HAMDEN, CONN. – Using nominations submitted by members and leads from an informal poll of preservationists across the state, the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation has compiled a list of the most important threatened historic places in Connecticut.
This year’s list, according to Christopher Wigren, editor of Connecticut Preservation News, focuses on Hartford and surrounding towns – reflecting the activities of the Connecticut Circuit Rider, Brad Schide, who has become a fruitful conduit of information to and from the trust’s offices. But these places can stand for similar ones across the state.
The list contains few major landmarks. For the most part, these buildings are important locally rather than nationally, but as such they are signs of a more insidious threat: the gradual erosion of our communities’ historic fabric, the small-scale, piece-by-piece de-molition that never seems to make a noticeable difference – until one day we realize that a street or a neighborhood or even an entire town has quietly lost its identity.
Hartford: The Colt Armory
The Colt Amory is probably the city’s most important, and certainly most visible, industrial site. The Armory is the centerpiece of the Colt Industrial National Register district. Coltsville Heritage Park, Inc, a nonprofit organization, has been working to redevelop the complex.
Coltsville made a good start on revitalization by restoring the Armory’s trademark dome (see January/February 2000). Threat: Redevelopment has stalled. The state cannot release brownfields cleanup money until Coltsville submits a business plan; plans submitted so far have not been accepted. The organization is down to two board members, who seem overwhelmed by the demands of the project. In the meantime, the buildings suffer from deferred maintenance.
What is needed: More personnel or perhaps assistance from other nonprofits. As reported in the Hartford Courant, David Kahn of the Connecticut Historical Society has suggested that the National Park Service make Coltsville the state’s second National Historic Site.
Hartford: 2nd North District School
Significance: David Ransom’s biographical Dictionary of Hartford Architects remarks on the notable iron-beam construction and terra cotta diaperwork of this school, built in 1891 to designs by the well-known Hartford firm of Cook, Hapgood & Co. The school and its surrounding neighborhood form a cluster of Nineteenth Century architecture that could be eligible for the National Register.
Threat: The building most recently housed the Board of Education, but is now vacant. The city is exploring the possibility of razing the school to build a new public safety facility. Plans are still vague, and there may be time for preservationists to influence them.
What is needed: A sponsor for a National Register nomination; active advocacy for reuse.
Hamden: Ghost Parking Lot
Significance: A line of cars partly sunk in the pavement of the Hamden Plaza’s parking lot and covered with asphalt, the Ghost Parking Lot was created in 1978 by James Wines of the architecture and environmental design firm SITE as a comment on automobile-centered development. Art historians around the world know it as an early example of site-specific outdoor sculpture.
Threat: Five of the original 20 cars have been removed and the remaining ones are deteriorating. The Plaza’s owners plan to remove them as well if grant money cannot be found to repair them. The Hamden Arts Commission has tried to secure funding, but a lease that expires in 2005 could allow the sculpture’s site to be used at that time for new construction. This uncertainty makes funders reluctant to commit resources to the site.
Larger issues: The Ghost Parking Lot illustrates recent interest by preservationists in a broader variety of resources; see “Breaking New Ground,” January/February 2001 and “Broadening Historic Preservation,” July/August 2001.
What is needed: A way to convince the owners that preserving the sculpture makes good business sense; money for restoration.
Manchester: Salvation Army Citadel
Significance: Built in 1908, the Citadel is a contributing structure in the Main Street National Register district. Its quasi-military design, combining Romanesque and Goth-ic elements, is unusual among Salvation Army buildings of the era, according to one church historian. Threat: The growing congregation wants to demolish the citadel for a new facility. They say that the building presents insurmountable accessibility, main-tenance and code problems.
Other uses are not a possibility because they are committed to the downtown location. The proposed replacement is a one-story structure that will also use a vacant lot next to the current building, creating a massive new presence in the center of the historic district.
Larger issues: A recent federal law sets limits on the ability of states and municipalities to impose restrictions on religious organizations. The effect of that law on the Connecticut Environmental Protection Act has not been determined.
What is needed: Assessment by an experienced preservation architect of the possibilities for and costs of renovating the citadel. Additional sources of funding to help the congregation adapt the citadel for continued use.
New Britain: Trinity United Methodist Church
Significance: Built in 1889-1891 to designs by A.P. Cutting of Worcester, Trinity church is a large and elaborate example of the Romanesque style popular among Methodists and other Protestant denominations at the time. The church is located on a prominent downtown corner (see July/August 2001).
Threat: Significant structural damage due to water leaks originating on the roof is visible, but the church’s congregation cannot afford the cost of correcting the problem. The congregation has proposed demolishing the structure, but the city is opposed to such action. If structural problems are not corrected, building may need to be taken down.
Larger Issue: Historic urban churches around the state are threatened by the ability to assess and perform necessary structural repairs in a timely manner. Funding is needed to help dwindling congregations maintain the structures.
What is needed: Money for a National Register nomination and long-term funding for repairs and maintenance. The city had originally agreed to assist the Connecticut Trust in the National Register effort, but seems to be wavering.
Bristol: Messier Building
Significance: A contributing structure in the Federal Hill National Register district, the Messier building was built in 1890 as Bristol’s high school. Waterbury architect Theodore Peck created a fine Richard-sonian Romanesque design in red brick. For many years, the Bristol Community Organization (BCO), a nonprofit social services group, used the first floor for offices.
