More than a dozen people spoke before the West Hartford Historic District Commission Monday night.
By Ronni Newton
The West Hartford Historic District Commission (WHHDC) received a strong message from residents and preservationists Monday that a Craftsman-style bungalow on Albany Avenue is worth saving, and that West Hartford should do more in the future to protect its diverse and historic architecture.
The WHHDC held a comment session as part of its meeting Monday night to gauge public opinion regarding a 1918 bungalow at 2022 Albany Ave. which has been slated for demolition by developer Reinhard Von Hollander of Investment Developers LLC.
Von Hollander purchased the .56 acre lot in November 2014 with the intent of demolishing the bungalow, splitting the lot, and building two new 4,000 square foot homes.
All but one of the people who addressed the WHHDC strongly supported preserving the bungalow, and urged the organization to exert whatever force it may have to save this home. Many also requested that the WHHDC work with the West Hartford Town Council to enact regulations with “teeth” that could protect historic homes threatened by demolition in the future.
Von Hollander was invited, but did not attend Monday’s meeting.
Resident Bob Cloonan read a letter to the WHHDC written by his daughter, Sarah Cloonan, an architectural researcher who grew up in West Hartford. “We regret much of what we built … but never have regretted saving anything,” Cloonan wrote. She said that this unique bungalow home, with its “remarkable characteristics,” is part of the town’s diversity and it had always intrigued her and helped pique her early interest in architecture. “The residents of West Hartford need to look further than a quick fix … when I think about what makes West Hartford great, what sets it apart from other communities, I have always thought of its great neighborhoods … 2022 Albany Ave. is one piece of this beautiful patchwork.”
The property is at the corner of Albany Avenue and North Steele Road, and Art Fullerton, who lives directly across the street on North Steele, was the second speaker and the only one who strongly stated that the home should be demolished.
Fullerton, who admittedly is neither a builder nor engineer but said he has restored his own older homes through the years, said that 2022 Albany Ave. has greatly declined in the past two years that it has been vacant and although it may look good from a distance, the closer you get the worse it looks. Fullerton said he had gone inside the house on Monday, and there has been significant water damage and nothing remaining of architectural value other than perhaps the bannisters.
“This is not in need of cosmetic restoration but structural rebuilding,” Fullerton said.
Other speakers disagreed and said the home is worth saving for many reasons.
Mary Donohue, a West Hartford resident who retired in 2012 from her post as deputy state historic preservation officer, said she has seen many buildings in worse condition that have been restored. “This building is really an outstanding example of the bungalow style,” Donohue said, highlighting the intricacies of the of the detailing in the home’s side porches.
The home, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is both historically and architecturally significant, Donohue said. “The National Register doesn’t protect property owners from demolishing, but it states that it’s deemed by the federal government to be worthy of preservation,” said Donohue.
Donohue said she hopes that the developer, who will still be able to build a new home on the rear lot, will give the community a chance to find a buyer for the bungalow. She said that there is a 30 percent tax credit available through the state for homeowners to rehabilitate historical properties, and that this home would be eligible.
In the past Von Hollander saved the Bassette House and developed four new homes on Bassette Lane in West Hartford, and Donahue said she hopes he will be willing to allow the bungalow to be sold off separately.
When the property was sold in November, it was done through a private sale and potential buyers who may have been interested in purchasing and restoring the home were never aware of it being on the market.
Donohue also urged the WHHDC to work with the town to examine some new legislative protections, such as a model historic preservation ordinance recommended by the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation, designed to protect historic properties that could potentially be at risk.
“The teardown tsunami could hit West Hartford,” Donohue said.
“We hope that you can take this opportunity to enact a townwide ordinance to prevent neglect and the teardowns that I think are coming,” agreed Mary Falvey.
Resident Rachel Pattison said that the home “evokes an earlier time” and is “such an achingly elegant home and such a special place. It’s different from other houses in that area and that’s what makes it special,” she said.
Pattison said that even if the home’s interior is in bad shape, the outside is still “incredible” and part of the diversity and character of the town. “[The town should] think really long and hard about letting this property go,” Pattison said.
The WHHDC also received a show of support for preserving 2022 Albany Ave. from a Fairfield County group that not only wrote a letter to Chairman Greg Galvin but also attended the meeting. John Poole from the Milford Preservation Trust said that while the home should be checked out by a restoration professional, that “sensitive restoration of historic properties is a sound investment over time.”
Although the home is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it is not in one of West Hartford’s three historic districts (Buena Vista Historic District, Boulevard-Raymond Road Historic District, and West Hill Historic District), so the WHHDC has no official authority to restrict the developer’s action. Von Hollander has already been granted permission from Town Planning and Zoning to split the .56 acre lot into two parcels.
Galvin said that if the developer does not change his plans, the strongest and most well known tactic would be to invoke the Connecticut Environmental Protection Act which allows “citizens to sue to prevent ‘the unreasonable destruction of historic structures and landmarks of the state,’ defined as buildings on the National Register of Historic Places.”
“I would hope that on a more reasonable level we could work with the developer and come up with a compromise,” Galvin said, but he first wanted to hear residents’ opinions.
The next step is to digest all of the comments, Galvin said.
“Most were about saving the house. With that feedback and given our own interest in the house as a group, we will be looking to do more with the developer.”
On Tuesday crews were removing trees on both lots, but said they were not doing anything to the bungalow.
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