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Future of historical Seaside buildings at park uncertain

Waterford - Plans to turn the vacant state-owned property of the former Seaside Regional Center for the developmentally disabled into a state park have spurred members of the historic preservation community to consider new options for preserving the dilapidated historical structures on the site.

As the planning process for the park progresses, Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation Executive Director Helen Higgins and State Historic Preservation Office Director of Arts and Historic Preservation Daniel Forrest expressed hope that the buildings may remain standing - and utilized - in years to come.

"We remain cautiously optimistic that this is an opportunity to preserve more of the campus," Forrest said in a phone interview Thursday.

Higgins said Wednesday that creativity would be key in finding a way to preserve and use the buildings on the site.

"These buildings are hulky, you know. They're big and they're difficult to find reuses for in this day and age," she said, citing the trust's recent efforts at restoring historical mills throughout Connecticut.

Members of the historic preservation community have wrung their hands for the past two decades as buildings on the property have been left prey to the elements since the Shore Road property was closed and vacated in 1996, according to the most recent trust newsletter.

Two of the four historical buildings remaining at Seaside, which was founded in the 1930s as a tuberculosis sanatorium for children before it became a center for the disabled, were designed by Cass Gilbert, architect of the U.S. Supreme Court building and other national landmarks. The property is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Higgins and Forrest said possibilities for the buildings run the gamut. Higgins said the long building behind the main hospital, which once served as housing for nurses at the sanatorium, may be a candidate for complete restoration. The two said they hope to avoid demolition of buildings.

Other uses of the buildings might include office spaces, an educational center or incubation space for startup companies, Higgins said.

An opinion piece by Trust Deputy Director Christopher Wigren, published in the November/December issue of the trust publication Connecticut Preservation News, cited The Day columnist David Collins' proposal that building restoration be funded through a public-private partnership. In such a scenario, potential developers could come from the for-profit or nonprofit sphere, according to Higgins.

Wigren wrote that the partnership idea "looks remarkably like the abandoned agreement" with Mark Steiner, who on and off for 15 years held the position of the state's preferred developer for Seaside when the state planned to sell the property for private development.

Steiner previously showed interest in reconstructing buildings on the property as part of his plans to build a luxury resort accompanied by condominiums. The plans were to include public access to the beach on the Long Island Sound property.

When Gov. Dannel P. Malloy announced in September that the site was to become a state park, he also announced that the state had terminated its contract with Steiner. Steiner has said he would wage legal action against the state in response.

Malloy has pledged to keep new construction at the site, which would include amenities commonly found at state parks, to a bare minimum.

Higgins said the main hospital building could prove too structurally unsound for traditional preservation and use. She said one way to deal with the building might be to convert it into what she called an "attractive ruin."

Forrest defined an attractive ruin as a building left intentionally in a ruined state intended to be evocative of the structure's historical uses. He said the concept is a relatively new one for SHPO, and has been considered for at least one historical mill in the state.

Were the hospital building to be handled as a ruin, stabilization of the structure and removal of hazardous parts, which could include roofing, would be necessary, according to Higgins and Forrest. Forrest said exposure to moisture due to the building's proximity to the Sound could complicate the potential for the building to be kept as a ruin.

New Canaan resident Helen Curry, Gilbert's great-granddaughter, said in a phone interview Friday she was not yet sure how to respond to the announcement that the site would become a state park, but she would watch the situation closely.

"I'm very much in a wait-and-see mode at this point," she said.

The state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, charged with overseeing the park-planning process, is arranging for a new structural analysis of the Seaside buildings, according to DEEP spokesman Dennis Schain.

Slated for analysis are the main hospital building and former nurses' quarters designed by Gilbert, and the duplex cottage and superintendent's building designed by New London architect Fred S. Langdon, according to DEEP Deputy Commissioner for Environmental Conservation Susan Whalen.

Past analyses of buildings at Seaside have yielded mixed results on the degree to which buildings could be salvaged. Whalen said the new analysis would be comprehensive.

"They're doing more than just looking at things. They're going to be doing some further investigation where it's warranted," she said.

She added that it would be hard to judge what could be salvaged until the review is completed, and said input at public meetings planned to be held in Waterford by state officials beginning this month would play a role in what uses are considered for the buildings.

Whalen said there is no firm timeline for completing plans but that DEEP intends to move quickly. Malloy previously requested a report on converting the land into a state park by Jan. 1.

The deputy commissioner emphasized that part of DEEP's mission is protection of historical and cultural resources.

"We understand the architectural significance of these buildings," she said. "We understand their historical context within the community and the history of medicine."

Gilbert scholar Dr. Barbara S. Christen, a freelance writer and editor currently contracted with the National Gallery of Art, said in a June interview she believed Gilbert's work at Seaside to be more significant from an architectural perspective than his designs for the U.S. Supreme Court.

She noted then that Gilbert designed Seaside toward the end of his career. In his designs for the site, she said, he incorporated a variety of types and aspects of design for which he'd become known: campus planning, use of open space and residential work.

"It's almost a kind of personal, a very wonderful personal culmination of these different aspects of his career for which he's gained lots of public notice," Christen said in June.

In an email she sent to The Day on Friday, Christen called state efforts to preserve open space on the site "significant and laudable" but cautioned against allowing for demolition "by concerted action or neglect."

"Saving the buildings, in my mind, is critical to the legacy that this project can represent for generations to come," she wrote.

t.townsend@theday.com

Twitter: @ConnecticuTess

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