Local preservationists say they’re concerned for the future of an antique home in New Canaan that changed hands in November.
The 1735 home at 8 Ferris Hill Road—or 441 Canoe Hill Road (same parcel)—sits on 2.14 acres that sold six months ago for $1.25 million, tax records show. Town officials say the new owner had pursued a special permit that would’ve allowed him to build a second house on the same property—but that the application since has been withdrawn.
“We’re very concerned, we are anxious but we have no solution, because at the moment there are no ordinances to protect the house in this situation,” said Mimi Findlay, founding president of the New Canaan Preservation Alliance, a nonprofit organization.
Renderings posted on real estate websites depict what would be a new, 7,700-square foot home on the property—and a note that the 1735 home could be used as a guest or pool house.
Asked whether it would be possible for a single owner to have two homes on the lot, Town Planner Steve Kleppin said in an email, “It could be through a special permit.”
“There are restrictions regarding structure size and sometimes on occupancy,” he said. “For example, they [Planning & Zoning] may condition it [the special permit] so there are no rentals.”
The property’s owner—who recently held an open house at the antique structure—could not immediately be reached for comment.
The antique house itself is occupied right now, and is said to have been continuously occupied these 280 years.
Wes Haynes, a circuit rider for the Hamden-based Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation, told NewCanaanite.com that the house is “very well-preserved.”
“The original parcel has long ago been subdivided to what it is now, but the house has the original feeling with relation to the roads and it was cared for very well by the previous owner,” Haynes said.
Called the “Hoyt-Burwell-Morse House” in 1951’s “Landmarks of New Canaan” book, the structure itself hasn’t been registered on a state or national registry. In “Landmarks,” Edwin Hoyt Bouton identifies the home as one of those built and occupied by the Hoyts as that family moved from Norwalk to newly formed Canaan Parish in the 1730s, on what was called “House Ridge”—basically Canoe Hill Road as it rises from Carter Street, up and over the crest of the ridge, to Laurel Road on the other side. Future occupants are said to include Jonathan Burwell, Ezra Hoyt, Capt. Daniel Hoyt and Gilbert Birdsall (more on him here).
At least one local historian believes the house to have been occupied by Onesimus Comstock—a man born into slavery in New Canaan in 1761 and said by some to be the last living slave in Connecticut (there’s some debate; he died at 96 in 1857). Comstock had identified himself as “voluntary slave” in the 1850 Census for Norwalk—he’s buried in the nearby Canoe Hill Cemetery (which is off of Laurel).
Author and former New Canaanite JoAnn Rice, who used to work as music director at St. Michael’s Lutheran Church and is now retired in New Mexico, said she is “90 percent” certain that Comstock lived out his life in the house.
“What I gathered was from looking at property records at the New Canaan Historical Society and trying to cross-reference Comstocks and where they might have been likely to have lived, because the place Onesimus lived was given to him by his ‘owner,’ ” she said. “I’m not 100 percent sure that that house is where he was living but I’m somewhere up around 90 percent.”
Mary Louise King in her “Readings in New Canaan History” includes a section on “The Last Slave,” which traces Comstock’s “ownership” by two separate women (an aunt and her niece) named ‘Phebe Comstock.’ When the younger of those women died, King writes, Comstock “returned to New Canaan to live on Ferris Hill”—though she doesn’t specify just where.
Back to the present.
According to Helen Higgins, executive director for the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation, those who purchase properties that include antique homes typically are interested in the house itself and its preservation.
“Yes, there is always a concern that there is a developer lurking, but overall most of our antique houses are sold to people who have an interest in the home,” she said.
“That said, the difficulty in New Canaan or Darien is that there is much more of a challenge because the land property value is higher than the house, and we have seen an epidemic of teardowns, in Westport and New Canaan and all around, in the last decade,” Higgins said. “It depends on where you are in Connecticut.”
Inclusion in a historic register is largely “honorific,” Haynes said, though starting next year—due to a revision to the existing tax credit program—single-family houses such as the one at 8 Ferris Hill Road would be eligible for tax credits when it comes to improvements such as boiler upgrades, repainting and reroofing.