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Out With the Old: 1775 Structure Demolished in Hartford Village

Out With the Old: 1775 Structure Demolished

  • Robert Conniff of Conniff's Construction moves 7-inch insulation board in one of the new homes being built in Harford Village, Vt., on May 12, 2016, at the site of where a house dating to 1775 was razed. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Looking west along Route 14 in Hartford Village, Vt., on May 12, 2016. Net-zero modular homes are being built on a lot where one of the oldest houses in town had stood. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • A house built by Benjamin Wright Jr. in 1775 was one of Hartford's oldest buildings before it was demolished in April 2016. (Courtesy Hartford Historical Society)

  • A 1775 building, believed to be one of Hartford's oldest, was demolished in April 2016. (Courtesy Hartford Historical Society)



Valley News Staff Writer
Sunday, May 15, 2016

Hartford Village — The recent destruction of one of Hartford’s oldest homes has increased the urgency of calls for a new town ordinance that would protect historic properties.

“I can’t put it in polite terms,” said Gail Wright, when asked what she thought about the April demolition of a house built in 1775 by her ancestor, Benjamin Wright Jr., on Maple Street.

The home was demolished by its owner, Steve Davis, who knocked it down so that his Wilder-based company, Vermod, could build four net-zero modular homes on the .6 acre lot, which sits across from the Hartford Village post office.

“Once it’s gone, you can never get it back,” Gail Wright said.

A Google map image from 2012 shows that “1775” was prominently displayed on the front, above the street number for the house, which sat across from the Hartford Village Post Office.

Davis said he knew the house was old, but was unaware of its specific significance. “There was nothing to tell me that it was a historical building,” he said. Even if he had known, Davis said, it was unlikely that the building could have been saved.

“The building was in disrepair,” he said. “The foundation was all rolled in on it, the underpinning was all rotted. There was no fixing the building.”

Town records show that Davis bought the home in 2003 for $175,000; he said that, until recently, it had tenants living in its four rental units.

Unbeknownst to Davis, the building’s first owner was the son of Benjamin Wright Sr., a founding father of Hartford who began serving as selectman in 1764, three years after the community was first chartered, according to a newsletter from the Hartford Historical Society. The younger Wright served as a lieutenant in the Vermont Militia during the Revolutionary War, before returning to Hartford Village, where he “owned most of the land,” according to a 1900 report cited by the Historical Society. Before he died in 1803, Wright served as town assessor and highway commissioner.

Robin Adair Logan, a member of the Hartford Historic Preservation Commission, said the sudden realization that the building was being demolished led to a flurry of conversations between community preservationists, but that it was too late to even properly document, let alone save, the structure.

Many of its historic features were left as rubble, said Gail Wright. “A lot of the original structure went to the dump,” lost forever.

Logan said the hand-hewn beams of the structure demonstrate that it was built before Victorian times, when milled lumber first became widely available.

Preservation Discussion

Had the home been in another town, things might have gone differently, said Logan.

“This is very unusual, for a town to not have its own protection on the local level for protecting its historic districts,” Logan said.

For months, the Preservation Commission has been discussing whether it’s time for Hartford to consider adopting an ordinance that would provide some level of protection to its buildings. Logan and Commission Chairman Jonathan Schectmann said that, despite the efforts of preservationists, the ongoing revitalization of the town has caused many of Hartford’s historic buildings to be threatened, and lost to history.

A three-tiered “triple decker” house across from the Listen Center, and a Victorian home on South Main Street were both recently razed, they said.

Last year, leaders of the United Methodist Church on Gates Street entered into talks with a local developer to sell the building so that it could be knocked down to make way for an assisted living facility (see related story). The talks were scuttled, and the building saved, only after stiff opposition emerged from a segment of the membership.

Preservationists know efforts to protect those buildings could bring them into conflict with those who might see an ordinance as an assault on private property rights.

Town Planner Matt Osborn warned commissioners that “historic preservation has been accepted in Hartford in large part because it is voluntary,” according to minutes of the March meeting.

Logan said she was aware of the potential for opposition, but that the issue deserves Hartford’s attention.

