MADISON — After standing nearly 300 years at a bend in the Boston Post Road that now roughly marks the place where rural sprawl draws together into the town of Madison, what locals call the “General’s Residence” is slated to be demolished and rebuilt as a “replica” containing two condominium units that will be part of a nine-unit cluster housing development.
An 8-1 vote on May 21 by the Town of Madison Planning and Zoning Commission to approve the demolition of the structure comes after years of deterioration, recent courtships from several developers, and expressions of regret by commission members who nevertheless gave approval to a special exception permit modification, a coastal site plan and application for deposit of material for the combined lots of 916 and 908 Boston Post Road.
“I would love to see the house preserved, but no one has funded the project. The last two developers have said it’s not feasible to put money into this building. Our purview is to decide if the project is feasible, so I am in favor of the project,” said commission member John Mathers.
Nearly every other commissioner echoed Mathers’ statement, balancing a stated desire to restore the building, described by many as an eyesore, against what they say is a lack of viable alternative.
Although commission members, with the support of the public, at one time preferred a renovation of the structure, Duo Dickinson, the architect for the planned development, said that the house was now structurally unsound and a renovation financially infeasible.
The sole no vote on the project was commission member Joel Miller, who said the building could be saved if the funding were available. He said he wanted more proof that the building was beyond saving.
“The structural engineer’s report says in its present state it would be considered to be unsafe … but it doesn’t make a foregone conclusion that the building is not savable … I’m not convinced,” he said. “There’s enough interest and if there’s a will there’s a way.”
Renovation or “replication”
Questions about the cost and feasibility of renovating the original structure arose repeatedly during the zoom call.
Commission member Peter Roos asked for a cost benefit analysis of restoring compared to building the new structure, and a timeline for each project.
“New construction will require about nine months and restoration would take about a year and a half to two years,” said Dickinson, adding that he could only reuse specific parts of the building.
“We will reuse the door, the entries and the porch, the rest will be new,” he said. “The frame and structure are not feasible to reuse but can be reused in other buildings.”
Madison resident Carol Snow also asked for a cost comparison of building the new structure to a restoration.
“An old building is literally unknowable in terms of the cost to restore. My guess is retail it’s twice as much money,” said Dickinson. “The alternative would be to build two little houses there, those would cost less by hundreds of thousands of dollars. Developers will spend extra money to replicate the house.”
Snow asked about the logic of removing usable parts of the building for use elsewhere.
“It has good structure, good beams, good skeletal structure, yet you want to take that away,” she said. “I don’t quite understand how it can be worth taking apart and moving but not worth keeping it where it is.”
Dickinson said whoever took the salvaged materials would get them “pretty much for free.”
“This is a salvaging job and the remaking of the entire building around the salvaged parts. It’s a different thing from replacing surfaces, you have to replace huge parts of the structure that are gone,” he said.
Madison resident Felicia Gulick, who said she and her husband Travis Gulick live in a fully-restored 1710 house, spoke in opposition to building a replica. The Gulick are known for the HGTV show “Former Glory,” which focuses on antique home restoration.
“An historically accurate new build is an oxymoron,” she said. “It’s strictly a financial decision.”
Dickinson said the decision was “practical and financial” and questioned the philosophy of rebuilding around parts of a historic structure.
“There’s a point where you can take a leaf that fell on the ground and build a tree to support it,” he said. “You could absolutely save that building. It would cost twice as much, it’s not financially feasible. If the cost of the project means someone will tear it down, I would prefer to replicate and reuse parts of it.”
Steve Bielitz, owner of Glastonbury Restoration Company, implored the commission several times to either allow him to restore the entire building on site or take it apart and rebuild it elsewhere in Madison rather than building a new structure.
Definition of replication
Dickinson did not commit to replicating the historic structure as is, but promised that his design would reuse all of the porch parts and viable exterior doors.
In an email to CT Examiner on May 12, Dickson said he would consult with experts and town commissions about what era the new house should represent.
“The windows and siding are beyond reuse, and even if it were, what is there now may not be what is the best historic period to reproduce, as the skin seems to be an early 20th century skin so the developers have retained the services of Architectural Historian Tod Bryant who, in conjunction with the Madison Historical Society and the Madison Historic Commission, as well as the Madison Advisory Council on Community Appearance, will decide what epoch best represents the finished product,” Dickinson wrote. “We have zoom meeting-ed all these groups, and are incorporating their input. As a state designated Historical Architect myself, anything less than an exact recreation of the building would not live up to the site’s unique value to the town.”
During the May 21 Zoom call, Dickinson said the dimensions and envelope of the house will remain the same, but he is considering “the best way to present this to the community.”
During the meeting, Dennis Van Liew of Madison, chair of the preservation committee of Madison Historical Society, asked whether the developer was committed to working with his group as well as Preservation Connecticut on the final design of the replica.
