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    Wednesday, October 05, 2022

    Bizarre: Groton historic commission approves demolition of 1835 house

    The Groton Historic District Commission has agreed to allow the demolition of Downing Cottage at 17 Gravel St. in Mystic, as shown here Monday, March 21, 2022, and replace it with a new house with a different facade. (David Collins/The Day)
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    I should preface this by saying it is kind of a man bites dog story, something newsworthy because it is entirely unexpected.

    In the same way a man biting a dog turns normal expectations upside down, the agreement last week by the Groton Historic District Commission to allow the new owners of an 1835 house on Gravel Street to tear it down left me dumbfounded.

    My head is still spinning after watching a video of the virtual meeting in which the owner and his architect successfully pitched plans to tear down the charming 1835 Downing Cottage at 17 Gravel St., an important and iconic part of one of the most photographed streetscapes in Mystic, maybe this part of New England.

    In addition to their vote to allow the demolition, the commission approved plans to replace it with a new building, similar but with a quite different façade, a more imposing structure that will replace the historic cottage.

    Of the five regular commission members, only two — the only ones voting, apparently, who belong on a board meant to protect and preserve historic structures — voted no. A nonvoting alternate member also expressed his dismay at the demolition and the alarming precedent it will set for the rest of the historic district.

    The three members voting yes were Sarah Moriarty, Bonnie Nault and Todd Brady.

    One of the commissioners voting no suggested he might file an appeal of demolition permit, which will be automatically stayed for 90 days by state law because, well, it's an important building in a district listed on the National Register of Historic Places and overseen by a local commission.

    An appeal to Superior Court will be a tough slog, but it is possible.

    Preservationists in New London not long ago halted the demolition of a building on Bank Street after circulating petitions, enlisting the help of state historic preservation officials and convincing then Attorney General George Jepsen to take the case to court.

    A Superior Court judge finally ruled the building had to remain because there were reasonable alternatives to demolishing it.

    What is astounding in this case is that it is the historic commission approving the demolition, after a review in which it could have exercised its right to say no. In New London, the preservationists who finally won a reprieve in court were challenging a routine issuance of a demolition permit by city bureaucrats.

    Incredibly, there was no testimony before the Groton historic commission that there are any structural faults with Downing Cottage that would require it to be torn down.

    The argument for tearing it down — made by Dan Grace, who identified himself as the owner, and his architect, Bill Bertsche — is that it is in a flood zone and needs to be raised up several feet to meet federal flood rules.

    So be it. They've been picking up old houses and moving them around and putting them on new foundations for hundreds of years.

    If the owners choose not to lift the house to comply with the flood standards, they are restricted to spending no more than half the appraised value of the building in renovations annually over the next five years.

    Those are two viable alternatives to demolition of the 19th century building: lifting it up and making it flood compliant or spreading many hundreds of thousands of dollars in renovations over multiple years.

    A most compelling argument for saving the house was made by commission member Eric Goodman, who noted that the unique house at 17 Gravel looked that way when he was bicycling the neighborhood as a kid, and it hadn't changed from what it was when kids walked the street 100 years earlier.

    "It's ripping down a piece of this town," he said.

    That's the point of the commission's work, to preserve those buildings from the 19th century and the historic streetscape they form, with their original context and materials, as best as possible, sagging rooflines and all. New owners buy into that reality.

    Goodman was joined in voting no by Commissioner Don Levinson, who, like nonvoting alternate commission member John Goodrich, also noted that the demolition would set a dangerous precedent in the district, much of which is located in a flood zone.

    Other objections came from a neighbor two doors away, who was especially troubled by the lack of quality materials in the proposed replacement building. It would use PVC and composites in places instead of real wood, a laminate instead of full stone on the foundation and asphalt instead of wood roof shingles.

    A long, second-floor dormer with windows on the front roof, which is a design that doesn't seems to appear anywhere else in the district, also would set a bad precedent, the neighbor said.

    I wonder if Mystic can muster the kind of preservation campaign that New London used to save the original streetscape of one of its most historic streets.

    If not, preservationists in Groton should focus on improving the makeup of the historic commission, to be sure that the approved demolition of iconic historic houses in town doesn't continue.

    Otherwise, it will just become a shiny new, pretend-olde version of what Mystic once really was.

    This is the opinion of David Collins.

    d.collins@theday.com

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