Threat: Maintenance has been put off for several years. In 1999 and early 2000 the Bristol Finance Board twice refused to allocate money for renovating the building; state grants and a substantial contribution from BCO (in exchange for a long-term lease) would have covered more than half of the estimated $1 million cost. BCO finally moved out last fall, citing poor air quality and other moisture-related problems. On August 14 the City Council voted to solicit proposals to buy the building. The Bristol Historical Society is interested, but can they afford it?
What is needed: A user or city willingness to care for the building, or both.
Old Saybrook: Main Street School
Significance: Located next to town hall, this school forms part of a civic complex at the heart of Old Saybrook. The students were moved out in 1991 and other town departments used the building until 1997. The school is listed on the State Register.
Threat: Voters approved a plan to rehabilitate the school for town offices in a referendum held in 1999 (see May/ June 1999), but work was never started and even stabilization work has not been done. Last year the school board indicated interest in reopening the building as a school, but then seemed to decide against doing so, in part because of concerns about traffic safety. In early August the School Building Committee recommended tearing down the school and building a new one with an identical façade.
What is needed: The new plan will have to be approved by another referendum. Voters have overwhelmingly favored preserving the school in the past. Will they do so again? And will it actually be preserved this time?
Location Unknown: Beecher House
Significance: Lyman Beecher, pastor of Litchfield Congregational Church, lived in this house in the early Nineteenth Century with his remarkable family; it was the birthplace of Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The house is a Colonial structure of elegant design with an addition made by the Beechers.
Threat: Threatened with demolition, the house was dismantled in 1998 by Stephen Solley and Chandler Saint, who intended to re-erect it in Litchfield as a museum. But Saint and the town have been unable to agree on an appropriate location within Litchfield to re-erect the house. In February Saint moved the trailers containing the dismantled house to an unknown location. He is reportedly entertaining offers of sites in other parts of Connecticut or even in other states.
What is needed: The house belongs in Litchfield, but it is unlikely that Saint and the townspeople will ever be able work together to re-erect the Beecher house or to put together a plan for operating it as a museum. The best thing for the house would be for him to accept the preservation world’s sincere praises for saving it from demolition, transfer his interest to some other organization, and graciously retire from the scene.
Norwich: Edgerton House
Significance: Four-bay Colonial houses like this one are often seen in and around Norwich, but they’re much rarer in the rest of Connecticut. This house, built for members of one of Norwich’s original settler families, was moved in 1956 to make way for the Connecticut Turnpike (I-395). The center chimney was removed, but much of the interior is still intact, and the chimney’s stones were reused in a retaining wall on the new site.
Threat: The house is vacant and located in an out-of-the-way spot, an ideal target for vagrants or vandals. The City of Norwich is interested in finding a use for the house, but does not have the resources to put into repairing or marketing it.
Larger issue: Municipalities often do not have the time or resources to care for properties that fall into their hands and disposing of publicly-owned property takes time. In the meantime, the properties deteriorate and neighbors begin to call for cleanup – by which they usually mean demolition. The Connecticut Trust can advertise properties in the Historic Properties Exchange, but we need informants. Towns need local taxpayers to call attention to problems and press for proper solutions.
What is needed: The city hopes to put the house into its homesteading program. In the meantime, it needs to be secured and to be checked up on from time to time.
Torrington: Migeon House
Significance: Achille Migeon, a prominent Torrington industrialist, built a lavish Shingle Style house on the avenue that bears his name in 1891. Designed by Bridgeport architect Warren Briggs, with grounds landscaped by Olmsted Associates, the house is a prominent feature in a proposed National Register district.
Threat: The Migeon house is part of Wolcott Hall, a nursing home owned by Apple Health Care of Avon, which currently uses the house for administrative offices, storage and laundry. Last October, Wolcott Hall applied for permission to demolish the house, citing the high cost of maintenance.
What is needed: The home is working with the Torrington Preservation Trust to identify alternative uses for the property. A nonprofit user has been found, but an equitable arrangement must be reached with Apple Health Care.
Greenwich: Mead Homestead
Significance: Built about 1795 by Benjamin Mead, III, the homestead is a remnant of agricultural Greenwich, before the town was taken over by estates and suburban development. Eventually the Meads sold the property and the house was given a Colonial Revival remodeling. The property has no historic designation.
Threat: A new owner plans to tear down the main house and several outbuildings to build a new house. One small Eighteenth Century cottage will remain. According to the owner’s attorney, he does not think the main house could be successfully modernized. The town-mandated demolition delay expired in July, though the buildings still stood when CPN went to press.
Larger issue: In areas like Fairfield County where property values have risen sharply, even relatively large houses can become tear-downs, particularly if they have become a bit shabby.
What is needed: The Mead house’s fate is almost certain, but it can remind communities that it is important to identify historic resources, designate them and establish preservation protections before threats arise.
Hartford: Capewell Horse Nail Co.
Significance: An impressive presence on Charter Oak Avenue, the Capewell factory is an example of Hartford’s distinctive industrial role as an innovator in manufacturing technology (see November/December 2000). The factory is listed on the National Register.
Threat: Developers have proposed adaptive use projects for the factory, but none of them gotten off the drawing board. Subsidized housing is probably the most realistic option, but putting funding together takes time; in the meantime, the factory is deteriorating. If it does not get some attention soon, it will be too late.
What is needed: The factory needs to be secured immediately. Then it needs a realistic rehabilitation proposal with adequate funding.
For information, 203-562-6312.