The historic home at 8 Ferris Hill Road will not be demolished until at least May 31, following a public hearing Thursday that saw a handful of residents speak passionately in favor of its preservation.
Members of the Historical Review Committee voted 3-0 in favor of a 90-day delay (from the date of an application to demolish—in this case, March 2) after finding, as per the Town Code, that the 1735-built farmstead holds “historical, architectural or cultural significance” to New Canaan.
The decision at the hearing—itself triggered by a formal letter of objection to the planned demolition— follows the mobilization and work of preservationists eager to spare what’s known as the Hoyt-Burwell-Morse House from the wrecking ball.
It remains unclear whether the stay of demolition will garner a buyer for the home and 2.14-acre parcel, which appears to be the only viable alternative to its razing, despite the urging of planning officials to develop the property in a way that could allow for the antique’s preservation (more on that below).
Max Abel, who identified himself as “the unlucky owner of this property”—drawing some laughter from the crowd of more than 50 attending the hearing, held in the Town House at the New Canaan Historical Society (the first location of New Canaan’s municipal government)—asked the committee to deny the 90-day delay.
“I have been hearing a lot about, ‘It will be a tragedy for this house,’ ‘This is our heritage, ‘This is who we were are,’ ” Abel said. “And I guess my track record for the last two-and-a-half years will attest that I share this vision sincerely. So why the demolition? Because I got to a dead-end—it’s as simple as that.”
Abel said he was “really confused” by some of what he hears from those advocating for the preservation of the old house.
“What I hear is ‘Max, you should think about the price, or you should take a loss because you can write it off as a tax deduction,’ and I am thinking to myself, ‘Am I in the right place? Is this New Canaan, that took [$120 million] to build Grace, to spend $18 million on Town Hall, and who knows how many gazillions on education? What are we teaching our children? We are teaching our children that preservation is good, but only if it comes at the right price.”
Abel said he’s felt as though a witch-hunt emerged, with people presuming he wanted only to turn a profit, when in fact he’s seeking to cover his own costs of maintaining the antique home and no more. He wondered aloud why New Canaan doesn’t develop an affordable preservation program as it has for residential housing, and said the organized preservationists, though vocal, have not been able to seize the opportunity to acquire the property or arrange for its transfer.
“If you suggest to me that I can take a tax write-off, why don’t—[after] you by it and when you sell it or whatever you do with it—you take the tax write-off?” he said. “Why is it what you advise me to do is not good for you?”
Committee member Laszlo Papp—who sits on the panel with Chairman Mike Farrell, Harvey Kaufman (who appeared not to be in attendance) and Edward Vollmer—said he was aware of the prior history of the home at 8 Ferris Hill Road (its address is 441 Canoe Hill Road, in the Assessor’s database) as a member of the Planning & Zoning Commission.
Noting that the commission under New Canaan’s zoning regulations “has wide powers to grant certain reliefs through a Special Permit,” Papp said the current owner of the property “is ill-advised if he wants to demolish this house, for two reasons.”
First, Papp said, demolishing the antique house would “wipe out” advantages granted under the regs, including the opportunity to designate the antique home as an “accessory building” on the property.
“It would have no accessory house which is I believe is a great asset and financial advantage,” he said.
Second, Papp said, the original proposed new house for 8 Ferris Hill Road did not take into account “any relationship with the historic nature of the property, which would have given the opportunity for the Planning & Zoning Commission to give the Special Permit.”
“And so the only thing what was requested to come back with a compatible design, instead of the totally—from the historic context, totally alien, not modernist, I cannot describe the quality or style of the [proposed] design—so instead of doing that, the owner withdrew the permit application at that time and now comes back with this demolition request. Now, as I say, I believe he is damaging own interests. He is throwing away great advantages in the regulations and therefore I would personally, from my point of view, urge him to work with the Planning & Zoning Commission.”
Rose Scott Long, a board member of the New Canaan Preservation Alliance who also belongs to the 8 Ferris Hill Road Group, said the historical society and others have been “working amiably” with Abel to preserve the home and hope to move toward acquiring the property with an eye on saving it in perpetuity.
“There is no bad guy in this situation and labeling any involved entity as such will only damage our endeavor,” she said.
Tom Nissley, a member of 8 Ferris Hill Road Group who also sits on the the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation’s Board of Trustees, said he treasures the house and its “exquisite historical place in our community.” The home is “an important, tangible expression of the story of New Canaan’s settlement and subsequent development,” Nissley said. Because it has associations with early residents of what was Canaan Parish in the early 1700s, the house qualifies under one criterion for listing with the National Register of Historic Places, and also meets criteria for its architectural design qualities as a classic farmhouse, he said.
The owner of another such home in New Canaan—Charles Robinson of 4 Carter St., where a sensitive antique barn project is underway–took to the podium during the public hearing and called such structures “irreplaceable objects.”
“I ask people to close their eyes and imagine the genesis of our area before it was Canaan Parish as the place where the lands in which people’s produce were grown, people in Norwalk in our case and in Stamford in other cases, and I want you to further imagine that this house being third-oldest house in New Canaan, runs from the first-oldest house south of us on Carter Street, past our house, another farmstead, and is itself a farmstead, the cultural significance of that I think is significant,” he said.
Janet Lindstrom, executive director of the historical society, said she and New Canaan’s Martin Skrelunas personally visit nearly every building in New Canaan that’s slated for demolition in order to develop a record and file, and “the one house that w have visited” that is “really amazing” in its details and preservation is the one at 8 Ferris Hill Road. It has strong ties to many of New Canaan’s most important early families with a “great history” and preserving it will ensure not only that the structure itself continues but that the town has a living and breathing, physical record of the lives that passed through it, she said.