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Demolition pending for two Westport barns, but one may be saved

The influence of the Historic District Commission may save the last historic barn along the Post Road, but a second structure harkening to the town's agricultural past may not be spared the wrecking ball.

HDC members learned at their Tuesday meeting of the change of heart by the prospective buyer of property at 1135 Post Road East, which is the site of Geiger's Garden Center. They also learned that their efforts will probably not be enough to save a 20th century barn at 49 Whitney St.

Both historic barns are included in the Connecticut Trust Barn Survey.

Mel Barr, a planning consultant for the prospective buyer of the Post Road barn, told HDC members the developer's initial idea of razing the structure changed after learning about its historic significance from Todd Levine, an architectural historian for the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation and the state of Connecticut. Levine, some HDC members and interested members of the general public toured the barn as snow fell on the morning of the meeting.

"Their original intent was in tearing down the barn, but now they're stepping back and taking a second look at it," Barr said. Providing the HDC with an update of proposed plans for mixed-use development there, Barr said the developer is considering ways to incorporate the core portion of the barn into the site plan. The project would have commercial use in the front of the property and multi-family housing in the back.

"We're in the on-going assessment stage," Barr said.

HDC Chairman Francis "Randy" Henkels said Levine confirmed the barn is of a certain vintage and built with heavy timber using some hand-hewn and some sawn timbers. What wasn't clear to Levine is whether the barn was built there or moved to the spot and reassembled. Levine also apparently doubted the historical significance of the barn's "appendages," which may have been later additions.

Westport resident Wendy Crowther, who went on the barn tour Tuesday morning and attended the HDC meeting that night, said the best possible outcome would be for the barn to remain in place. Even if the barn is spared and worked into the site plan she thinks it would be detrimental to relocate it on the property.

"Leave it where it sits now. By moving it you're compromising its historic placement; and it's built on a bank. You'd have to move the bank to have it make sense," she said. "It's the last barn still standing on Westport's Post Road," Crowther said.

While that barn may remain on the Westport landscape, the other barn discussed by the commission seems poised for demolition when the balance of the delay period for a demolition permit application expires next spring. The Whitney Street structure is likely to be spared, board members indicated, only if an interested individual or developer steps forward to purchase the property with the intent of saving it. Perhaps that barn could be renovated and used as a legal rental under certain zoning regulations involving historic preservation, some HDC members suggested.

Robert Grant, the Westport lawyer who represents Judy Mack and her son Christopher Mack, owners of 49 Whitney St., said Levine did not assign the same historical significance to their post-and-beam barn, which was built in the 20th century, as the barn on the Geiger site.

"It's not, by virtue of its construction, historical ... It's not going to be saved. I'm sorry," Grant said.

However, Levine indicated barns in Westport should be cherished, regardless of their historical significance or year of construction, because so few are left. HDC members agreed. They voted unanimously to deny a request to waive the balance of the delay period for a demolition permit application for the Whitney barn.

"This is the most amazing barn inside ... That was a working barn for a very long time ... It's a very prominent part of the streetscape," Betsy Wacker said, adding that it "speaks for itself as part of the story of Westport." Grayson Braun said it's notable that a 20th century barn was built in Westport after the town's agrarian economy eroded. Braun said she thinks the barn should not be torn down, but instead worked into site plans there. Read Full Article 

But Grant said the owners have already lost a potential buyer because of the demolition delay and, he added, "Builders are not interested in this. If that buyer comes along we will embrace that buyer."

Meg Barone