Published July 06. 2014 4:00AM
North Stonington - Surrounded by overgrown weeds and brush that are meant to deter unwanted visitors, a little white cottage from the early 1900s sits next to the community garden on the town-owned Hewitt Farm property.
With a waist-high, menacing-looking thicket surrounding the house and signs that it has fallen into disrepair since being abandoned in the mid-1990s, the structure looks unremarkable. Some residents, however, have argued that a town landmark is hiding behind the mess.
Right now, the house is deteriorating and full of hazards such as lead paint, and restoring the building just isn't something that falls within the mission or budget of the Hewitt Farm Committee, said Co-Chairman Nita Kincaid. In fact, one bullet point of the committee's online mission statement describes quite the opposite action - to "remove existing unsafe infrastructure."
Historical Society support
But the cottage still stands, surrounded by a makeshift fence of plant life, because the North Stonington Historical Society is intent on preserving it.
Given that fixing up the building would cost money during a difficult economic time and that it stands on the first major property purchased by the town - a purchase that, at least in retrospect, some residents say was unwise - there is "a lot of contention" on what to be done, said Kincaid.
The Historical Society, however, "feels very strongly that they would like to find a way to retain use" of the building, she added.
Frank Eppinger, the historical society's president, gave a presentation to the Board of Selectmen in September 2013, asking the town to consider repairing the building the society calls "Greene Gables."
Report being prepared
More recently, the historical society has been preparing a report on the property that will include options on how to put the cottage to use, what exactly would be done to the building (Renovation? Reconstruction? Restoration?) and the cost of such work, said Kincaid. The report should be provided to the Hewitt Farm Committee by the end of July.
Greene Gables is notable for, and nicknamed after, its early 20th century resident, Fred Stewart Greene, an artist and photographer. The historical society owns thousands of photo negatives, paintings and drawings by Greene, some of which depict the Greene Gables area of Hewitt Farm.
It was also home to Little Red Horse, one of the first Montessori schools in the state, said Kincaid, and may hold sentimental value for those who attended the nursery school as children.
It would be costly to demolish the cottage and remove its remnants, said historical society librarian Gladys Chase, and it has historical value - so why not put it to use?
Chase said Eppinger, who was unavailable for comment on Saturday, has organized a committee of the society's members to explore different possibilities for Greene Gables.
Although she's unfamiliar with the details of that committee's work, Chase said that eventually using the cottage for an artist-in-residence program is "something we would hope to see."
But, recognizing that such a use could be expensive, the historical society is looking into other short-term uses, such as a caretaker's home, an information building for the Hewitt Farm park or an office for the Hewitt Farm Committee.
The Day quoted Eppinger as telling the selectmen last year that the house "is a unique historic, cultural, and educational aspect located smack in the middle of the Hewitt Farm and on town property."
Once the Hewitt Farm Committee receives a copy of the historical society's report, members will review it and likely make a recommendation to the Board of Selectmen, said Kincaid. Then it will be up to the selectmen to determine whether to move forward with renovation or demolition.
Kincaid said Saturday that before spending money to restore Greene Gables, the town will probably have to go back to the voters for approval - echoing the sentiment of selectmen at the September 2013 meeting, who agreed that a vote or town meeting would be in order.
Those interested in Greene's art can visit the North Stonington Historical Society at the Stephen Main Homestead between 2 and 4 p.m. on Tuesdays or attend the organization's open house there from 2 to 5 p.m. on Aug. 10.