“Do you remember … The New Year’s Eve gathering which consisted of service followed by social and refreshments in the basement? … The mid-week prayer meeting in the first meeting house on Davenport Ridge—a small dog wandered in and up to where Mr. Levi Weed was kneeling in prayer, the dog jumped up on Mr. Weed’s back, sniffed his head and then jumped down and wandered out again … The time Ann Augusta Scofield became hungry during service so left long enough to go to Polly Weed’s kitchen and get something to eat?”
These are some of the warm, neighborly details featured on an early page of the Nov. 4, 1951 pamphlet “The Ponus Ridge Chapel Memorial Program”—a program and event marking the 40th anniversary of a beloved structure that served as both church and community center for scores of New Canaanites.
Up to and for more than a decade after that anniversary, the 1,400-square-foot chapel on Ponus Ridge—just a few hundred feet north of Davenport Ridge Road—functioned as gathering place for important community events: church services, Sunday School, group dinners, fairs, christenings, weddings, a funeral, dancing and art classes, holiday parties and meetings of the Ladies’ Aid Society, Farm Bureau and Fish and Game League.
Dilapidated now from years of neglectful disuse, its grounds overgrown and verdure encroaching on the fieldstone structure itself, Ponus Ridge Chapel hardly fits the image of a community hub it once held.
Well-intended efforts through the years to make use of and restore the historic chapel have not materialized, and now the property is the subject of what municipal and court records show to be a bitter dispute among neighbors, current and former.
Since 1959, the property has belonged to The Ponus Ridge Chapel and Community Association—a nonprofit organization that formed specifically to carry out the business of the chapel.
Last year, when she became aware of an effort to transfer the chapel itslef to a neighbor who’d pledged to restore and preserve it (as a guest house), one director of the association—a woman who owns a property that abuts the chapel’s .14-acre lot—filed a pair of lawsuits. Both suits name (among others) the company formed by the architects of the plan to convert the neglected property—namely, the chapel’s neighbors on the other side.
The plaintiff, Elizabeth Weed, declined to comment when reached Wednesday by NewCanaanite.com. The defendants, Ainsley and Brendan Hayes—owners of PRC LLC, the company formed to purchase the chapel—were not immediately available for comment.
According to a complaint filed in May 2013, the then-president of the association (Edythe Sherwood, also not immediately available for comment) without authorization (or Weed’s own knowledge) had entered into an agreement that ultimately would transfer the chapel to the Hayes’ company.
Prior to the suit’s filing, the matter had been aired before local planning officials.
According to the minutes of a Zoning Board of Appeals meeting from April 1, 2013, the Hayes’ intention is to preserve the historic structure, replace its damaged roof, keep the building to its same footprint and dimensions and convert it into a single-family home. The work would include installation of a septic system on their own property (the chapel’s lot is too small).
The attorney for the Hayes’ company, making the case for a variance to renovate, is summarized this way in the meeting minutes: “Use of the building stopped sometime in the 1960s. It is unusable now because there is no parking and no working septic system and no space for a new septic system. The building has fallen into disrepair, with holes in the roof and the building is caving in on itself. The articles of incorporation of Ponus Ridge Chapel and Community Association dictate that if the association no longer has need for the building and it dissolves, the building automatically goes to the New Canaan Library. The library doesn’t want the building either. The Hayes’ own the property next door at 394 Ponus Ridge. They got involved because they have room on their property for parking and septic. They formed PRC LLC to purchase the building and if this all goes through, will grant an easement back to the LLC to have the septic system on the Hayes’ adjoining lot. They’ve gotten initial approval from the State of Connecticut. Final approval awaits owning the lot.”
Weed’s attorney, Brendan O’Rourke of New Canaan-based O’Rourke & Associates LLC, argued against approval of the variance, saying that although something should be done with the broken down chapel, the Hayes’ plan isn’t the answer, according to the meeting minutes.
“Mrs. Weed is on the board of directors of the owner of the chapel. As far as Attorney O’Rourke knows, there’s no contract of sale and no dissolution of the corporation that is the owner. Mrs. Weed’s position is that the owner, the corporation, acting through its directors, needs to come up with a plan as to how to proceed and needs to consider the constituents of the corporation, which would be the neighbors in the community. There are three ladies on the board who are living, and Mrs. Weed’s four adult daughters volunteered to help put a course of action together, to deal with the eyesore and preserve its historic value. He also sees no hardship, as any contract purchasers know of the size of the lot. He also again stated he had insufficient time to study the application, to canvas the community as to potential course of action, and so the minimum thing to do would be to pass this matter and not rule on the application.”
