After years of disuse that dragged on due to bitter legal disputes, a neglected and deteriorating former chapel and community center on Ponus Ridge now is poised to be restored in a way that historic preservationists in New Canaan long have supported.
The historic Ponus Ridge Chapel stands to be transferred from a dormant association to a neighboring property owner, clearing the way for its protection and eventual conversion into a privately owned structure that will be opened periodically to the wider community.
“We are really happy about it,” said Brendan Hayes, next-door neighbor and soon-to-be owner of the Chapel property along with his wife, Ainsley, told NewCanaanite.com. “Restoring historic properties is one of the things we feel strongly about, so we are excited to be able to start this project—it is long overdue.”
Once a community hub that 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—the Chapel hasn’t been used in some 50 years, according to town records.
Since 1959, the ca. 1911 building on .14 acres a few hundred feet north of Davenport Ridge Road has belonged to The Ponus Ridge Chapel and Community Association—a nonprofit organization that formed specifically to carry out the business of the chapel.
Yet with no parking or working septic system—and no space for a new septic system—the Chapel at 424 Ponus Ridge went unused and through several decades began to visibly deteriorate, with holes in the roof and the building is caving in on itself.
Under the articles of incorporation of Ponus Ridge Chapel and Community Association, if the association no longer has need for the building and it dissolves, the building automatically goes to the New Canaan Library.
The Hayeses, at 394 Ponus Ridge—mindful stewards of their own antique house—have room on their property for parking and septic, and formed a company to purchase the building and grant an easement back so that the septic system can go on their own adjoining lot. The Hayeses’ proposal included preserving the building, replacing its roof and converting it into a single-family home on the same footprint. The New Canaan Historical Society and New Canaan Preservation Alliance both supported the plan.
Yet a neighbor objected, filing lawsuits against the Hayeses and the town, then appealing a Superior Court decision against her that tied up the project for years.
Those legal matters have been settled within the past year, according to Hayes, and this fall the Ponus Ridge Chapel should get a much-needed new roof followed by exterior work restoring the building just as it was, so that it’s no longer an eyesore.
The process by which all this will be accomplished requires some deliberate legal work. The Association, which has been reformed and includes 20-plus individuals, will execute an agreement to dissolve itself, Hayes said, and then the library will be paid for the property and the Chapel transferred. (It last was appraised at $940,200, tax records show, though the figure does not necessarily reflect a sale price.) Asked whether he’s aware of any lingering opponents of the restoration plan, Hayes said no.
The Zoning Board of Appeals did grant a variance for the Hayeses’ project five years ago.
In the short term, Hayes said in an email, “we just plan to stabilize it by putting on a new roof and repairing the doors and windows.”
“Longer term, we would like to fix up the interior so it is usable; we would also like to open it up for visits periodically once it is fixed so that members of the community can appreciate its history.”
It’s a rich history.
According to the 1951 “Landmarks of New Canaan” book from the Historical Society, 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 building 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 an 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.”
A Nov. 4, 1951 pamphlet “The Ponus Ridge Chapel Memorial Program”—an event marking the 40th anniversary of the building—lays out a program that includes 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.”