Norwich seeks to demolish 1810 house in historic Bean Hill
Norwich ― Another piece of Bean Hill history will be gone soon, further eroding a historic section of the city that needs deeper research and understanding, city Historian Dale Plummer said recently.
The city advertised for bids last week for the demolition of a nondescript house at 36 Huntington Ave., an odd-shaped, gray house perched at the edge of the roadway where Huntington Avenue turns into Plain Hill Road. The house, listed as built in 1810 in city tax records, is buckling and in danger of collapsing into the street, city Building Official Dan Coley said.
Demolition bids are due by 2 p.m. Friday, Aug. 12.
The house is a contributing building in the National Historic District and as such is listed on the National Registry of Historic Places.
The city took ownership of the abandoned house in 2017, but efforts to find a developer failed over the years. Coley said city officials have been pressured to try to save the house and delayed plans to demolish it. But about two weeks ago, despite erecting a 4-inch square pressure-treated wood support beam on one corner, the wall facing the street has started to buckle.
“We’re just trying to make sure that everyone is safe,” Coley said. “We do realize some of these old homes have historical value. We tried. The placement of the structure is bad, because it’s right on the corner. Once that house is gone, the lot is something the city can market.”
The lot is over a quarter acre, according to city tax records.
Deanna Rhodes, director of planning and neighborhood services, said her office has been in touch with the State Historic Preservation Office on the pending demolition. In June, the city planning office hired Silver Petrucelli + Associates of New London to take exterior photos of the house and document the exterior condition and details for posterity.
The report described Bean Hill as a “local center for manufacturing and commercial activity,” and called the house an early contributor to the “utilitarian structures” of the area before commercialization.
City Historian Plummer sees more than the loss of a small house at the site. Plummer said the history of Bean Hill is as fascinating as it is fractional. The area was a center of radicalism as Norwich evolved following the American Revolution, Plummer said, with vocal abolitionists taking up residence there.
He speculated the house likely was a boarding house for local workers in the district’s leatherworking trades, which adds to the intrigue. It was said, Plummer recounted, “that you could follow radical ideas by the scent of leather.”
In the early 19th century, in Norwich and beyond, leatherworkers, shoemakers and tanners were at the forefront of radical causes, not the least of which was vocal opposition to slavery, Plummer said. Bean Hill was known to be home to Black residents, including young David Ruggles, who grew up to become a leader in the Underground Railroad. The Norwich City Hall courtyard is named the David Ruggles Freedom Courtyard in his honor.
Even earlier, in the 1770s, leading Bean Hill resident Aaron Cleveland penned letters to the Norwich Packet newspaper and preached sermons passionately objecting to slavery. Cleveland questioned how American patriots could rally against enslavement by the British while Americans were enslaving Africans, Plummer said.
Plummer called the pending loss of 36 Huntington Ave. “a lost opportunity” to preserve a piece of the district’s history he said bears more research.
“This is a neighborhood that is very important, critically important, to movements such as abolition and temperance,” Plummer said. “Bean Hill had its own identity.”