Who will save the Mother Bailey House?
Certainly on one level, the decision by the City of Groton in 2010 to purchase the 1782 Mother Bailey House — part of a package of three properties for $349,000 — was a waste of money, given that some nine years later, plans are being made to literally give it away.
The City Council last month wisely decided to end the city's failed attempt at preservation and seek a new owner for the magnificent center-hall colonial situated on a commanding river view perch on Thames Street.
But it occurred to me, as Groton City Mayor Keith Hedrick this past week showed me around the deteriorating antique house, pointing out peeling paint, rotting wood and worrisome bows and dips in the structure, that the city's intervention might someday look wise and strategic.
After all, the fate of the imposing building, so important to the city's history, rests with city decision-makers because the city owns it. And certain assurances, like deed restrictions requiring appropriate maintenance and preventing demolition, can be made to guarantee it always will have a prominent place in the city's historic waterfront district.
But the hard work and considerable expense of restoring and maintaining such a complicated building no longer will fall to a municipality not suited for such a role.
Two things struck me most on the tour with Hedrick.
First, it is a magnificent example of what was a very grand building in its time, with a big wide center hall going down the middle from front to back. Its most famous owner, Anna Warner Bailey, a hero of early American history, welcomed three different United States presidents to the property.
Second, it is a money sponge that undoubtedly will soak up much more than the few hundred thousand dollars being talked about for a restoration — money that the city would never be able to come up with.
Hedrick, who has become a champion for getting the city out from under responsibility for the house, leading the City Council to declare it surplus property, says he has been demonized by some preservationists as advocating for its demolition.
On the contrary, Hedrick struck me as committed to finding the right person or organization that will assure its preservation. If the first round of responses to the request for proposals the city plans to craft doesn't produce the right applicant, the mayor assured me, they will try again.
Hedrick, who was on the City Council at the time the city bought the house, said he counseled against it in executive session but ended up joining the majority that voted for the purchase.
All these years later, he says, it has fallen on him to extricate the city from the purchase, given voters' apparent reluctance to spend more money on it. It even rose to the level of a campaign complaint about spending waste in the last election, he said.
In an ideal world, the mayor said, some preservation organization will come forward and propose a plan for the house that would make it a historic attraction open to the public, one that would complement other historic attractions in the district.
He said he has consulted with the state Historic Preservation Office and the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation, and they have promised to help create the request for proposals to help find the right kind of committed owner.
The house is a contributing property to the National Register of Historic Places district it is in, and renovations could qualify for federal tax credits.
A local group formed to help preserve the house, the Friends of the Mother Bailey House Foundation, may try to partner with another organization with more financial resources in responding to the request for proposals, Friends President Susan Archer told me.
Certainly that would be a winning outcome, with a larger preservation organization teaming up with enthusiastic local volunteers.
Still, it's a tall order. Not only does the house require a costly renovation, but any future use as some kind of house museum would need even deeper pockets, probably an endowment. Will Anna Warner Bailey, who tended to the wounded nearby in the Revolutionary War Battle of Groton Heights, be able to summon such an angel to save her house?
It seems unlikely, however wonderful it might be.
Hedrick told me he would be willing to let the house go to someone with the necessary resources who would commit to preserving and maintaining the house as a private residence. Using it for a business would be more complicated, because of the residential zoning, but there could be some consideration of that, he said.
Certainly it seems likely at this point that the house will be preserved and continue to stand for some centuries more as a lovely 18th century monument at the gateway to the city's historic district.
There could have been a much different outcome had the city not bought it, rescuing it from what seemed then like an inevitable fall from blight into demolition by neglect.
Here's hoping for that angel.
This is the opinion of David Collins.