Just Up the Drive:
A Historic House, and a Zoning Dispute
"Shouldn't there be a way, in a community like Litchfield that values its history and values old things, that we should all be able to stop fighting and make this happen? Otherwise, we'll be remembered as the community that just never got it done."
-- Former First Selectman Craig Miner
Lynne Brickley, a member of the Litchfield Historical Society, call[ed] the plan "a disgrace."
By ELIZABETH MAKER
New York Times
Aug. 20, 2000
HARRIET BEECHER STOWE, author of the 1852 anti-slavery book ''Uncle Tom's Cabin,'' was surely no stranger to controversy. Abraham Lincoln, after all, called her ''the little lady who started the big war,'' meaning that her prose precipitated the Civil War.
Now, 104 years after her death, Ms. Stowe is at the center of another dispute, one that is brewing over the reconstruction of her birthplace in Litchfield. Two entrepreneurs announced in January that they planned to rebuild the 4,000-square-foot home, which has been dismantled and stored in trailers for three years, and turn it into a museum near the historic Litchfield Green.
However, Walter and Katherine Ode smith, who live next door to the planned museum site, are suing to stop the project, calling it a ''blatant violation'' of local zoning laws. The local historical society opposes the project, as do some Litchfield borough officials.
But other historic preservation specialists, and some of Connecticut's top elected officials, endorse the museum project -- and in fact intervened to make it possible.
Ms. Odesmith said she and her husband moved to Litchfield with their son, Alex, now 9, to escape the ''teardowns and McMansions'' in their former hometown, Westport. ''We thought we were protected here,'' she said, looking out her kitchen windows at the grassy field and hedges that would be replaced by the Beecher house museum. ''We came here because Litchfield, especially the historic district, has a fabled reputation for uptight zoning. You have no idea how invaded we feel, how unfair it all is.''
The Odesmiths' neighbor, Chandler Saint, who is backed by Gov. John G. Rowland, Attorney General Richard Blumenthal and Congresswoman Nancy Johnson, has worked out a complicated deal that involves Mr. Saint's running the museum on two acres of property that he deeded to the state last December.
Last weekend, Mr. Saint held an invitation-only party commemorating the return of the house to Litchfield. (What has actually returned so far are the two trailers, which are parked on the site. )
The party was at his home, the historic Tallmadge house on North Street, which he bought last September for $495,000. It is behind this estate that Mr. Saint plans to rebuild the Wadsworth-Beecher House, (also named after the Revolutionary War hero Elijah Wadsworth, who built the Beecher house in 1774). Mr. Saint said that after the museum opens he planned to continue to live at the the Tallmadge house, which is also home to his mother and his business partner, Virgil Rollins.
The party guest list included Governor Rowland (who did not attend) and Attorney General Blumenthal, who both signed the deed with Mr. Saint. In that deed, Mr. Saint, in essence, obtained an easement from the state allowing him to proceed with the project and to operate the museum, an easement that some say supersedes local zoning laws in Litchfield.
Therein lies the heart of the debate. Depending on who is asked, the deal is either a wonderful way of pairing government and private operations to accommodate an ambitious plan, or a shifty way of skirting local zoning laws to allow a nonconforming project.
The deed, which outlines the legal agreement between the state and Mr. Saint, says, ''Said premises are conveyed subject to the following: Any and all laws, ordinances and governmental regulations, including subdivision, zoning and inland wetland regulations of the Town of Litchfield, and the historic district ordinances and the regulations of the Borough of Litchfield Historic District Commission.''
But, last May, in response to the Odesmiths' lawsuit, Judge Alexandra DiPentima of Litchfield Superior Court ruled that the state law supersedes the local zoning laws, regardless of the wording of the warranty deed that suggests otherwise. The Odesmiths have taken the case to the state appellate court; until it rules, which could take years, construction on the project cannot begin.
It is unlikely that the tone of the debate will cool off while the case makes its way through the legal system.
Congressman Johnson, who attended the party last weekend, said: ''To me, the legalities are irrelevant. I do not think the state should be interested in circumventing local zoning here, but I think the community needs to get together and make it happen.''
Lynne Brickley, a member of the Litchfield Historical Society, calls the plan ''a disgrace.'' She pointed out that the proposed site for the museum lies in Litchfield's historic district, ''where you're not allowed to change a window or a door or put a fence up'' without a special permit, ''yet Chandler and the state have done an end run around every local ordinance to push through a project that is totally wrong for this zone.''
In particular, the Odesmiths don't want to share the narrow gravel driveway that lies between the two properties with a busy tourist site, which they fear will bring busloads of tourists and schoolchildren.
Mr. Saint has suggested that the opponents' real concern is not visits by students and tourists in general, but visits by African-Americans in particular. ''There is a relatively small network of individuals in this town who have trouble with the race issue,'' he said in an interview. ''Do you realize that in the entire Litchfield school system there is one African-American student?''
Others say that if there is a race element to the debate, it is because Mr. Saint has created it.
''The problem is, if you announce your opposition to this project, Chandler and his followers will brand you as being among a bunch of racist, elitist, nasty people who are horrified at the thought of buses hauling in hordes of black schoolchildren to the museum,'' Ms. Brickley said. ''That's hardly the case. They're just looking to stir up emotions.''
