Mobilized by the very real possibility that a historic Ferris Hill Road home will be razed, local preservationists and other experts are working with its owner and touting the 2.14-acre property’s potential for types of development that would still save the antique structure.
A demolition sign went up Wednesday at 8 Ferris Hill Road (listed as 441 Canoe Hill Road in the assessor’s database), one week after its owner applied for a permit to raze the 1735-built home.
Now is a critical time for preservation advocates, before a 15-day window to object to the demolition runs out and a decision likely is left with a municipal committee. Though the home’s owner could not be reached for comment, he has said that demolition appears to be the only possible way to develop the property he now regrets purchasing more than two years ago.
Yet one local expert, Robert Dean of New Canaan-based Robert Dean Architects, a firm that’s been practicing here for 30 years, said there are three basic ways that emerged when it comes to preserving an antique structure such as this in the face of development: Move it, sustain it in place and build around it, or sustain it in place and add onto it (more on those options below).
For Dean—who works mainly in residential architecture, and at a high level where he’s developed expertise in antique houses, serves as an advisor to the New Canaan Preservation Alliance and works closely in his hometown of Redding on preservation issues—the home at 8 Ferris Hill “itself is of great historical importance in the community.”
“If you think of the community as something that has any kind of continuity—and I’m not sure everyone in the world thinks that way – but if you think of continuity culturally and historically and physically, this house is one of the last remaining artifacts of New Canaan in its original earliest days. And when you lose that memory, when you lose those artifacts, you lose that memory and you lose a great deal of the culture in that community. In this country, you can go to town after town that has simply and lightly dealt with one small pragmatic issue at a time and gradually has liquidated its entire history and now you cannot even find the town. But towns in Connecticut—and New Canaan in particular—are remarkably well preserved. That institutional memory, that cultural memory is still visible.”
On the radar of preservationists since it sold in November 2013 for $1,250,000, and a plan to develop the property soon emerged, the so-called “Hoyt-Burwell-Morse House” has been continuously occupied for 280 years, historians say.
Susan Serven, who sits on the New Canaan Historical Society’s Board of Governors, noted one particular story associated with the house that has to do with the Rev. Dr. William Drummond.
Installed as the third Congregational minister in Canaan Parish in July 1772 following some controversy (he had been spotted “drinking intemperately” in New York City, by some accounts), Drummond in December of that year set out to create his famous ‘Journal of Family Visitation.’ Now in the vault at the New Canaan Historical Society, the journal listed Drummond’s calls and what he found in Canaan Parish during the next two months or so.
According to 1951’s “Landmarks of New Canaan” book, Drummond at 8 Ferris Hill Road “found the house occupied by Ezra Hoyt” and his wife, Phoebe Benedict, whose names were “recorded as founders of Canaan Parish when it was formally established in 1731.”
It’s a significant connection to the establishment of what eventually became New Canaan, at the time an area divided (by the still-extant ‘Perambulation Line’) between Stamford from Norwalk.
“I can’t imagine we would tear down house that they lived in,” Serven said.
Historical Society Board President Mark Markiewicz and Executive Director Janet Lindstrom—together with Lesley Cousley and Rose Scott Long of the New Canaan Preservation Alliance, and Tom Nissley, member of the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation’s Board of Trustees, for a group that calls itself the “8 Ferris Hill Group.”
Asked why this is a critical time for the fate of the home, Scott Long said, “Because we have a window of opportunity here.”
“We are working with the owner to achieve a positive outcome” and “we just need to get all the pieces in place to accomplish that,” she said.
‘A positive outcome’ being any plan that preserves the antique and historically significant structure.
According to Dean, there are three basic ways to sustain the house, the first being “a way that seems to be currently desired: To find another place to put the house.”
“And that does not sustain all of its memory, all of its history but at least it sustains the artifact of the house. It doesn’t sustain the house at that intersection where it has been and formed part of the whole history of how houses were built in relation to roads and things like that, but if the artifact remained it would be a lot better than nothing.”
The second concept, Dean said is “to somehow sustain the house on the property while other, bigger structures are built and you sometimes see that done and that may have come up here.”
“But town zoning does not easily support that, so it has not been successful in New Canaan that I have seen.”
Finally, somebody may add the house to make it more modern and “figures out in so doing how to still sustain that memory and cultural memory of the original house.”
“That is kind of the full inventory of things you can do,” Dean said.
Anyone interested in the preservation of the home to contact the Historical Society at firstname.lastname@example.org.