Days after New Canaan’s highest elected official dismissed a bid to preserve a long-vacant town-owned structure on Richmond Hill Road, a resident seeking to stave off demolition has filed a formal objection to that end.
Mimi Findlay, a founder of the New Canaan Preservation Alliance, in a letter filed with the town’s chief building official, reviews the history of the “Mead Park Brick Barn” and makes a case for its historical and architectural significance.
Under the Town Code, the volunteer Historical Review Committee will study the matter and, if that panel finds that the structure “is of historical, architectural or cultural significance to the Town of New Canaan,” it can force a 90-day delay on the demolition from the date of the demo permit application.
First Selectman Kevin Moynihan said that application went into the town last week.
The question of whether to demolish the building has come before the town in the past, and has stirred high emotion on both sides.
The question of whether to demolish the Mead Park Brick Barn—or “Richmond Hill Garage,” as it has been called—has divided the town for many years. Though the town did vote in favor of razing the building—records show that demolition permits had been issued in April 2009 and August 2010—doing so proved to be cost-prohibitive due to the need for asbestos and lead paint remediation, sending the estimated cost of demolition to about $400,000.
Then a new, far smaller figure of $65,000 emerged during last budget season. Explaining the change, public works officials said the town had a new environmental analysis done by a firm and separate environmental consultant, using reports from 2004 and 2008. They found that because the weight of the brick outweighed the lead, the wrecked Brick Barn could be disposed of as “not hazardous material,” driving down the cost.
Moynihan himself in May cast a tie-breaking vote for the Town Council in favor of including the demo funds in a larger bonding package.
The Historical Review Committee typically schedules its meetings quickly after notification of a relevant formal objection from the chief building official.
Here is the text of Findlay’s July 31 letter:
The brick stable/barn was constructed by Standard Oil in April 1911 following the building of large brick kerosene tank behind it on a small piece of land it had purchased from the Mead family in 1901. There were four horse stalls for two teams of horses, a stall for tack, and a stall for grain. The horse-drawn delivery wagon drove through the center, between the two rows of stalls. Upstairs was the hayloft. The oil, kerosene and eventually gasoline was shipped from Standard Oil’s refinery by train tank-cars, and a long hose or pipe delivered it down the hill from the railroad crossing on Richmond Hill into the storage tanks behind the stable.
Subsequently, In 1933 Federal funds became available for constructing a park and the Town purchased the buildings from Standard Oil, as they were “badly needed.”
For the next 80 years, the building was used for a variety of purposes, mostly by local organizations for meetings, ranging from Margaret Liboratore’s WPA sewing group on the second floor, to American Legion meetings, and rehearsal space for the VFW Fife and Drum Corps and the Town Band. Much of its use was related to citizens’ organizations that sprang up during and after WW II and later, to sports activities within the park, including storage of baseball equipment and a place for the boy’s teams to change into their uniforms. It also served as a sculptor’s studio, among many other uses. Eventually the Department of Public Works decided to use it as a garage for its trucks, with more trucks parked around and behind the building, and, finally, as a carpenters’ workshop and storage facility.
In rural areas, such as New Canaan, the availability of this fuel enabled our residents to be comfortable in their homes and operate small machinery without having to travel by horse and wagon to Norwalk. The Standard Oil’s delivery wagon filled its tanks and five-gallon containers to deliver to farms, and retail stores, for resale to the town for street lighting, public building heat and lighting, and to residential customers to fill their own tanks to light their oil lamps, fill their oil heaters, provide heat for cooking and warmth, or power their mowers and other machinery.
In addition to the Brick Barn’s contributions to the early quality of life of the town’s residents, its later uses reflect the cultural sophistication and social interactions between residents as they coped with and celebrated the war’s conclusion and assisted the athletic teams and aesthetic life in the park afterwards.
In a community with comparatively few small-scale brick commercial buildings outside of the downtown, this vernacular building represents a locally distinctive late nineteenth century industrial architecture. Its segmental-arched windows are a carry-over from the late Victorian period particularly in their use of 2-course brick voussoirs serving as lintels. All the sills are bluestone. The Flemish bond brickwork (alternating header-stretcher-header at every sixth row) abruptly changes at about 12’ from the ground to an English bond (all headers at every sixth row) as though a new mason came to complete the work.
The asymmetrical fenestration appears to be original, the smaller windows on the east and west located at the ends of the stalls. The wooden sash and frames appear to be original, with very thin meeting rails. Most of the original glass panes remain. The carriage door opening to the street has been widened and both carriage/garage doors are replacements for the original pair of wagon doors.
The carriage barn has been altered with the addition of the enclosed outside stair accessing the second floor, but this addition appears to be over 50 years old and has acquired significance in its own right. The stair does not detract from the otherwise high physical integrity of the rest of the exterior. Building elements that have disappeared include the ventilator cupola, one boarded up window on the façade, and the two pairs of wagon doors.
As a well-designed and executed example of a turn of the century commercial structure, with high integrity of original materials, it adds to the overall variety of buildings in a residential zone next to a park.
“As probably the last remaining example of such a delivery stable in Connecticut, this barn has great historic, cultural and architectural significance” according to Bruce Clouette PhD, an independent Industrial Archeologist working for 40 years preparing National Register nominations all over the state.
In 2010 the Town of New Canaan proposed to demolish this brick barn to add 800 square feet to the northern edge of Mead Park and to offer a vista of the pond from Grove Street. Several hundred people signed petitions to preserve the structure and a demolition delay was requested, but the Historic Review Committee denied it on September 10, 2010, on the basis that “although certain aspects of the building have elements of historical interest, that certain architectural details represent historical practice and that activities carried out in the building had certain historical cultural aspects …the structure is not of an age, style, condition or character of such historical architectural significance to the Town of New Canaan that the imposition of the requested 90-day demolition delay is merited.“
Subsequently the State of Connecticut approved its listing on the CT Register of Historic Places and it was so listed on Nov. 3, 2010, securing its proper place in history.
The Town advertised for a RFP for demolition and discovered the cost would be over $400,000 so decided it had better ways to spend that money than to demolish the barn. It has remained ever since in a neglected state attracting vandals and the curious, with no further communication with the public about its status until the completion of “The Town Buildings Use and Evaluation Report” in spring, 2018, which proposed the demolition of the Mead Park Brick Barn; but it did add that “there may be a individual/organization who would want to fund the renovation of the building to be utilized for a Town-sanctioned use.”
A group approached the previous First Selectman with a proposal to restore and repurpose many years ago, and after an initial positive reception were told to back off. In May 2018 the Town Council invited NCPA to propose a MPBB reuse project, which NCPA did to the First Selectman and the Chair of Town Council in early July 2018 but it was rejected by the First Selectman, although the process for delivering the proposal is now in question.