Saving historic homes preserve neighborhoods, CT preservationists say

While some builders would rather raze an antique home to build a new one, some preservationists say not so fast.

That’s because old houses often have a story to tell, they say.

The issue has sparked lively discussions on Facebook after recent tear-downs of local landmarks — the Warner House in Pine Orchard, Pawson Park Roller Rink House in Branford, and General’s Residence in Madison, which was demolished last August.

Architect George Knight of New Haven, a senior critic for the Yale School of Architecture, does not know the Warner House, but spoke about buildings that are an integral part of a neighborhood. Knight is well-known for his high-profile work conserving the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven.

“Not all structures are meant to be saved,” Knight said, making the comparison to felling a sick tree.

But oftentimes, he said, much of the Prewar construction found in Connecticut is superior to what is built today, and these older structures are adaptable to modern needs. “The ones that are generally worth preserving are far better built with more robustly built construction than current architecture.”

“The quality of the construction is so much better than it is today,” Knight added. “The adaptability and robustness of the building lent themselves to adapt,” whereas most “contemporary buildings don’t.”

Through his work with historic structures, Knight has found that the older buildings are “not over-engineered — much stouter than they needed to be” and have “ornamental character.”

“That speaks to their preservation,” he said.

While some builders may balk at dealing with obsolete mechanicals in an old house, Knight said it’s not a deal breaker. “Things like lack of air conditioning is not a reason to tear down a house — it’s simply too easy to install.”

With nearly any old building, Knight added, “It’s always the case the mechanical systems are not what they need to be. But that is easily overcome.

“Whatever’s going to replace the Warner house will very soon have obsolete an mechanical system” that will need to be upgraded or replaced eventually, he said.

Peter and Travis Gulick, father-and-son Madison builders who specialize in restoring and renovating historic buildings, echoed Knight’s sentiments. “There is no comparison to how much better the materials were in the 18th century than they are now,” Peter Gulick said. “There’s the beautiful, old-growth wood.”

Stonework can be restored as well, and often holds up, Peter Gulick noted. He recalled a 1690 house he and his son worked on: “The stonework was beautiful, totally level — still after 300 years.”

Older homes lend themselves to restoration by their very structure, he added. “And, you can open all the walls up, and we’ve done it several times. The frame can hold it up. A timber frame house — all the parts can be replaced.

“We have saved things when people have said, ‘Oh, they can tear the house down’ — rarely that’s the case,” Gulick said.

General’s Residence

The Gulicks were sad to see the General’s Residence in Madison be condemned by the town and torn down. However, before the actual demolition, the developers took some care, and pieces of the 18th-century house that were considered historically significant were dismantled, catalogued and salvaged.

But that was not enough, the builders said. In fact, the pair toured the house and said it could have been easily saved, Gulick said. “We had the same thing [as the Warner house] happen in Madison — the General’s Residence.

“We toured the house — one of the beams, one post needed to be replaced,” he said. “It was a cracked beam and there was a cave-in in the roof” above it. It was all repairable. “We’ve seen and saved a lot worse. Maybe there would have been some other things, but not that big a deal.”

Gulick said homeowners may jump the gun when they decide to knock down an old house they’ve just purchased. Often, people who don’t understand historic restoration will say, “‘I’ll tear it down, because it has a crack in a post.’ It’s so easy to replace those parts,” he said.

In the case where the new owner hates the old house, but loves the location, Gulick said, it’s really up to the community to step in by establishing historic districts.

Whether a house is saved from the bulldozer can come down to where it’s located, he said. “In Fairfield, that would never happen,” he said about the razing of the General’s Residence.

“The differences in the different [Connecticut] towns is amazing,” when it comes to historic preservation,” he said.

Even owners of old houses are not always knowledgeable, Gulick noted. He’d get a call from a client, saying, “‘Oh, these sills are rotting out — well, that must be a huge project.’ We’ll fix that in two days.”

“People don’t have any clue about old houses,” he continued. “People think they’re so much work, and it’s going to take forever and cost so much money. Really, a lot of times that’s not the case.”

Some add value to the neighborhood

Knight said some historic homes have a value that may not be obvious — one that he calls “character defining” of a community or a street. Antique houses may have more of an intrinsic value than its sale price, he said. He made the analogy of a mature tree in a neighborhood and what its real worth is to the residents.

“Why not chop down the tree? What is the value of the tree in the neighborhood?” Knight said.

“A healthy, mature tree adds value to the neighborhood that is not measured in dollars and cents,” he said. “If we’re talking about a mature tree, then I think it confers a sense of time, and a sense of place for which there is no substitute.”

“I think it sounds like Pine Orchard might have lost a certain measure of character in demolishing that house,” he said about the Warner House.

He also said that tearing down a viable house is a destruction of resources in some cases. “It’s hard to justify the removal, the discarding of what appears to be a fairly viable home.”

Zoning can play a part

It can be a challenge to preserving an historic home, especially in working within town zoning laws. Sometimes, the answer is not to restore it for its original use, Knight said.

“What’s challenging is the use restrictions that it might have,” he said. “If it can only be a single family house, it’s more complicated.” He listed many uses for older houses and buildings, such as a bed and breakfast, multi-family housing, recreational use, “shared use and community service use.”

Knight pointed to a New Haven project he is proud of, the restoration of the distinctive Tilton House, during which he worked with a “really imaginative builder, Urbane New Haven.”

The builder, he said, “bought a moribund, formerly glamorous, glorious [building] on the corner of Lawrence and Whitney Ave.”

The Tilton brothers had built two adjoining houses — two L-structures — that formed a U-shape. In recent years, the building was “sharply divided up” into office condominiums, and a medical society occupied it, he noted.

Urbane bought the unusual house and recognized its value as a residential property, turning it into four residential condos, Knight said, “that truly were magnificently attractive places to live.”

This type of repurposing old buildings is not new to Knight. “We’ve adapted department stores into residential buildings” and old warehouses to help meet the demand for more residential housing in New Haven that “were really on the way to the wrecking ball.”

These preservationists share a love of giving new life to old structures or simply conserving them.

Travis Gulick talks about antique homes in this area. “We’re in New England — this is the oldest part of the country. This is the character. This is our communities having this type of story. How were our towns built, how the cities were built,” he said.

“There are so many stories that go along with the old bones,” Travis Gulick said.