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    Sunday, September 25, 2022

    A petition to save Mystic's Downing Cottage has more than 1,200 signatures

    An interior den at the Downing Cottage at 17 Gravel St. in Mystic, a historical home threatened with demolition, includes paneling with caved wooden heads rumored to have come from a renovation at Yale University. (Courtesy of Andrew Burnett, grandson of home's former owners)

    I had the pleasure recently of meeting Nancy Burnett of Norwich, whose family for nearly 40 years owned and cared for the 1835 Downing Cottage at 17 Gravel St. in Mystic, an iconic house on the Mystic River now slated for demolition.

    You can count Burnett among the many hundreds of people in the region distressed by the fact that the Mystic Historic District Commission, charged with protecting the district's historic fabric, voted last month to allow the distinctive Downing Cottage to be torn down.

    The owners, Dan and Jennifer Grace, and their architect, Bill Bertsche of Old Mystic, successfully argued for approval to tear the house down rather than raise it up to accommodate flood zone regulations.

    No testimony was presented to suggest the house is not structurally sound.

    The district commission, in a split vote, agreed to the demolition, but that decision is subject to a 90-day appeal period.

    The private nonprofit Preservation Connecticut is working with the state Historic Preservation Office on an investigation to determine whether a court intervention to save the building may be possible.

    A petition drive to save 17 Gravel St., on change.org at bit.ly/save17gravel and sponsored by the Mystic River Historical Society, by Thursday evening already had secured more than 1,200 signatures and hundreds of comments supporting the preservation of the building.

    Hard copies of the petition also are circulating around town.

    Jane Montanaro, executive director of Preservation Connecticut, said the petition, evidence of public support for saving the house, could eventually help persuade the state Historic Preservation Council to intervene and ask the attorney general to go to court to save it.

    The state would need to convince a Superior Court judge that there are viable alternatives to tearing down the building, which, as a contributing structure in a historic district on the National Register of Historic Places, is protected by law as a natural resource of Connecticut.

    Like so many people appalled by the decision of a majority of district commissioners who gave a green light to demolition, I am saddened to think a house with so much historical character, from the cut slabs of granite it sits on and its crooked roofline to the quirky bay windows facing the river, could be replaced with a modern mini-mansion with a wide dormer of big windows and faux materials like PVC railings and stone veneer.

    But of course that doesn't even take into account the interior of the antique house, which has distinctive paneling and carvings rumored to have come out of a building at Yale University, believed to have been rescued by some prior owner of 17 Gravel St.

    Burnett, who met me one brisk spring morning on Gravel Street to talk about the house, told me it has all the idiosyncratic pleasures of an old house, with wide worn floorboards and a cozy fireplace that the family enjoyed on cold Mystic nights.

    Burnett said her father, Morgan Martin, a Canadian-born psychiatrist who served as superintendent of Norwich Hospital for 12 years, essentially retired on Gravel Street with his wife, Mary, who ran an antiques store on Main Street near the historical drawbridge, Bridgeside Antiques.

    Burnett told me her parents especially enjoyed the charm of living in an old house on the river in Mystic.

    Even after her mother moved into assisted living, she wouldn't allow her children to sell the house, thinking she might someday be able to return, Burnett told me.

    When Burnett and her siblings did finally sell in 2021, she said, after her parents were gone, they had no idea the buyers planned to tear down the building.

    As much as I am disheartened by the vote by the historic district commissioners in Mystic, I am heartened to think the community has chosen to rally around a preservation campaign to save the house.

    "It's taken on a life of its own," said Elizabeth Boucher, collections manager for the Mystic River Historical Society.

    "It's definitely an issue that people in the community are passionate about," she said.

    Here's hoping their efforts prevail in court.

    Sign the petition. Help save 17 Gravel St.

    This is the opinion of David Collins.

    d.collins@theday.com

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