Background:

Rare 1790 Dutch Gambrel Colonial to be Demolished by…Historical Society Guy?

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This one is a bit of a head-scratcher for me.  In Milford, Connecticut, the first-ever VP of the Milford Historical Society is about to knock down his historic c.1789 house, called the “Thomas Sanford House” or the “Sanford-Bristol House.”  And the Sanford-Bristol House isn’t a run-of-the-mill building, either — it’s a Dutch Gambrel double-house, with a cool flared roof, 5 dormers, and a neat Saltbox-style ell.   The house has clearly evolved over the past two centuries, making it a fascinating piece of architectural history.  This blog reports that the house was expanded to be a double-house around 1850, and the porch was added in 1880.  It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as part of an historic district.

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Yes, it does sound like the house is in rough shape.  This article mentions things sagging and leaning, and a lot of the “historic woodwork has been torn out.”  Yet at the same time, it also sounds like the condition assessments by structural engineers may have been unfair to the 223-year-old house, as they supported the owner’s case for demolition.  I’ve seen this sort of thing lots of times — it’s easy to condemn an historic house with an old-style foundation, leaning walls, and powder-post beetle damage.  Technically, the things the engineers wrote to support demolition may be true.  But generally, the people who buy such buildings do so with the intent to save them — to fix them up and give them the structural love they need — in order to be stewards of our historic built environment.  And you would think a leader of his historical society would understand that?

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The historical society guy, William Farrell, and his wife, Gwendolyn Farrell, just bought the house in January (for $150,000) to “restore” it.  Now, they will not comment on the situation.  As you can imagine, local preservationists are up in arms.

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Even though the historic commission already approved demolition, the Milford Preservation Trust and the town historian are trying to find ways to prevent it, and an architectural historian wrote this “Open Letter to Mr. William Farrell”  imploring him to consider other options besides destroying the building.  A much more thorough story about the controversy can be read here.

6 Comments

  1. by Katie Keller, on 07.14.13 @ 6:40 PM

     

    We narrowly averted a similar situation here in New Providence, New Jersey some years ago. The towns oldest house, an 18th century beauty in excellent repair was days from demolision. A media blitz (replete with a New York Times article), basically shamed the developer into backing off. My suggestion – call the local news, newspapers, & any celebrities know to have preservation sympathies!

  2. by Donna Seger, on 07.14.13 @ 7:19 PM

     

    Truly terrible; Mr. Farrell should resign from his position at the very least, and explain his proposed action to the community. I agree with Katie above; we’ve had these threats too and it takes a full court press to save a historic house. This one looks really unique for New England.

  3. by John Poole, on 07.15.13 @ 12:37 AM

     

    Michael,

    Thanks very much for making your readers aware of the plight of the Sanford-Bristol House.

    The story becomes even more bizarre as you delve deeper into the various press reports. Mr. Farrell not only wants to tear his house down, but he wants to replace it with a modern “replica house” that’s more or less reminiscent of the original, and even incorporates some of the original timbers, etc., from the demolished house.

    How’s that for showing respect to a treasured antiquity? I’ve likewise heard this strategy used many times before: “It’ll be okay if I demolish this house, because I’m going to preserve its essence in the new place, and even include a few original timbers and foundation stones (as decorative elements, of course)”. It kills me to no end when folks try to redefine “historic preservation” in their own terms, and also distort the (otherwise noble) concept of re-purposing historic materials, so as to make it all just seem “okay”. And based on the reported reactions, many of the Milford Historic Commission members fell for this.

    Also, the various problems associated with the home that Mr. Farrell cited as justification for tearing it down, during his presentation to the Milford Historical Commission, are the typical kinds of conditions routinely encountered by most of us who have spent any time around homes of this vintage with accumulated deferred maintenance; most of the problems he cited were downright laughable as such. (“Beehive oven not to modern code”? Please).

    I’m also not impressed by the reports of the two structural engineers. Most PEs don’t have strong backgrounds in historic timber frames and their engineering aspects. That’s not to criticize PEs in general, but it’s simply a matter of reality. Many evaluate historic structures according to modern design values and building codes, simply because that’s what they know. And historic frames and foundations that have performed well for hundreds of years fail these analyses every time, as a result.

    On the other hand, there are a small number of architects, PEs, and restoration specialists in our area who work on nothing but historic structures, and understand them better than anyone. That’s the sort of PE Mr. Farrell should’ve hired, if he truly wanted a meaningful assessment of his home. But as far as I’ve been able to determine, neither of these guys fall into that category.

    If anyone is interested in supporting the effort to save the Sanford-Bristol House, I’d like to suggest they “friend” the Milford Historic Trust on Facebook, and also consider joining them, or perhaps sending them a small donation. They, along with Richard Platt (Milford City Historian), are the true stalwarts leading the charge to prevent the demolition of this one-of-a-kind homestead.

    Thanks again for helping publicize this cause, Michael!

    Best regards,
    John Poole

  4. by Michael, on 07.15.13 @ 9:04 PM

     

    Thanks Donna and John for your thoughtful comments . . . I agree with you both! I hope there is some other resolution to this, rather than demolition.

    Michael@HHB

  5. by David E Dillman, on 07.18.13 @ 12:05 PM

     

    This Find-A-Grave Memorial may be the “Thomas Sanford” for whom this historic property: (http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GSln=Sanford&GSfn=Thomas&GSbyrel=all&GSdyrel=all&GSst=8&GScntry=4&GSob=n&GRid=35761633&df=all&). I have Sanfords among my New England ancestors, including Governor Peleg of Rhode Island.

    Mr. Farrell could, of course, buy another parcel, and erect a replica of anything he might like, … this structure, … a copy of the White House, … Governor’s Palace from Williamsburg. But once he has destroyed this home, which has served its owners for centuries, it will never rise again.

    I do not know his motives, or why he decided to serve so facetiously as an officer of the Historic organization, simply to destroy a standing historical property as he seems intent to do. My Milford Ancestors, who no doubt passed this home and knew its occupants, … are rolling over in their graves!

    David Dillman

  6. by J-F de Laperouse, on 07.19.13 @ 12:26 AM

     

    This is a complete travesty and the Milford Historic Commission should be ashamed of themselves. Every old house has issues that require attention and the current owner had no business buying this building if he had no intention of preserving it. As already noted, the complaints he raised were laughable to anyone with a knowledge of old structures.

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