The ZBA did grant the variance, on May 6, and is named as a defendant in a lawsuit filed by Weed’s attorneys two weeks later. Specifically, the suit says that ZBA was not authorized to permit a single-family dwelling on an undersized lot. At the May 6 ZBA meeting, the minutes say, several neighbors spoke against converting the home into a private residence, citing reasons such as increased traffic and the inability with a private home to open up the chapel some day to schoolchildren as a museum. Weed herself noted that her family had spent tens of thousands of dollars, as well as many hours, keeping up the property.
The lawsuits say more, for example: that the association’s then-president, Edythe Sherwood, and the Hayeses were “intentionally non-transparent”; that the Hayeses influenced Sherwood to “take actions that are contrary to the best interests” of the association; that all of them together “acted with the unlawful intent to deprive” the association of its sole asset, the structure.
More recent court filings from the plaintiff raise questions about the manner in which the Hayes’ first attorney went about her work—saying specifically that she acted wrongly in providing representation to both the defendants and the association itself.
A brief filed last month by Weed’s attorneys challenges (among other matters) the grounds on which the ZBA and Hayeses justify the granting of the variance: “… According to the Defendants,” it reads, “nobody has the authority to determine whether PRC, LLC had standing to file the Variance Application in the first place.”
Attorneys for the plaintiff and multiple defendants either could not be reached for comment or declined to comment when reached Wednesday by NewCanaanite.com.
Meanwhile, the Ponus Ridge Chapel—which has survived at least one major fire and seen amenities added through the years, such as a modern kitchen, toilets and warm-air heating system—falls deeper into disrepair as the lawsuits linger. It’s difficult to imagine a scenario further removed from the spirit in which the chapel was conceived and created.
According to the 1951 “Landmarks of New Canaan” book from the member-supported New Canaan Historical Society (see benefits here and applications for membership can be found here), the chapel is what ultimately came out of a movement that started in 1902 to “maintain the undenominational Christian worship of God, at or near Ponus Street.”
Weekly prayer meetings and Sunday School classes had been held in a meeting room on Davenport Ridge Road (in a building that also housed a butcher shop), according to a “Landmarks” article, by Emma Thurton.
“The members soon realized that a more adequate buildling was needed and decided to try and secure property and erect a chapel,” Thurton writes. Two neighbors—Levi S. Weed and Charles E. Hubbell—each gave a piece of property to the cause, and the chapel was dedicated on Sept. 10, 1911 “before an assembly of some 200 people.”
It would play a prominent role in New Canaan for several decades. For example, Thurton writes, when St. Luke’s School was located where New Canaan Country School now stands, Ponus Ridge Chapel “was used for religious services by the school when its [own] chapel had burned.”
The building later was redefined as a chapel-and-community-house (which triggered the creation of the association). In a wonderfully rich and well-written essay that appears in the New Canaan Historical Society’s 1950 annual (an installment that can only be found at the society’s extensive research library), Katherine Crissey Weed Comstock recalls chapel life in her youth. She notes that some of the money donated for its creation and maintenance was to revert to other places of worship if religious services on-site ceased.
“Hence the name ‘Ponus Ridge Chapel and Community Center’ calls for a religious or church service at least once a year,” Comstock writes. “This requirement has been faithfully fulfilled by the present generation, and a live, up-to-date program of activities has been ably maintained by an interested committee of local residents, many of whom are new comers on the Ridge.”
Officials at a municipal meeting last spring said that it’s been at least 20 years since anyone set foot inside Ponus Ridge Chapel on official business—a scenario that may have been unimaginable at the time of the 40th anniversary service, back in 1951.
The program that day included a dedication, address by clergyman, hymns “Faith of our Fathers” and “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” and a benediction.
Here’s what was said for the dedication:
“Dear Friends—it is altogether meet and right that this rebuilt Chapel ‘erected for religious, social and educational purposes,’ should now be especially set apart and dedicated to these ends. We are, therefore, assembled for the purpose of dedicating this building to the worship of God and the service of the community. It is to be a place where men and women, boys and girls may find moral and religious guidance for recreation and ministries of fellowship. Let us therefore be thankful for divine guidance in this undertaking and for those who by their gifts and their services have fulfilled the purpose of love and goodwill for which this building is prepared.”