Tuesday, November 4, 2008

The Grumman-St. John House, Norwalk, CT

Time for a little hometown controversy:

In a nutshell, the Grumman-St. John house in Norwalk, CT is currently falling apart as its owners seek to bulldoze it and the local preservation trust is fighting to save it. Luckily the trust has Connecticut's Attorney General Richard Blumenthal on its side. But it's an ugly fight, and it ain't over yet. Props to the trust and the attorney general for fighting to save this important piece of Norwalk history.

I had the pleasure of meeting the director of the Norwalk Preservation Trust while helping out with a historic house tour last month. I grew up in the next town and my parents now reside in Norwalk. In another odd twist, my husband is a descendant of the Norwalk St. John family. Given these connections, I've been tracking the story from afar. We discussed the issue and he said that to these owners, this valuable and irreplaceable house is "just an old wooden building."

Call me a bleeding-heart preservationist, but I can't look at any crummy old building without appreciating it in some way. Even some rickety old shed behind a remuddled bungalow gets a drop of my interest and compassion. Perhaps this is because I get paid to spot and survey anything that appears to be over 50 years old. Perhaps all this surveying, and my lifelong fascination with architectural detail, makes it inevitable that I can't just ignore buildings. Even as I write some of the built environment off as too new to survey, or too altered or insignificant to be NR-eligible, I still see potential in things most people would not appreciate. I still see a story there, even if it's not a very important or interesting one.

Sometimes I wish that I could take a would-be demolisher on a tour through the building they want to knock down to build their McMansion or chain store. I'd point out the details, the hand-hewn beams, the delicate molding profiles, the soft wear on the stair treads, the honey of the floors in the afternoon sun. The hand-built china cabinets and homely old mantels. The sturdy construction under the cracking paint and crumbling plaster. I'd point out the beauties and irreplaceabilities of even the ugliest ugly-duckling building, share my vision of what it could be. I'd also point out that they'd engender a lot of community goodwill if they kept it and revived it. Is knocking down history and pissing off the neighbors really a good way to promote a business?

Would they listen to me? Probably not. Would they still think their convenience store is a better use for the site? Probably so. But if just one developer could be taught to appreciate the history and potential of a venerable old building, or how it might fit in with their plans after all, maybe they'd reconsider the next time they come across a property for sale that contains some old white elephant that would need to be torn down. And that would be a good thing.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I loved reading your blog on the St John Grumman home in Norwalk CT. I am also a St John descendant and would enjoy learning of your St John connection. Please email me at jim@sellbrainerd.com and lets swap family stories. Mine go from Matthias St John in Norwalk to Giles St John in Walton NY to Superior Wisconsin and now in Minnesota. I look forward to hearing from you soon.
Kindest Regards,
Jim (St John) Knudsen
Brainerd, MN