An appointed town body on Monday voted 4-0 in favor of imposing a 90-day delay on the partial demolition of New Canaan Library.
Members of the Historical Review Committee during a special meeting said that the original 1913 library meets criteria of local history and architecture as outlined in Section 12-10A of the Town Code.
Citing a letter of objection to the library’s recent demo permit application that was filed by New Canaan resident Mimi Findlay, Committee Chair Mark Markiewicz said, “It’s very clear that the original 1913 building has a very compelling history, both socially in the town and architecturally.”
“It also seems like there’s a great potential to repurpose it, which would become a great cultural asset to New Canaan,” he added at the meeting, held in Town Hall and via videoconference. “To use its full footprint including the five rooms that originally were built, I think it offers a lot of opportunities for different events, whether it’s exhibits or music venues or whatever. And its central location is also important. So there’s a lot of potential there for a cultural asset. And finally and perhaps most importantly is, as I am looking at the growing construction of the new library, which is magnificent, it seems to me that the original building is becoming more and more diminutive—and I see a very comfortable space between the original building and the new library so that and in no way do I see that it competes with the new library. There is very generous open space between the two and I believe a solution could be arrived at to satisfy both the use of the old building and access to the new building.”
Markiewicz, Committee Secretary Rose Rothbart and members Ed Vollmer and Fred Whitmer voted 4-0 to impose the 90-day delay. Committee member Marty Skrelunas was absent.
The delay will make the partial demolition possible as early as late-November. Library officials have already said they do not plan to demo the existing building until the new one is ready for move-in next spring. The library’s plan—approved by the Planning & Zoning Commission last December—calls for an approximately 65-by-20-foot portion of the original 1913 building to be enclosed and moved to the library’s western property line.
The library’s executive director, Lisa Oldham, was one of several people to address the Committee during the public comments portion of the meeting.
She said, “The library is very pleased to have made an exceptional, wonderful compromise, we feel, in saving the 1913 building, as it has come to be called. The original building. The front two rooms, which is not a facade, and is basically 20-by-65 feet long and is the entire usable portion of what’s there, it will be moved on the site which will be a delightful new place for it, allowing it to look over the new green. To be clear and just to make sure the facts are here, no municipal monies have been offered for this project for the original library.”
The Committee’s demo delay has long been expected.
Under Section 12A-9 of the Town Code, if the Town Building Official “receives a pertinent written objection to the application within 15 days following publication of the [demolition] notice, then the Building Official shall promptly refer such objection to the Historical Review Committee.”
The town received several letters objecting to the demolition.
Under the Code, the Historical Review Committee “shall review and decide all pertinent objections within 15 days of receipt of the objection by the Building Official.” That appointed Committee may find that “that the structure is of historical, architectural or cultural significance” to the town, and delay demolition by up to 90 days.
Rothbart said during the meeting that from the start, “the library knew decisions regarding the 1913 library would be a lightning rod in our community.”
“At some point in this 10-plus year process, the architects supposedly did not have the ability to add on to any portion of the existing building, even though so many before him have accomplished this,” Rothbart said. “The library made the decision it all had to go but kept that decision very quiet. The library has stood by that decision but eventually had to alter their course based upon community reaction and have produced a compromise. I believe our community has learned a lot lately from this situation and other current situations about what is and what is not preservation and conservation. For an institution whose stated mission is to inspire lifelong learning through innovation and discovery, and be the information and cultural center of the community, I am not convinced the library has actually listened to their entire community and to input from preservation professionals and learned, as well.”
Rothbart said that prior to the library’s first public unveiling of its rebuilding plan in January 2020, the organization “did graciously share with me their plan of a new New Canaan Library, sans 1913.”
“Following the big reveal, I made numerous public statements suggesting the library meet with this Committee to review how the 1913 library could be preserved and incorporated into the existing plan, but we were never approached by the library for such a conversation,” Rothbart said. “Throughout this entire process, the owner and their representatives have demonstrated a lack of understanding of both their building and especially of preservation. The purpose of a 90-day demolition delay is to give the owner one final opportunity—this is what we’re supposed to do—to appropriately preserve the building in question. That’s a general thing we’re supposed to do. I sincerely encourage the library to do everything in its power to embrace true preservation for this most deserving of buildings.”
Vollmer, prior to casting his vote in favor of the demo delay, said, “ I am very unhappy about the way this whole process has taken place.”
He added, “If we don’t preserve the past, it will be destroyed. It’s very sad.”
Two members of the Committee, Rothbart and Whitmer, referred to the library’s demo permit application itself.
According to emails obtained by NewCanaanite.com, a lawyer with Bridgeport-based Cohen and Wolf PC—the same firm representing the New Canaan Preservation Alliance in two active lawsuits against P&Z regarding its approval of the library’s overall project and preservation plan—said the application is flawed in that it cites inaccurate square footage totals.
Asked about the matter after Monday’s meeting, New Canaan Chief Building Official Brian Platz, to whom the lawyer’s letter was addressed, said, “I don’t deal with opinions. I deal with Code sections.”
Several members of the public addressed the Committee prior to its vote.
Patricia Funt Oxman said, “The building is so loved by so many and has so many rich memories for so many people. It is a visual landmark that means New Canaan. I just couldn’t feel more strongly about saving it.”
Charlie Robinson said the library is “absolutely acknowledged” as a landmark and icon.
“It’s suitable, safe enough, accommodating enough for the library operations for all the years I’ve lived in New Canaan, which are now just about 25,” he said. “And it continues and will until the library can move operations into the new building.”
Robinson added, “There is no reason whatsoever for the library to have to raise money to move it, to partially destroy it, to incur any issues with it because the New Canaan Preservation Alliance has publicly offered the library board, the townspeople of New Canaan and the government of New Canaan across its branches that we will raise money to repurpose it. We will repurpose it and give it back to the library, thus repurposed. There is no reason to put any burden, not a cent of burden on New Canaan taxpayers to do anything with the 1913 library other than say, ‘Thank you very much for doing it.’ ”
Keith Simpson said that during early discussions regarding the library, public input on future plans was that “respectful treatment, and preservation, of the 1913 building was always high on the ‘must-have’ list of architectural elements to be included.”
“Those strong public sentiments subsequently got lost until the decision was made to demolish the 1913 building in a secret library board meeting,” Simpson said. “That decision was deliberately withheld from the public at large for a very prolonged time, because of anticipated public questioning, and opposition, to such a decision.”
Regarding the P&Z-approved plan for relocating salvageable parts of the original library on the campus, Simpson said, “In my opinion, trying to move any portion of the 109-year-old original building is absurdly risky, and massively expensive, and moving it into a far corner of the library’s property, is practically, financially and aesthetically irresponsible, and it makes no common sense.”
Others who addressed the Committee include Findlay, Betty Lovastik, Richard Stowe and Terry Spring.