questions about the impact on wetlands and wildlife.

And that was that. Eventually, the house was demolished. The land was subdivided into five 1-acre lots.

Today there is nothing left of William Phelps Eno’s estate. Fortunately — thanks to LandTech — his Foundation across the street will not meet the same fate.

Oh yeah: According to Westport architectural historian Morley Boyd, some of the house’s elaborate interior was salvaged by volunteers.

“Those materials did hard time in a trailer upstate,” he says. “But the last I knew, they were being woven into the restoration of another structure by the same architect.”

Gault Barns Make History

In its 3 decades of existence, Remarkable Book Shop made a remarkable impact on Westport.

As Mitchells celebrates its 55th anniversary, we marvel that the 4th generation of family members waits in the wings.

But those 2 town institutions have the life spans of fruit flies, compared to Gault.

Westport’s oldest family-owned  business is 150 years young this year.

You want a historical reference? It was founded two years before Abraham Lincoln won his battle to pass the 13th Amendment. You know — that ancient event Steven Spielberg is about to win multiple Oscars for.

Gault logoOn Thursday, the company will kick off a year-long anniversary celebration. They’ll find many ways to honor their heritage — moving from a one-horse and wagon hauling enterprise, through freight hauling, grain threshing, seed supplies and lumber to coal, masonry supplies, home heating oil, and now biofuel, propane, electricity and standby generators — along with their century and a half of commitment to Westport.

While the details of the “150 Years of Community” celebration are hush-hush, one item is significant. The press event will be held at the Gault family’s historic Compo Road South barn.

That’s where the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation will announce that the Gault Barn — actually 3 barns, built from 1890 to 1913 — will be added to the State Register of Historic Places.

You’ve driven past the barns a jazillion times — they’re on the right, a half mile or so from the Post Road as you head to the beach.

The Gault Barns today. (Photo courtesy of Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation)

The Gault Barns today. (Photo courtesy of Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation)

But you may not know — I sure didn’t — that they are historic structures. Their timber frame construction reflects the building traditions of American farming.

A Connecticut Trust researcher says, “the Gault family showed uncommon ingenuity by integrating a variety of materials from their lines of business, including brick and stone masonry, into the barns to create a truly unique complex.”

The barns have endured since the time when wagons gave way to automobiles. That was the early 20th century — and the Gault company had already been around as long as Mario’s has now been a Westport fixture.

Beef steers in front of the Gault barn, winter of 1930.

Beef steers by the Gault barn, winter of 1930.

While many Westport barns have, um, bought the farm, the Gault family used theirs in evolving ways — to “support and take advantage of changes in the community over time, from dairy farming to lumber and feed grain, to coal and home heating delivery.”

The Gault barns are prized by historians and curators for their architectural bones and historical narrative. They’ve been lovingly preserved and maintained.

In fact, says the Connecticut Trust, they’re among the Top 10 historically significant barns in the state.

Big deal. The Gault family — and their company — have been #1 in service to Westport for decades longer than those barns have even existed.

108 Cross Highway

There are teardowns. And then there are teardowns.

It’s one thing to buy a 1960s split-level on a private road, knock it down, and build a monster McMansion. Your neighbors may (or may not) like it, and the old house probably has little historical or architectural significance.

Then there’s 108 Cross Highway.

As reported by WestportNow.com, a 2-story “vernacular” may soon be demolished.

108 Cross Highway

It’s sad enough that the house is definitely old — dating back to 1805.

It’s sadder that it’s a handsome home, adding pleasure to the streetscape of that much-traveled stretch between North Avenue and Roseville.

But how about this:  according to the Westport Historic District Commission, the “Henry Munroe House” 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.

Because the home was built more than 50 years ago — waaaay more — the demolition application must come before the Westport Historic District Commission.  That sounds good.

Westport has been a town for over 175 years. Free black man Henry Munroe built his home on Cross Highway 3 decades before the founding of Westport.

However, the commission can prevent a teardown only if it is part of a Local Historic District (there are 4 6: Kings Highway North, Jesup Road, Violet Lane and Gorham Avenue, plus recently added Evergreen Avenue and 20-26 Morningside Drive South ), or a property owner asks for designation as a Local Historic Property (there are over a dozen).

If that is not the case — and, with 108 Cross Highway, it’s not — all the commission can do is impose a 180-day waiting period. That, supposedly, gives time for someone to propose an alternative to demolition.

Right now, Westport does not provide tax breaks or credits in exchange for protective covenants on deeds. (The money saved could theoretically be put toward renovation or restoration of the property — which might even enhance the resale value.)

The demolition application will be heard at a Historic District Commission meeting at Town Hall on Tuesday, December 13 (7 p.m.). A large turnout is expected. Many will argue for the 180-day delay, in hopes that a solution can be found.

For inspiration, just look across the street. For years, 113 Cross Highway was a dump. Despite its history as an 1800s farmhouse and (later) pioneering gas station, it was an eyesore — and in 2006, about to be torn down.

At the last second, Mike and Kim Ronemus stepped in. They bought it, then lovingly renovated it and several outbuildings.  Today it’s a jewel of the neighborhood.

They had to jump through countless bureaucratic hoops. But they persevered — and won an award from the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation.

113 Cross Highway -- a view of the renovations from the back. (Photo/Douglas Healey for the New York Times)

108 Cross Highway is in far better shape today than 113 was a decade ago. It’s also more historically significant. But — to paraphrase Thomas Paine — eternal vigilance is the price of preservation.

The 1st step takes place December 13, at Town Hall. All creative solutions are welcomed.

Ronemus Rewards

Congratulations, Mike and Kim Ronemus.  Next Monday you’ll receive a Connecticut Preservation Award from the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation, for your tremendous efforts restoring the long-decrepit house, barn and outbuildings at 113 Cross Highway to their former glory.

Congratulations too for persevering through that preservation. It was lengthy; it was contentious — and it almost didn’t happen.

The town’s tortuous zoning regulations almost tripped you up.  You had to leap through more hoops than Shamu at SeaWorld, every tiny step of the way.

Thank you for your patience.  Thanks too for the love, respect, devotion, care, attention to detail — and more than a little bit of money — you lavished on this historic property.  May your example inspire others in town to do the same.

And may your trailblazing through the thickets of bureaucracy create a path that is somewhat smoother for those who follow.  That may be your biggest gift of all.