Grumman-St. John House, 93 East Avenue
93 East Avenue is an address with a long history in Norwalk, beginning in 1724 when Samuel Grumman bought the property and built a house there, which became known as Grumman Hill. In July 1779, the hill and the house were the site of the first skirmish in the Battle of Norwalk, which would result in the burning of nearly 200 buildings. The house at Grumman Hill may have been one of them. It remained in the Grumman family until 1802, when the house and the property were sold to Stephen Buckingham St. John for $1400.
In 1811, St. John married Charlotte (Isaacs) Bush of Greenwich (this name is linked to the Bush-Holley Historic Site) and brought her to live in his East Avenue home. The house was updated to its present architectural style in the 1870s by the St. John family, who remained in the home until 1925.
In 1987, 93 East Avenue was listed on the National Register of Historic Places as part of the Norwalk Green Historic District. The photo at left shows the house in early 1928, just before it was converted into four apartments. From 1930 until 2001, the house was owned and operated by the Singewald family as rental units. In 2001, the property was purchased by the Norwalk Inn and subsequently allowed to deteriorate.
- August 2001 - Zoning variance granted to the Norwalk Inn to reduce front and side setbacks in order to allow for the necessary parking for an extended wing and addition of 58 rooms.
- August 2001 - Neighbors appeal the variance, and the Norwalk Green Historic Alliance is organized.
- November 2006 - Norwalk Inn applies for demolition permit for 93 East Avenue.
- December 2006 - Norwalk Preservation Trust (NPT), with help from the Commission on Culture and Tourism (CCT), brings suit under the Connecticut Environmental Protection Act.
In February 2008 State Superior Court Judge Thomas Nadeau granted a temporary injunction (Memorandum of Decision) halting the proposed demolition, on the grounds that "prudent and feasible alternatives" to demolition had been shown. Following the injunction, the house was allowed to fall into further disrepair, with doors left open, windows broken, and two porch columns knocked from their bases. This deplorable condition was stabilized by a further court order in January 2009 (Memorandum of Decision) that forced the Inn to board up the house, perform emergency repairs, and allow the plaintiffs (NPT and CCT) "reasonable opportunities for inspection of the buildings."
Following the injunctions, Norwalk Preservation Trust was involved in settlement negotiations with the Inn for over six months to end the lawsuit regarding the house. Representative Larry Cafero and Senator Bob Duff mediated a series of negotiations between the Inn and its neighbors, with NPT President Tod Bryant acting as a facilitator. A settlement agreement between the parties to the lawsuit was signed in August 2010 at a press conference at the Norwalk Inn featuring Bryant, Cafero, Duff, and Attorney General Richard Blumenthal. [Joint press release] [The Hour]
News of the settlement received national attention, in the magazine of the National Trust for Historic Preservation: Connecticut Inn Agrees To Restore 1780s House. Finally, as reported in the The Hour, in October 2010 the Norwalk Zoning Commission approved a plan for the Inn's expansion that preserves the Grumman-St. John House.
Ernst House, 5 Elmcrest Terrace
This 1908 early Colonial Revival home is in great condition with beautiful interiors and is the last of its type in Norwalk. Originally slated for demolition to make way for additional surface parking for Norwalk Hospital, the Norwalk Preservation Trust worked with the Norwalk Redevelopment Agency and a private developer to encourage the Hospital to save the house. It is now beautifully restored both inside and out as condominiums.
Ernst House has an interesting history and illustrates Norwalk's role in the "Golden Age" of American growth. George G. Ernst was born in Malvern, Ohio in 1864 and came to Norwalk in 1893, forming a tobacco company called Graham, Kelsey and Ernst with members of his mother’s family. The company was located in South Norwalk and is thought to have manufactured cigars from Connecticut tobacco. He married Juliet Wyman (probably from Norwalk) and the couple built 5 Elmcrest to house their considerable collection of American antiques. Part of the collection was auctioned in 1926 by American Art Galleries in New York. According to the auction catalogue's introduction:
"…Quality was always the foremost consideration, but as in the case of all collectors, Mr. and Mrs. Ernst discovered that quantity was becoming a disturbing factor; wherefore, in 1908, they designed and built for themselves a large, spacious, and very elegant Georgian mansion, situated on the high ground on the outskirts of the flourishing old town of Norwalk, from which one can obtain a wonderful panoramic view of Long Island Sound and the surrounding countryside for a distance of some twenty miles. In the house itself, which has a delightful old world atmosphere, the main entrance hall was tastefully furnished with a large Duncan Phyfe sofa against the staircase and, at the opposite wall, a very charming Duncan Phyfe table of the rarest quality and possibly the only one of its kind in existence…"
The catalogue continues to describe the house and contents room by room. The interior still retains many of the fine features of the original.