To counter the opposition from the local historical society, Mr. Saint displays a letter from Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. It says: ''What terrific news about the Wadsworth-Beecher House! You know how much the house itself means to our cultural history. I can't tell you how much I admire your dedication to finding a way to save it. I agree that you have created a model for private/government ownership and management of a historic site. I only hope others will follow your lead.''
And, at the party last weekend, Attorney General Blumenthal said: ''Today is a historic event. The life of Harriet Beecher Stowe was a journey toward justice, equality and freedom,'' he added, noting that restoring her birthplace is of monumental importance not just to the state, but also to the world.
However, John Vanderpoel of Concord, Mass., an 82-year-old retired lieutenant colonel in the Air Force who was born and raised in the Odesmiths' house, and whose great-great-great-great-grandfather built the Tallmadge house, has written a letter of opposition to the project to whom it may concern:
''The deeding of the isolated two acres behind Tallmadge house to the State of Connecticut to avoid the town's restrictions seems almost criminal, and smacks of political maneuvering that is contemptible. I want to go on record in the strongest of words that I am against this development and will within my power as a concerned citizen fight to prevent its being brought about.''
The original Beecher house was built on the corner of North and Prospect Streets, less than a quarter-mile from the Tallmadge house. Ms. Beecher and her famous freedom-fighting family lived there from 1810 to 1825, and the house was ''actually picked up and hauled away'' by a team of oxen in 1878 to a site about 700 feet down the road, where it eventually became part of a dormitory for a private school, according to Mr. Saint. The folk singer and songwriter Pete Seeger lived in the house when it was a dorm of Spring Hill School. Spring Hill School later became the Foreman School, which had planned in 1997 to raze the Beecher house and the dormitory around it until Mr. Saint and another business partner, Stephen Solley of Washington, came along and bought it for $1 (a Bicentennial silver dollar).
''When we got in there and started peeling away the layers that had been built upon it, we were amazed to see how much of the original house had survived,'' said Mr. Saint, an art and antiques dealer and builder.
They dismantled the house, carefully cataloged its pieces and stored it in trailers and barns. Mr. Saint thought he had found the perfect place to rebuild it -- behind his Tallmadge house residence. But then the Odesmiths sued to stop it from being reconstructed.
Their lawyer, William Franklin of Cramer &Anderson in Litchfield, said: ''Chandler Saint has created an illegal interior lot and has blatantly violated local zoning laws at every bend. It's a scandal, and it will all come out in time.''
Besides taking the case to the appellate court, Mr. Franklin is seeking a cease-and-desist order from Litchfield's zoning enforcement officer, Ruth Mulcahy, that would stop the project. Ms. Mulcahy did not act on a request for a cease-and-desist order from Mr. Franklin concerning the party, thereby allowing it to go on as scheduled.
''I've been put in a very, very difficult position,'' Ms. Mulcahy said. ''I've been bombarded with requests to take some action, but at this point, our attorney sees no zoning violations.''
However, the Litchfield Borough Board, which oversees the town's approximately one-square-mile historic district, wrote a letter to the Planning and Zoning Commission on Aug. 1 that denounced the Wadsworth-Beecher House project as ''a violent denigration of our community,'' because of its noncompliance with local zoning laws. The board plans a public hearing on the project Sept. 5.
Assuming that Mr. Saint ultimately gets the go-ahead for the project, he has estimated it will take 10 years and $10 million to complete the project. (''I have quite a few funding sources, private and corporate,'' he said.)
Mr. Saint said he had considered several other sites but they had all fallen through. ''The state likes this site because it's so close to the town green and it's walking distance from where the original Beecher house stood,'' he said. He also said he had tried to negotiate a deal with the town to provide another access to the lot through municipally owned property behind town hall and behind his property, but those negotiations ''have gone nowhere.''
''It's this very arrogant old guard of Litchfield that wants to shut us down,'' he said. ''It's a very powerful social clique. They go around saying, 'If you support the Harriet Beecher Stowe project, you're off my A-list for the Christmas party.' ''
Last weekend's five-and-a-half-hour party proceeded with more than 300 guests, including members of the National Underground Railroad and Freedom Center in Cincinnati; descendants of the 29th Regiment Infantry, an all-black Civil War regiment; representatives of the Menare Foundation, a Washington, D.C., group that works toward preserving the legacy of the underground railroad; and two busloads of African-American students from Hartford and New Haven.
Those students mingled with students from Litchfield.
''I think it's great,'' said 17-year-old Elanya Delacruz, who will be a senior at Sound School in New Haven in September. ''This is the kind of thing we need to bring people together. If it weren't for Harriet Beecher Stowe's book, who knows what would have happened with slavery?''
First Selectman Craig Miner of Litchfield, who attended the party and supports the project, still questions the location. ''Shouldn't there be a way, in a community like Litchfield that values its history and values old things,'' Mr. Miner said, ''that we should all be able to stop fighting and make this happen? Otherwise, we'll be remembered as the community that just never got it done.''