How to Not Preserve a Historic Building

A compromise has been reached between the owners of the Norwalk Inn and the Norwalk Preservation Trust to do something — anything — with the severely damaged house at 93 East Avenue in Norwalk:

That agreement will allow the Inn — which owns the dilapidated G-SJ House at 93 East Ave. — to renovate the building that has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1986 as part of the Norwalk Green Historic District, provided the proposed improvements make it through the city’s zoning process.

Zoning approvals will allow the Inn to restore the house to its Revolutionary War-era grandeur and convert it into seven or eight extended-stay, suite-type rooms, give permission for the Inn to expand to a third floor and add up to 40 more rooms, and provide visual buffering around the Inn from neighbors on surrounding streets.

Some background: the Inn bought the house at 93 East Avenue, which is adjacent to the Inn’s parking lot, to demolish as part of an expansion (the house is often referred to as “The Grumman-St. John House,” but there are no records of it ever having been called that prior to the legal battle; the name originates with the Norwalk Preservation Trust and its personification of the building). Zoning laws prevented the Inn from expanding upwards with a third floor, so they sought to expand outwards. The house had been most recently owned by two elderly sisters who ran it as a boarding house, but their age apparently prevented them from keeping the facility in good order. When the Inn bought it, 93 East Avenue was in serious disrepair.

When the Inn applied for demolition permits, however, the Norwalk Preservation Trust filed suit to prevent the work, claiming the house was listed on the Register of Historic Places. This is somewhat misleading. The house is not specifically identified on the Register; rather, a broad swath of downtown Norwalk is listed (as the “Norwalk Green Historic District”), which includes 93 East Avenue and dozens of other structures as well. Regardless, the state of Connecticut agreed with the Trust, and litigation ended with a judge ordering an injunction against the demolition of the house.

This led to the house crumbling further, an eyesore to anyone traveling down busy East Avenue. In November 2008, I interviewed Chris Handrinos, a manager at the Inn and co-principal of the LLC formed to purchase and demolish 93 East Avenue, for a magazine article. He interpreted the injunction as preventing any kind of repairs since refurbishment would necessarily require some removal of rotten materials and thereby constitute “demolition.” Meanwhile, the Preservation Trust, which was so hot to litigate, has never offered so much as a penny toward either buying the house or restoring it (I would share their perspective with you, but back in 2008, when I was writing that article, they never returned any of my e-mails or phone calls). And there the matter stood, with the house falling apart, until yesterday’s agreement.

All sides can claim this as a win, although it should be stressed that this agreement can only happen through the town making an exemption for the Inn from its own zoning laws. None of this would have happened if the Inn had been allowed to expand with a third floor from the beginning.

But the impasse could have also lasted indefinitely, with the house eventually collapsing or catching fire. The Norwalk Preservation Trust exemplifies how not to preserve old structures. Rather than assuming responsibility for the house themselves, they chose to litigate instead, creating a stalemate where the incentive was to do nothing to the house rather than preserving it.

Let me contrast this with an anecdote about an unrelated property. Once upon a time, I was doing research at my local historical society when a man came in to complain. A developer in town sought to disturb an area the man believed to be historic and he wanted the society to do something about it. The archivist on duty politely told him that while they would be happy to assist the man in researching the area as foundation for his argument, legal or otherwise, against the development, the society did not directly involve themselves in these kinds of issues. Faced with the prospect of having to do, you know, some actual work, the man left. He wanted somebody else to spend their time and money to fulfill his wishes.

This is why I admire my historical society and why we’re members: they are circumspect in their mission. They maintain their library and museum, as well as two historic buildings in town, but they know very well that preserving a building requires labor and funds — something they wouldn’t have if they dove into every dispute over every colonial tool shed or sea captain’s homestead in town. They pick their battles and put their money where their mouths are. That’s how you do preservation.