New Canaan has received a proposal to convert Irwin House—originally the country home of IBM founder Thomas Watson, Sr.—into a museum dedicated to the iconic company, town officials confirmed Thursday.
During the “Forum on Public Buildings,” Town Council Chairman John Engel—a panelist at the 2.5-hour event—cautioned that New Canaanites “can’t get ahead of ourselves on this.”
“There are a couple of things [to understand]: That is not the only proposal that’s out there, but it is the only proposal for Irwin [House]. I expect that we’re going to be getting proposals from lots of people. The first one came when a member of the Watsons and IBM approached the [New Canaan] Historical Society and said, ‘Is this possible?’ And when they asked Town Hall, Town Hall said, ‘We want to hear all proposals.’ And they said, ‘Great, can we walk the building with the IBM-Watson people to see if it’s even a fit?’ And that’s about as far as it [has gone].”
The comments came in response to an audience question at the forum, sponsored by the New Canaan Historical Society, New Canaan Preservation Alliance, Town of New Canaan and NewCanaanite.com. Designed to give residents information about many of the town-owned buildings whose future uses and ownership are in question, and to open up lines of communication between taxpayers and both elected and appointed decision-makers, it featured a panel that included Engel, First Selectman Kevin Moynihan, Town Council members Penny Young and Cristina A. Ross, and Board of Finance member Amy Murphy Carroll. Young and Murphy Carroll also are co-chairs of the Town Building Evaluation & Use Committee, whose comprehensive report was released in December.
Responding to the IBM question, Engel said that Watson representatives did go on a walkthrough of Irwin House, but “they haven’t come back and said that they have the money to do it, so we don’t know.”
Watson had owned the property at 848 Weed St., which included 36 acres, a house and a barn. The original home was destroyed in a fire, but the barn remains standing. Watson’s daughter Jane Watson Irwin inherited the property in 1961 and designed a new house to replace the one that was destroyed. The new house was completed in 1963.
Irwin House during the renovation of Town Hall and until recently had been used as swing space offices for some town officials, but long-term use for the building has not been identified. The Committee suggested relocating the town’s Board of Education offices to the building—following a necessary renovation and/or expansion—from its currently leased space. The proposal is thought to be revenue neutral for the town because the current lease expense could support up to $5 million in debt service. If the BOE proposal isn’t approved, the committee recommends that the town consider whether upkeep of Irwin House could be justified if the building’s not being put to long-term use.
“We’ve got to remember that it’s a house and not a commercially structured building,” Young, who also serves as co-chair of the Town Council Infrastructure and Utilities/Public Works Committee, said at the forum. “So, when you go to renovate a house, in order to have a commercial use, you have very different code requirements and it would take a lot to make that building code compliant for commercial use.”
She continued: “We’ve had temporary CO when we brought the Land Use departments to only the first floor. Remember, we couldn’t go to the second floor because it was not ADA accessible, but that was a temp C.O. while we were building Town Hall. So, if you were going to seriously consider moving Board of Education there, we would have to get in there and evaluate what it would cost to make that building commercially code compliant. Or, whether or not it would be more cost effective to demolish it and build a purpose-designed structure.”