“I think it’s ready to have the debate,” she said. “I think it’s going to go badly, but it’s got to start someplace.”

Logan said the alternative is to have town planners and preservationists spending taxpayer resources to identify and document such structures, only to have those efforts go to waste.

“If you have a historic district, and you’re paying money to hire someone to vet that district, people should not be able to take down their buildings,” she said. “It’s bad.”

Selectman Mike Morris, who owns Morris Homes, said he would have to see the details of a proposal before taking a position on it, but that his gut reaction was to keep the rights of the property owner in mind.

“Generally speaking, I think, if you own property, you should be allowed to do what you want to it,” he said. “If I wanted to send an old, antique car to the scrap yards, that’s my choice.”

Alex DeFelice, a former selectman, agreed.

“I kind of lean towards, ‘It’s my property and I ought to be able to do what I want to do,’” he said. “If somebody has a problem with that, maybe that organization or person should buy it and they can do what they want with it.”

Jonathan Schectmann, chairman of the Preservation Commission, said the idea of a demolition ordinance is in its early stages, and that the main benefit of any ordinance would be providing time for consideration of alternatives.

“By no means would it be considered a taking or a diminishment of the property rights of the owner. It is more looking at a structure as almost having some community-wide consequences, if it were absent,” he said. “This is just giving a little step back, a little respite so that some due diligence and some intelligent thought-taking might occur that might offer some alternatives.”

If the community knew that a privately owned historic structure was in danger of being knocked down, Schectmann said, it would allow for other possibilities — leveraging grant funding for a restoration, moving the structure to another site, or creating a plan to preserve the facade of the building.

At the very least, he said, it would give local historians a chance to document the building’s architectural features by photographing them and taking measurements.

Protecting the Past

The exact form of what a demolition ordinance in Hartford might look like is unknown.

The commissioners are drawing on ordinances from Burlington, Shelburne, Bennington, Montpelier, Rockingham and Waterbury to inform their discussions. Those communities generally require residents to obtain a demolition permit before a structure can be razed, but there is wide variability in what, exactly, a property owner has to demonstrate in order to receive such a permit.

In Bennington, for example, land use regulations specify that those wishing to demolish a historic structure provide “documentation that the rehabilitation of the structure would cause undue financial hardship to the owner; or that the demolition is part of a site development plan that would provide clear and substantial benefit to the municipality.”

Waterbury has similar wording in its demolition ordinance, and also adds an exception for unsafe buildings. Waterbury allows a review board to require the applicant to provide documentation of historic and architectural features.

Another question is whether a demolition ordinance would do anything to address “demolition by neglect.” Logan said her understanding was that the Benjamin Wright house had deteriorated to a state where demolition might be the only reasonable choice. During a March meeting of the commission, Logan requested, with support from the rest of the commission, that standards be established “to prevent a property owner from allowing a building to deteriorate beyond repair,” according to meeting minutes.

Lori Hirshfield, executive director of Hartford’s Planning Department, said any ordinance will be vetted before it becomes the law in Hartford.

“If it’s something the Historic Preservation Commission wants to pursue further, they’ll bring it to the Selectboard,” she said. “There’s community involvement.”

Hirshfield and Schectmann both said this isn’t the first time the commission has looked into creating an ordinance.

“There have been two previous times in the existence of the Historic Preservation Commission where this has been brought up and superficially investigated, but we never reached a situation where we felt we had something that was ready to go to the Selectboard,” Schectmann said. “It’s been unfinished business.”

In the case of the recently demolished home of Benjamin Wright Jr., there was a bright spot for preservationists, who managed to snatch one solid piece of history from the building’s wreckage before it was lost forever.

Logan said she was at home shortly after the building was removed, when she got a call from Susanne Abetti, another commission member.

The beams!, Abetti said to Logan. The beams!

Soon, Gail Wright had been told the news — Abetti had found an online listing that read, in part, “40 hand-hewn beams from one of Hartford’s oldest homes (circa 1780s). Asking $500.”

Wright said she wasted no time in buying back a bit of her ancestor’s home. 

The beams, she said, “are back with the Wright.”

 

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at mhonghet@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.