Minutes after waiving the balance of the delay period for several permit applications to demolish older structures around town, the Historic District Commission on Tuesday welcomed the presentation of a homeowner seeking to preserve two historic houses on Cross Highway.
Wendy Van Wie requested a local historic district be designated for the property at 188 Cross Highway, which comprises two vintage structures -- an 18th century main house and a converted barn with street addresses of 178 and 180 Cross Highway, respectively. She also asked for support of plans to subdivide the property so that each house would have its own parcel and separate owners in her bid to protect the structures "legally and physically."
In a unanimous vote, HDC members agreed to support the subdivision request even though the total lot size is 2.9 acres and the zoning in that neighborhood requires a two-acre minimum for each lot. They also voted to appoint a study committee for the proposed historic district designation. A study report, which will require the services of an architectural historian at the homeowners' expense, will expand on the current known history of the property and determine its historical significance.
Van Wie and her husband Mark Yurkiw own the parcel, which encompasses the rambling Colonial house and the barn. The couple lives in the barn and rents the other dwelling, identified as the Schilthius-Meeker House on the town's Historic Resources Inventory. The couple purchased the property about a decade ago when it was blighted and abandoned by its previous owner, and worked to restore, maintain and update the structures while preserving their historical integrity.
Before the meeting, Yurkiw called the main house a representative of "the best of three centuries of architecture." The original part of the house, which may date to 1740, is a Pre-Revolutionary saltbox that has a traditional three-sided fireplace with a beehive oven, hand-hewn beams and the original wide-plank chestnut floors in a second floor bedroom. A Colonial Revival wing was added in 1929 and then in 1961 a Mid-Century Modern addition was constructed. That section of the house includes a cavernous family room with a barrel ceiling and mahogany floor.
The original front door is now an interior door, and Yurkiw said it still has an indentation from where it was allegedly struck by musket fire as British troops attempted to conscribe its resident during their march to Danbury in 1777.
"I've never seen such a house," said David L. Meth, a neighbor of Van Wie and Yurkiw, who attended the meeting. Meth said the house was built by "artists in the true style of old-fashioned craftsmanship."
"The saltbox is significant and if the barn was built in the late 1700s that's interesting too," said HDC member Robert Weingarten. According to a 1988 Historic Resources Inventory conducted by architectural historian Mary E. McCabon, "The late 18th-century saltbox house appears to be the oldest of the many Meeker houses in the Cross Highway area."
It will be difficult to prove the construction date of the barn, Weingarten said. The earliest map of Westport dates to 1835 and includes only those properties south of the Post Road. A map of properties north of the Post Road dates only to 1838. Additionally, he said, barns were not included on tax records until 1914.
HDC members indicated the local historic district designation is probably not an option as the designation requires a minimum of two individual and adjacent properties, However, other options exist including a landmark property designation.
Whatever route is taken, HDC member Edward Gerber is grateful for the owners' effort. "We're thrilled you want to protect both properties," he said.
HDC Chairman Francis H. Henkels said the town's historic houses "need to have responsible owners, dedicated owners."