Winthrop House, 166 Rowayton Avenue
In 2005, Norwalk Preservation Trust worked with the developer (Andrew Glazer), the Rowayton Historical Society, the Rowayton Community Association, and the Norwalk Planning and Zoning Office to return the exterior of this splendid summer Italianate hotel in the heart of Rowayton to its original 19th-century glory.
Built in 1848 by Charles L. Raymond along Five Mile River, Winthrop House was known as Fairview Hotel (1890 and 1900), Colonial Inn (1926), Pleasant Inn (1930), and Rowayton Inn (1935). It was also used as a private residence in the early 20th century. By 2004, it was a single-room occupancy hotel, with stucco covering the 19th-century clapboard exterior. The developer's original plan was to completely demolish the building. Instead, it was converted into three luxury condominiums and restored to its rightful place as a landmark beside Rowayton's Pinkney Park.
As NPT President Tod Bryant said when the renovation plans were approved, "The most important thing here was the willingness of Mr. Glazer to listen, to change his plans, and to evolve it to the point that we reached today, where it truly is preservation. This is a really wonderful example of how preservationists and developers can work together." Norwalk Hour
Margaret Hoyt Smith House, 30 Highland Avenue
The Margaret Hoyt Smith House, an 1870 Victorian at 30 Highland Avenue, was demolished at the end of June 2006 to make way for 12 upscale homes. The house was the residence of Margaret Hoyt Smith, the first woman architect in Norwalk who designed many significant structures throughout the state. Architecturally, the home represented the classic Victorian style home that is fast disappearing all over the city.
The developer, while not keen on demolition of the well-built and elegant home, was not able to incorporate the existing Victorian house with the more modern architecture of the new homes planned for the site. The only option was to move the house. The Norwalk Preservation Trust and the Rowayton Civic Association worked to find a site and a way to move the large 3500 square foot structure. This proved unfeasible. Even though a site and a willing owner were found within a reasonable distance, the large house could not be moved down Highland Avenue without the loss of the mature trees that lined the street. Thus, in spite of the best efforts of the community, Norwalk lost another piece of its heritage.
Norwalk Company Factory, 20 North Water Street
The Norwalk Company building at 20 North Water Street was demolished in July 2012. [The Hour] The Norwalk Company (1875) stood as the eastern gateway to the South Norwalk district for more than a hundred years. It is one of the buildings that define the area's 19th and early 20th century industrial and commercial character. That character is what the original Norwalk Preservation Trust, along with the city agencies, worked so hard to preserve in the 1970s. Now, it seems none of that matters.
The argument was raised that it was not so much a preservation issue as a "connectivity" issue—that the demolition of the building would allow for widening the sidewalks and make the passage from the city-owned garage and the Maritime Center to Washington Street more open, drawing more people to Washington Street businesses. While a tempting argument, it wasn't the solution. North Water Street has one major obstacle to being an "open" passage: the railroad bridge. It looms dark and foreboding to anyone looking down or up the street. The demolition and the anticipated street changes do nothing to address this basic problem. Losing a historic structure to create wider sidewalks is not an effective vision for the district.
A previous approved plan for the building retained the facade and the character. Then developer abandoned that plan and another was approved with all new construction. This essential part of the historic streetscape—the reason that SoNo was saved and exists today—is irrevocably gone. The new building could be anywhere—it is twice as large and has none of the character and roots that the existing structure has. The old brick facade was a billboard to let you know that you are entering an area that is unique, historic, and reflects Norwalk's industrial heritage.
The question is not why the developer changed plans—that's easy. Demolition and new construction cost less and deliver the numbers they want. The big questions are where was Redevelopment on holding the line for design standards in the historic district? Where was the Planning Commission on supporting the goals of the Master Plan for the area? Where was the Zoning Commission in adhering not just to the letter of the zoning regulations but to the spirit of preserving the character of SoNo? Where were DPW and the City in terms of thinking creatively about creating a comfortable, walkable corridor on North Water Street? Wider sidewalks are hardly the limit of what could have been done and still retain the building. Where is the City in terms of retaining the historic character of SoNo? Are we willing to let all the effort, work, and pride in retaining the area be chipped away?
So what's next? The building has been lost. Let's not let it happen again. Let's hold Redevelopment, Planning, Zoning, and other departments accountable for the long-term good of Norwalk. Unless we act now, we will have to accept that Norwalk's historic character will continue to be eroded by short-sighted development. Let your voice be heard in public hearings or through letters to the departments. Tell them how you feel about this pointless demolition.