New Canaan Library is seeking permission to install a “mirror house” at South Avenue and Maple Street where people could preview the organization’s widely anticipated rebuilding project.
The temporary 230-square-foot structure would use “interactive 3-dimensional tour from inside,” according to an application filed with the Planning & Zoning Commission.
“From the outside the look of the structure is that of a ‘mirrored glass house’ due to the fact that it has very highly reflective surfaces on three sides running the full height,” owner’s agent Paul Stone of Karp Associates said in a Special Permit application filed on behalf of the library. “Essentially, it’s a mirrored box, no gables. From the interior one can see out as though it’s clear glass, but from the outside it appears as a mirror.”
P&Z is to take up the application during a regular meeting Tuesday, one week after the library won a key signal of support from New Canaan’s legislative body.
The Town Council on March 24 voted 10-2 to deny a motion that would have effectively halted the library’s project for one year so that preservationists could figure out a use for the original 1913 building building and fundraise for its restoration and maintenance. The library is seeking a $10 million contribution from the town toward its overall $30 million project and is fundraising the balance.
Those in favor of the delay—preservationists as well as Councilmen Tom Butterworth and Cristina A. Ross among them—argued that the century-old building is a rare architectural and historic gem of New Canaan that lends to the look and feel of the downtown. Keeping the original structure is called for by the document that guides planning decisions for the town, the preservationists argued, and though the library owns the building and property, the organization is quasi-public in that taxpayers fund its operations. The preservationists also pooh-poohed plans to create a town green where the original building sits, saying New Canaan can have plenty of green space there in addition to keeping the structure.
Yet others, including library leadership and board members, said the town green is an integral part of the overall design for the property and cannot be sacrificed without sending architects back to the drawing board and forcing the project’s development team to go back to all of the donors who have pledged money. No one has identified a use for the building, the municipality shouldn’t be taking on additional vacant structures at this time and the structure itself would be out of harmony with the future library, they said.
Councilman Steve Karl called the decision facing the town highly emotional and said that while he has listened to the preservationists’ point of view, keeping the building “is a very steep, steep mountain to climb.’
Not only would more than $1 million (as much as $3 million) be needed in order to preserve the building as opposed to demolishing it, but a substantial fund would need to be built for its ongoing maintenance.
In addition, Karl noted that the Town Council in recent years has worked hard to figure out what buildings the town could offload, not take on additional ones.
“The fact that we would be adding another building, it’s just hard to think about,” he said. “The realities are too insurmountable to me at this time.”
Karl added, “I have been thinking about this so much over the past couple of months. I just can’t get there. I really can’t. It is the library’s property. If we are tired of putting all of those pieces together, to be on the 5-yard line and have another big stumbling block put in front of them, I just don’t think it’s fair. They have actually offered to sell the building, we could try to move the building. I love the idea of moving it. If we could try to save it, I would be all in and help as much as I could to figure that out. But to sacrifice that town green and to step up right now and get in their way, I just can’t see that this is a good idea. I really can’t And I really have tried my best to look at both sides of the argument. I really, really have. I have looked in the mirror several times. I love that building. I learned to read in that building, Tracey [Karl] learned to read in that building. It’s an emotional thing. It really, really is. It’s tough but we are doing this for our great-grandkids. We are not doing this for us. It’s for the next 100 years, not the last 100 years.”
In addition to Karl, those voting down the motion included Chairman John Engel, Vice Chairmen Sven Englund and Rich Townsend, Robin Bates-Mason, Liz Donovan, Mark Grzymski, Mike Mauro, Maria Naughton and Penny Young. The Town Council’s vote on the $10 million itself is still to come and likely would require at least one addiondal future vote for bond issuance.
Under the New Canaan Zoning Regulations, “accessory buildings or structures not customarily and reasonably incidental, as determined by the Commission, to a permitted principal use” are allowed with a Special Permit (see page 54).
According to Stone’s application, the creators of the “mirror house” are “award-winning designers from Estonia and this would be their first U.S. installation.”
“As one approaches the structure the effect would be very intriguing as it reflects virtually every bit of its surroundings,” he said. “This Mirrored Glass House would serve as an on-site announcement to the world of the upcoming New New Canaan Library project, and to help facilitate the public fundraising phase. Also, it would be an homage to New Canaan’s mid-century modern movement.”
Inside, the installation would have just one interior space and no kitchen or bathroom, he said.
“[T]his is strictly a ‘visitor center,’ ” Stone said in the application. “This is not a dwelling. There are no wetlands on this parcel. There is no planned exterior lighting on the structure. When the major library building project begins, then this structure would be removed.”