Attorney Majorie Shansky, representing applicants Tim Herbst and Adam Greenberg, assured the commission that the developer has opened a dialogue and will continue that dialogue.
“We hope to come to an agreement about what era it finally lands,” she said. “We have made a commitment to keep the line of communication open.”
The house was named for Brigadier General William Wright Harts (1866-1961), who, with his wife Martha Hale, used the house as a summer home and lived there full time after 1930. The original house was built by Ensign Nathaniel Dudley and later expanded with several additions. Occupants included Captain Edward Griffin.
Most recently, the property was owned by Dorothy Staley and had been in foreclosure since July 2017. Staley took out a reverse mortgage on the house, which the town cited for blight on a number of occasions.
In October 2019, Adam Greenberg and Tim Herbst acquired the property for about $1.8 million under the name the General’s Residence at Madison, LLC. In June 2018, the corporation also purchased 916 Boston Post Road for $580,000.
On May 11, Vincent Garafolo, a building official for the town, sent a Notice of Unsafe Structure to Herbst, ordering Herbst to take emergency measures within one week of the order. That notice was based on an April 22 inspection that “revealed that the structure is unsafe pursuant to Connecticut State Building Code Section R115.”
In 2018, the Zoning Commission approved special use regulations for small, single-family cluster developments, with one dwelling per 10,000 square feet of buildable land. Each unit is restricted to a maximum unit size of 2,250 square feet excluding garage floor area and two and a half story height or 37.5 feet.
Previous plans for the house included creating one residential unit in the right-hand portion of the structure and restoring the left side, but leaving it empty, according to David Anderson, director of planning for Madison.
Jane Montanaro, executive director of Preservation Connecticut, said she had been contacted about the project during the last two weeks by residents of Madison, the media and members of the state-chartered nonprofit. The property is on the state’s historic register and is eligible for state historic tax credits, but is not on the National Register.
“When there’s support in a community, that’s when our organization gets involved,” she said. “We did not have any input into decisions that were made.”
Montanaro said she would like the opportunity to work with developers, especially because historic tax credits were available for the property.
“We think building a replica is not the best solution. Restoration is more authentic. Salvage is the last resort,” she said.
Julie Carmelich, a historian with the State Historic Preservation Office, who spoke by phone earlier in the week, said the state’s historic tax credit program reserves $31.7 million annual for eligible buildings with a $4.5 million cap on each project. She advocated for rehabbing the building rather than building a replica.
“In my experience there are very few buildings that cannot be rehabbed, but I’m not familiar with the property,” she said. “We would prefer to see the original building preserved, once you lose the historic building fabric, you don’t get that back and a replica loses that special character, special millwork, special glass. We would never encourage a replica of a historic resource, especially if it can be saved.”
In a phone interview last week, Garry Leonard, an architect, Madison resident, and former board chair of Preservation Connecticut, said there are times when replication is appropriate.
“There are strong arguments on both sides. Preservationists say keeping original structure is preferred approach but sometimes the end result is much much better with replicating,” he said.
Leonard advocated for due diligence from an outside party “to confirm that the place is in horrendous condition.”
“The only way is to have a neutral third party validate whatever the correct approach is in this circumstance,” he said. “These claims are hollow until they have a professional validate their claims, then people will believe them. It will leave a very bad taste if they just tear it down.”
Mark Edmiston, president of board of Madison Historical Society, said by phone that the previous owners allowed the building to deteriorate beyond where it can be repaired.
“It’s a very sad situation. One of the main beams in the basement was cracked in half, this was one of those 12” x 12” beams. The roof has to be thrown away, it cannot be used,” he said. “When I saw the beam broken in half, I said this is not going to work. If they spent a million dollars to do that it would be not economical”
Edmiston said he had confidence in Dickinson’s ability to design a building similar in appearance.
“Duo Dickinson is a specialist in old buildings and he knows how to renovate them. He is able to build a kind of replica that will look pretty good from the street. It will not have historic value, but from an aesthetic point of view we think it will be better to look traditional.”
Resident Matthew Bennett, who lives across the street on Boston Post Road, spoke in favor of moving the project forward.
“We love it. It will enrich the neighborhood for everyone. The property is an eyesore now,” he said. “We would like to see the house preserved in its current form, but not if that’s not possible or pragmatic. The property has been off the market for more than three years and there’s been plenty of opportunity.”
Attorney Marjorie Shansky said that the town’s zoning regulations, section 3.12, only required preserving and incorporating historically significant features “where feasible.”
“This is a viable alternative for retaining a historical feature of the town of Madison that is revered and yet moving forward and taking that which can be saved,” she said. “Doing this recreation and having the rest of this development does some things that are important and desirable to the town.”
Dave Anderson said the plans were subject to review by the town’s Advisory Committee on Community Appearance.
Chair Ron Clark said the commission had ultimate approval of the plan and that the project would be approved with specific materials “so that someone can’t come in and change to aluminum siding.”