Town officials last week imposed a 90-day demolition delay on a long-unoccupied house on Main Street downtown.
The Historical Review Committee voted 3-1 during a regular meeting held Thursday at Town Hall to delay the razing of 51 Main St.—known locally as “the Red Cross Building,” after its longtime former owner.
“What resonates with me is the Stick Style period that was popular around the turn of the century—I think that is the noteworthy aspect,” Committee member Mark Markiewicz said.
He added, “I think the Stick Style itself is a very notable architectural direction that took place. I see it as a very kind of regional and especially American style that was born out of ample supply/availability of wood. And therefore it’s very kind of characteristic of this area in time. It’s a modest style, but very rich in its kind of aspirations and use of the wood elements to develop interest in the facades and scale of the houses. So in my view, I think the Stick Style is a very worthwhile example that is part of New Canaan, and especially the Historic District. It also sits at the periphery of the area, it’s a kind of an appropriate introduction to the Historic District, and I believe it should be safe.”
Markiewicz, Committee Chair Fred Whitmer and member Ev Vollmer voted 3-0 in favor of imposing the demolition delay. Committee member Marty Skrelunas was absent.
Under Section 12A-9 of the Town Code, the Historical Review Committee “shall review and decide all pertinent objections within 15 days of receipt of the objection by the Building Official. If the Committee fails to notify the Building Official of its decision within such fifteen-day period, or if the Committee makes a written finding that the structure is not of an age, style, condition or character that is of historical, architectural or cultural significance to the Town of New Canaan, then the Building Official shall issue the demolition permit, provided the time for filing objections has passed, and provided that all other requirements of the State Demolition Code have been satisfied.”
The town’s chief building official, Brian Platz, received two objection letters to the demo of 51 Main St., according to documents produced following a Freedom of Information Act request filed by NewCanaanite.com.
One, from Michael and Jennifer Collins, said they live next door to the Red Crossing Building and “vehemently oppose the request to demolish/tear down” the building.
“Upkeep on structure has never been done and needs to be addressed rather than demolishing,” the Collinses said in the letter. “We as neighbors have no faith in what communications have transpired in regard to property and conversations have never been forthcoming. We believe that there is no legitimate reason for the building to be demolished and ask that you deny this application.”
Another letter, from Mimi Findlay, said the building was constructed between 1881 and 1883 “as the rectory for St. Mark’s Church, then located across the street and up the hill,” now St. Michael’s Lutheran Church.
It “has local architectural significance as the only remaining Stick Style building in New Canaan,” Findlay said in the letter. “The most arresting element of the design, the ‘avalanche’ roof, cascading down from the roof line to the edge of the porch roof, is its most dramatic gesture. The surface treatment of the house, with its flattened stickwork covering the clapboards on the exterior, suggests an actual system of medieval posts and beams of the interior, and are hints of the Tudor Revival Style, prevalent in England at the time.”
The building was purchased in 2017 for $740,000. The managing principal of the LLC that owns it, Arnold Karp, told the Committee that the only reason a demolition permit is being sought is because a different town body last month denied his application for a Certificate of Appropriateness to relocate the structure within the property. Plans call for it to move so that it’s 17.5 feet from the roadway, as opposed to the current 50 feet. A new residential building would then go in behind it, offering 20 total living units, six of which would be rented at affordable rates, as per the state’s definition.
“Our permit was only put in because we were turned down to relocate the building on the property and preserve and keep it,” Karp said. “So maybe you guys should follow your normal course, I believe, which is a 90-day delay. And our intent wasn’t to rip down that building, it was to save it and preserve it. There are other forces at play, but I don’t disagree that it is a building worth keeping in the fabric of New Canaan.” (Karp said he hadn’t seen an objection letter and hadn’t been notified that such a letter had come into the town; Committee members said they would review the communication flow.)
It isn’t clear what will happen at the end of the 90-day delay. Under the New Canaan Historic District Regulations, a Certificate of Appropriateness also is required in order to demolish a structure within the Historic District.
Currently, Karp’s application to redevelop the property—denied by the local Planning & Zoning Commission earlier this year—is under appeal with the state, via the process outlined in the 8-30g statute that deals with affordable housing. If the project is approved by the state, it’s not clear what weight the town’s regulations would carry, since state law always trumps local ordinance.
Karp and Karp Associates COO Paul Stone both noted during the Committee meeting that there appeared to be problems with the public notice announcing the meeting itself. No details ever were posted to the calendar in the town website, and the printed notice posted in the Town Hall lobby did not specify a location. Stone noted that nobody from the town contacted the property’s owners to say the Committee would be discussing the demolition delay.
Karp said, “We just had a town election that clearly indicated that three new selectmen have, hopefully, a different take on what people should know.”