Historic Demolition Decision in Waterford Hinges on Technicality

80 Shore Road, Waterford (CT Examiner)

Share

TwitterFacebookCopy LinkPrintEmail

WATERFORD – Attorney General William Tong declined to intervene in the demolition of a historic farmhouse on White Point given what his office said were inconsistencies between the recommendations of the State Historic Preservation Review Board and a state-hired preservation architect.

Robert and Susan Marelli purchased the rambling 1850s-era house on 3.7-acres of property at 80 Shore Road for $1.275 million in June and applied for a demolition permit on Sept. 28. Without an injunction by the attorney general, the demolition can proceed as soon as Dec. 23. 

At first glance, that decision appears at odds with the advice of architect David Goslin, and the review board, which voted 7 to 1 on Dec. 1 to recommend against demolition. 

The State Historic Preservation Review Board, which is tasked with making a recommendation to the Attorney General, concluded that the house, known variously as Nichols Farmhouse, the William H. Putnam House and Ailanthus Farm, despite numerous additions over the years, was unchanged from when it was included in the National Register Historic District in 2005, and thus worthy of preservation. 

On the other hand, Goslin, an employee of Crosskey Architects, suggested removing later additions and maintaining the core structure as a feasible means of preserving the historic property.

That inconsistency – despite two recommendations for preservation – was key to the decision by the Attorney General, according to Todd Levine, an architectural historian with the State Historic Preservation Office.

“The feasible alternative that was presented by David Goslin, who is the historic architect that we brought on, conflicts with and is inconsistent with what the state review board stated in its historic significance,” Levine told CT Examiner on Tuesday.

Levine said that Goslin’s suggestion to keep the main block of the house built in the 1850s and  to remove wings added in the 1890s and 1930s would have removed much of historic significance for the Hartford Colony National District. 

A potential offer to purchase the property, which would have offered a strong alternative to demolition, was not presented at the time of the referral.

Without a “prudent and feasible” alternative, the threshold for preservation under the Connecticut Environmental Policy Act, the case against demolition was “unclear,” explained Levine.

Goslin, an architect with Crosskey Architects, and Elizabeth Acly, a principal at Cirrus Structural Engineering, were given access to the property on Nov. 30, under an agreement between Tong and the Marellis, to assess viable alternatives to demolition. 

In his report, Goslin wrote that he found the house to be in “very good condition” and that “nothing of the existing structure was found to be in such disrepair that would warrant demolition.”

Goslin advised the Attorney General nothing about the condition of the house warranted demolition. 

“Going into this I was told that the house was “un-renovatable” and that it had to be demolished because it did not meet current energy codes. Having toured the house, in my professional opinion, I found none of this to be true,” Goslin wrote, noting that energy compliance is not required on historic homes. 

Goslin said he understood the owner’s desire for demolition “as the house has a very unorthodox arrangement given all the modifications and additions,” but suggested as an alternative instead returning the house to its 1850s footprint by demolishing all subsequent additions to the structure. 

In her engineering report, Acly wrote that the structure “is in sound structural condition overall, despite a few areas found to need repair,” including a cracked bulkhead wall. 

But that alternative, suggested by Goslin, while feasible, would remove a key reason for preserving the structure, Levine told CT Examiner, given that the additions were used by landscape painter Henry C. White, who founded the Hartford Colony.

The advice for preserving the historic farmhouse, Levine explained, actually weakened the case for preservation.

Asked whether the decision by the Attorney General was unusual, given the vote by the State Historic Preservation Review Board, Margaret McCutcheon Faber, who served on the Historic Preservation Council from 2012 to 2022, told CT Examiner that in the past the process between the state and the homeowner of a historic property concerning demolition had always been a negotiation.

“The Attorney General’s office and SHPO were involved in negotiating with the property owner to retain the historic structure,” she said. “And so, so if they are not negotiating, if they’re if they’re sidestepping that piece, that’s significant.”

McCutcheon Faber warned that “if they’re just not getting involved at all, and they’re saying go ahead and demolish it, that’s the dangerous precedent that I’m seeing.”

But according to Levine, the Attorney General does not issue an injunction for every referral from the board.

“They don’t always –  it depends on the strength of the materials that the historic preservation presents to HPC and then in a referral, they get that information. So they do not always pick it up,” Levine said. “It’s a process of meeting the requirements of the law, which is, is it historic and under threat of destruction. And the second component is really one of the prudent feasible alternatives. And you have to have strong, prudent, feasible alternatives to demolition.”