Most Westport preservation battles follow the same pattern.
A historic house is sold. The new owner wants to tear it down. Outraged residents object. Others point out that preservationists could have bought the home, but did not — and the people who did, can now do whatever they want.
In rare cases — like 93 Cross Highway, 108 Cross Highway, or the one across the street at #113 — the home is saved. It’s a handsome stretch on an important main road.
Further down Cross Highway though, something bizarre is happening.
Near the Fairfield border sits 188 Cross Highway. The gorgeous 2.9-acre property includes a saltbox built in 1728, a barn circa 1790-1810, and 2 legal pre-1959 cottage apartments.
When the British marched past in 1777 en route to Danbury — taking brothers Benjamin and Daniel Meeker prisoner, and sacking the house — it was already half a century old.
The “Meeker house” in the 1930s, as photographed for a WPA project. After the Revolutionary War, Benjamin Meeker built the barn in back. They still stand.
The Schilthuis-Meeker house — Sally Schilthuis was influential in preventing construction of Merritt Parkway Exit 43 in the area, resulting in the current “No Man’s Land” between Exits 42 and 44 — is one of 5 remaining nationwide of original medieval structure Colonial revival construction.
In 2003, Mark Yurkiw and Wendy Van Wie purchased the property. It was in foreclosure. The houses were in distress, ready to be plowed under. But the couple saved the historic homes.
For 2 decades, they have poured time and energy into their renovation project. The result is gorgeous.
The exterior of 188 Cross Highway.
But it’s been costly.
And one couple can’t live in 2 houses. They live in the barn, and rented out the saltbox. The tenants wanted to buy. Mark and Wendy would love to sell to them — as a practical matter, and to make sure the historic structure is loved, cared for and maintained as it deserves.
They’re even willing to add covenants to keep — in perpetuity — the historic house as a single-family dwelling; forever maintain the facade, and do whatever else is necessary to maintain the house where it is. In other words, no future owner could move — or demolish — the structure.
Right now though, they can’t sell. Planning and Zoning regulations don’t permit 2 homes to exist on 1 piece of property.
Sounds like a win-win: for Mark and Wendy, and the neighborhood.
But a small cadre of Cross Highway neighbors object.
At a Planning and Zoning Commission hearing on Thursday, they (and their lawyer) cited traffic, safety, density, the fact that the house is currently unoccupied, and the sight of dandelions on the lawn as reasons to reject the application.
A recent, sun-dappled fall day.
After 2 hours of heated testimony — during which Wendy and her supporters countered most of the objections, then offered even more covenants and encumbrances to save the historic building and properties — the real issue came through.
Robert Yules and a few other neighbors opposed the subdivision because it would save the historic houses.
He said essentially that the state of the property did not reflect his McMansion, and others nearby. The grounds — period gardens and stone walls, with cobblestone walkways — did not match his extremely well-kept lawn.
One more view of 188 Cross Highway.
“Trash” and “eyesore” are usually not associated with painstaking historic rehab projects. But they were Thursday night.
It’s astonishing. Yet in this through-the-looking-glass tale, there’s something even more eye-popping.
In 2006, Robert and Susan Yules wrote to the P&Z supporting the efforts of their “friends and neighbors,” Wendy and Mark, on the “renovating and improving of the main house and free standing cottage/barn.”
The Yuleses added, “Their efforts have transformed the buildings significantly. Please permit them to continue to remodel the buildings as they will enhance the beauty of the neighborhood.”
An interior view of the bright, high-ceilinged renovated barn.
They were not the only neighbors to appreciate Mark and Wendy’s work.
Others described how Mark and Wendy had “lovingly restore(d) these irreplaceable architectural treasures” to their “deserved place” in Westport and American history.
Now the Yuleses and a few neighbors have changed their tune. They believe a new, large construction better fits the neighborhood than a plan that would save 2 structures — lovingly restored, and paying homage to the days when history quite literally marched past the front door.
“Houses are only kept alive by their owners,” Mark says.
“This is very discouraging. We’re not trying to ‘win.’ We’re trying to give the town something.
This could be one of the most topsy-turvy tales I’ve ever told.
But don’t take my word for it. Drive by 188 Cross Highway. (That’s the official number. The mailboxes have always said 178 and 180). See for yourself. Then — if you want to contact the Planning & Zoning Commission — click here.