A divided Board of Selectmen on Tuesday voted to approve a pair of contracts to demolish a long-neglected town-owned building on the northern edge of Mead Park, signaling the end of a long-running and hotly disputed debate concerning its future.
Selectman Nick Williams, who emerged in recent months as the Board’s “swing vote” on what preservationists have dubbed the “Mead Park Brick Barn,” said he had mixed feelings about voting to raze it.
Noting that a local nonprofit organization, the New Canaan Preservation Alliance, has “worked tirelessly in its efforts to save the Barn” and that “every citizen of New Canaan, regardless of whether you are in favor of or opposed to its continuation, should applaud their efforts,” Williams said that “the time has finally come to proceed with demolition.”
“During a meeting last fall, I said then and I quote, ‘I am personally generally agnostic about the disposition of the Brick Barn, but regardless, one of two things needs to happen—it either needs to be fixed and rehabilitated soon, very soon, or it needs to come down,’ ” Williams said during the Board’s meeting, held at Town Hall.
“While the Alliance has indeed tried to move heaven and earth to save the Barn, alas, the requisite funding plan, in my mind, essentially, cash on the barrel and in the bank for the complete restoration, with no ‘strings attached,’ and together with a business plan acceptable to relevant town bodies has not come to full fruition,” Williams continued.
He noted that municipal bodies including the Town Council and Parks & Recreation Commission have voted repeatedly to see the Brick Barn demolished.
“That tells me that even if we as a Board today were to provide additional time for the Alliance, their continued efforts would ultimately be in vain,” Williams said. “For those reasons, I feel compelled to assist in ending a discussion that has has taken place for nearly a decade. It’s time to move on. The disposition of the Barn has engendered an extraordinary amount of input from our citizens, with emotions running strong on both sides of the issue. Likewise the so-called ‘process’ of that disposition has been discussed and debated extensively in our local press. Ladies and gentlemen, I would submit to you that as difficult as it has been at times, and it has been difficult, that process has worked.
“While I have mixed feelings about my vote today, and I do, I believe no one can ever say the process has been rushed, that it has lacked full transparency or that it has ignored the considerable and often thoughtful input from our citizens. To my friends at the Alliance, I know this is a bitter pill for many of you and I am sorry. I truly hope that you will not take today’s outcome as a signal that our town does not value your expertise, your dedication and your commitment to serve New Canaan. I also hope that you will permit the town to partner with you in the future, and to identify and implement other historic preservation projects that we can support together. I believe we owe you that opportunity.”
More than 30 people attended the meeting, including several members of the NCPA and people who support preserving the Brick Barn—many of them wearing red, the color of bricks.
Those preservationists, as well as those who favor demolition, took to the dais during a public comments period at the meeting.
The arguments they presented will be familiar to many. Those in favor of preservation said the century-old building—originally a Standard Oil fuel depot, from which horse-drawn wagons made deliveries in New Canaan—is an important and rare historic building that the town has neglected for decades. It adds to New Canaan’s rapidly disappearing heritage and charm, predates Mead Park itself and a private organization is willing to fund its restoration and maintenance, saving local taxpayers dollars for the cost of demolition and potentially very high cost of site remediation.
Rose Scott Long Rothbart, a preservation architect and NCPA board member, said that “today, as it would appear that those who worked so hard to ensure the demolition of the structure have achieved their goal, I ask two things of you and this town.”
“It has been mentioned to some of us that the very persons in authority who have absolutely refused to speak with any of us on this matter are now suddenly poised to reach out to use and offer a different building, so that the NCPA can carry out its assistance with historic preservation funding,” she said. “When those who have done everything in their power to ignore and thwart the NCPA in its effort to restore this historic structure make this offer and the response by some of our members is ‘No, thank you,’ please do not think these individuals as sore losers. It is offensive beyond the offense already endured. If this building comes down, please do not carry out the plan presented to the Parks & Recreation Commission in which the concrete slab for the building complete with scoring from the horses and other indications of its former use and construction remain. Please remove the slab and the asphalt parking lot and perform the necessary cleaning of contaminants on this site . Above all, please do not allow a historic marker fo the site as indicated on the proposed and accepted plan. This is part of the plan approved by the very people who have stood here and denounced the historic nature of this structure. If the desired goal regarding the demolition of this structure is open space, please abide by your conviction and your stated purpose.”
Those who favored demolition described the building as a poorly made, architecturally unremarkable eyesore that New Canaan wouldn’t place in a family-oriented park if it had the choice.
New Canaan resident Laszlo Papp described efforts to preserve it as a “monument for self-interest,” saying what many of those in favor of demolition refer to as the ‘Richmond Hill Garage’ “has no use, has no purpose” and “does not belong in a town park.”
First Selectman Kevin Moynihan, who in November vowed to see the Brick Barn razed, said that “this has been a very hard issue.”
“I appreciate the efforts of the Preservation Alliance,” he said. “I understand they have truly heartfelt feelings about preserving this building.”
Yet multiple town bodies have voted on the issue, Moynihan said, and “as much as I appreciate the feelings and hard work of the Preservation Alliance, I think we have to follow process and we have to respect the fact that many people over may years taken a position and for that reason.”
He and Williams voted in favor, with Selectman Kit Devereaux voting against.
Devereaux took issue with Papp’s characterization of NCPA members, calling it “very unjust” and describing those in the organization as “public spirited” as well as “committed” to saving New Canaan’s heritage.
“This little 800-square-foot building has been such a big controversy and in the course of this time I have been listening to and speaking with New Canaan residents and to some people it is a worthless eyesore, and to others it’s a good example of New Canaan’s industrial history,” Devereaux said.
“There is not a clear consensus that this building should come down or stay up, and we have no ability to have a referendum. But I believe that this Barn was in place before there was a Mead Park. And where an organization like the New Canaan Preservation Alliance has offered not just to renovate but to assume future liability for the building, after much thought, I cannot support demo of this little piece of New Canaan’s history.”