Mitchell College gets green light for rebuild of historic red barn

New London — The Historic District Commission has opted not to impede plans by Mitchell College to tear down and rebuild its iconic former dairy barn.

The commission, which has the power to delay demolitions for 180 days if it deems a structure to be historically or culturally significant, made the ruling at its meeting on Wednesday.

The college, as part of a larger master plan for its campus, initially had envisioned a rehabilitation of the existing barn that marks the spot of Michael’s Dairy into a student and community space with classrooms, a banquet hall, a black box theater and other amenities.

An assessment uncovered major structural issues and halted those plans. New plans call for a demolition and complete rebuilding while duplicating the look and footprint of the old barn, located at 629 Montauk Ave.

The commission’s decision was backed by local and state historic preservation groups, who recognized efforts of the college to save the iconic structure.

“Mitchell College initially wanted to preserve the barn, and it was only after their architect and structural engineer concluded that this wasn’t feasible that the college reluctantly decided to apply for a demolition permit,” said Laura Natusch, executive director of New London Landmarks.

New London Landmarks did not call for a delay. Natusch said changes to the barn that needed to accommodate the building code in a high wind “would further compromise its historic fabric.” The barn is not listed on the National Register of Historic Places and therefore not protected under the state’s Environmental Protection Act.

New London Landmarks had led the campaign to block plans by downtown business owner William Cornish from demolishing two Bank Street structures. The state is now pursuing an injunction against Cornish in New London Superior Court.

The state Historic Preservation Office also voiced no objection to the barn demolition. Historian Todd Levine said while the barn is eligible for listing on the state Register of Historic Places and worthy of restoration, the office recognized the limitation of rehabilitation because of the condition of the structure.

The state Historic Preservation Office "recommends state level documentation of the site to commemorate the barn to provide historic background on its significance, and to make every effort to reuse as much of the existing historic fabric, including original mortise and tenon post and beams, where possible in the structure,” Levine wrote.

Mitchell College agreed.

College President Janet Steinmayer, who attended Wednesday’s meeting, said in a statement that she appreciated the support for the rebuilding of the barn.

“Throughout our work to revitalize the Red Barn we have endeavored to find the right way to have it retain its place as an icon in the community...” she said.

In other business, the commission on Wednesday also voted not to delay demolition permits for a gas station at 447 Williams St. and an industrial building at 85 Lewis St. The applicant for the Lewis Street demolition is Connecticut Waste Processing Materials LLC, the trash-hauling company that has secured Planning and Zoning Commission approval for operation of a new solid waste management and recycling facility near an existing rail line off Fourth Street.

A timeline for the demolition and rebuild of the barn is unclear.

g.smith@theday.com

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