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    Local Columns
    Friday, September 30, 2022

    Join the campaign: Save Downing Cottage

    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 had some interesting responses to a recent column about the 3-2 vote by the Groton Historic District Commission to allow the new owners of the 1835 Downing Cottage at 17 Gravel St. in Mystic to tear it down.

    Among them were a few expected missives about the folly of saving old buildings.

    But, overwhelmingly, readers I heard from were astounded that a commission charged with preserving the historic buildings of Mystic — a district listed on the National Register of Historic Places — had agreed to allow the owners of one of those buildings to tear it down and replace it with a brand new mansion, with swimming pool and guest house.

    I heard preservation sentiments from elected leaders, concerned neighbors, one bestselling author and even someone who knows well the inside of the Downing Cottage and remarked on its good old-house bones.

    My most encouraging conversation was with Jane Montanaro, executive director of Preservation Connecticut, a private nonprofit that, as part of its mission, provides assistance to local communities to help protect historical character and assets.

    Montanaro, when I caught up with her Friday, told me she had read the column about 17 Gravel St. and was planning to meet Monday with officials of the state Historic Preservation Office to discuss the Groton commission's demolition permission vote, which is subject to a 90-day period in which it can be appealed to Superior Court.

    Preservation Connecticut in 2018 helped New London Landmarks save two buildings on Bank Street in the city, a process that involved intervention by the state Historic Preservation Council, which found the Bank Street buildings to be protected natural resources and asked the attorney general to go to court to stop the demolition.

    Then Attorney General George Jepsen did indeed secure a court order that prevented the buildings from being torn down.

    Montanaro said the discussion Monday about Downing Cottage will look at whether a process similar to the one used successfully in New London might be deployed for 17 Gravel St.

    The organization also offers training for local historic district commissions and that might be appropriate in this case, she said.

    There was no evidence presented before the Groton commission that there is anything structurally wrong with 17 Gravel St. that would require its demolition.

    Instead, the owner and his architect, Bill Bertsche of Old Mystic, said they want to tear down the building because it is in a flood zone and would either have to be lifted higher than its existing foundation or renovations, according to flood regulations, would be limited to spending half the value of the building every year for five years.

    It is the dangerous precedent that the demolition permission would set for the rest of the historic district that is in a flood zone that worried many readers I heard from.

    One criteria that Preservation Connecticut would look at before intervening would be community sentiment.

    To better understand that sentiment, The Day will conduct a survey, attached to this column on theday.com, asking readers whether they support efforts to save Downing Cottage and keep it from being torn down.

    So here's a chance for anyone interested in preserving an iconic building on the riverfront in Mystic, one that appears in many pictures of the historic village, to have a say. Tell like-minded friends.

    Save Downing Cottage. The appeal clock is ticking.

    This is the opinion of David Collins.

    Comment threads are monitored for 48 hours after publication and then closed.