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The developer of the General’s Residence site on the Boston Post Road is going before the Planning & Zoning Commission to present a plan to demolish the structure and build a replica as part of larger site redevelopment. (File photo by Zoe Roos/The Source | Buy This Photo)
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The house known as the General’s Residence has for many years been conspicuous to Madison residents, with some viewing the aging structure that sits on the well-traveled section of Boston Post Road as an eyesore, and others regarding it as an irreplaceable piece of local history.
On Thursday, May 21, the Planning & Zoning Commission (PZC) will hold a second public hearing on a planned condo development on that property, a proposal that now includes the demolition of the original structure, something that has drawn pushback from some residents.
According to Tim Herbst, a Trumbull-based lawyer who is spearheading the development alongside Adam Greenberg, the plan is to build a replica that will include objects and material salvaged from the original structure, which he said has become unsafe and cost prohibitive to fully rehabilitate.
The General’s Residence, at 908 Boston Post Road (across from Hammonasset Service Station and the Audubon Shop), dates back to 1730, according to the Madison Historical Society. Over the centuries, inhabitants of the home have included Captain Edward Griffin, members of the Hand family, members of the Scranton family, and most recently the home was inhabited by Mrs. Dorothy Staley. However, in the last few years, according to court records, Staley struggled to keep the home, taking out a reverse mortgage and battling numerous blight citations from the town. The home eventually entered into foreclosure in 2017.
Another development group led by local entrepreneur Bill Plunkett originally brought a plan before the PZC and was approved to build condos on the property last year. That plan would have at least partially rehabilitated and preserved the General’s Residence structure, which Plunkett said at the time could not be used for a living space due to its age and disrepair.
The current development group took over the project sometime last winter, and sought a front setback regulation change in order to potentially add to the original project. A handful of nearby property owners banded together to oppose that regulation change, which would have affected other future developments in the town, and Herbst said he is no longer seeking it.
But the demolition of the original building has now drawn some fresh challenges, including from Plunkett, who decried the plan on social media.
Others have insisted the General’s Residence should be preserved and accused Herbst and Greenberg of being out-of-town opportunists who do not have the town’s best interests at heart—an accusation that Herbst pushed back against.
“I’ve dealt with historic preservation on the other side of the table,” Herbst said. “I think I’m sensitive to making sure that you put the extra effort in to get as close as possible to restoring a part of the town’s history.”
Travis and Peter Gulick, who own Madison-based building restoration Gulick and Co. and have extensive experience rehabbing area houses, both historic and contemporary, wrote a letter to the PZC opposing the planned demolition and emphasizing the value of Madison’s history as contained in it.
“What the big concern is, is tearing anything old down like this is wrong,” Peter Gulick said. “There are many towns where...this would [not] even be able to happen.”
Because the General’s Residence is not in Madison’s historic district and has not been listed on any national or state registry of historic properties, the only protection the structure has is a demolition delay ordinance in the town code, which can trigger a 90-day waiting period if someone files a protest on a proposed demolition. Organizations concerned with historical preservation, including the Deacon John Grave House and Madison Historical Society, are also informed of the planned demolition.
The PZC makes the final determination about whether this demolition is a “suitable solution,” according to Planning & Economic Development Director Dave Anderson, as part of the overall application for the development, and none of these other organizations have any statutory authority.
Though Herbst has already consulted with both the Madison Historic District Commission and the Madison Historical Society, according to Anderson, Peter and Travis Gulick believe that tearing down the General’s Residence was simply unacceptable, no matter what efforts were made to build a replica or respect the history.
“Where I’m coming from is about [is] it’s a historical structure, and there’s a story. Once you tear down that structure, that story is gone,” Peter Gulick said.
Questions of Safety and Cost
Travis Gulick also pushed back on any assertion that the house was beyond saving.
“Taking an old house down to build a replica so it fits their needs and fits their pocketbook is different than what we’re about. It can be renovated, the house can be renovated, but it’s not...exactly what they want, and it’ll cost more money,” Travis Gulick said.
According to Herbst, the development group has brought in structural engineers, as well as the town’s Building Official Vincent Garofalo, to examine the structure. All found that the structure was in disrepair, and Garofalo even called it “unsafe,” according to Herbst.
“For the building official to say, ‘I don’t feel safe walking through this,’ based upon his initial inspection, and to issue a report basically reflecting that—while preserving history is important, safety is more important,” Herbst said.
Leaving the house as it was would have constituted a safety hazard for those building the condo units, according to Herbst.
Herbst did not assert that rehabilitating the structure was impossible, only that it was “exceptionally cost-prohibitive” based on all these assessments, and the advanced state of neglect the structure is in.
Travis and Peter Gulick said they did not have extensive personal experience with the General’s Residence structure, though they said they had looked at the property when it was on sale a couple years ago and saw nothing that would make a full restoration of the structure untenable.
“We’ve restored...houses that were in worse shape than this house,” Peter Gulick said.
The reason why there is only limited protection for these kinds of aging properties in Madison is not entirely clear, with Peter Gulick claiming that many other towns in the state have much stronger protections.
Efforts to keep structures with historic value in the area have often been born of grassroots efforts or from the impetus of individuals or organizations outside of Madison’s government, according to Peter Gulick. He cited the Guilford Savings Bank’s efforts to move its building rather than demolish it when it wanted to install a drive-through as an example of what it looked like to understand and value historic structures.
Travis Gulick said that kind of attitude comes from a local perspective, something he claimed the developers do not have.
“They’re not from town...the builder’s from out of town, the developers [are] coming from out of town, the money is coming from out of town. They don’t see what the community sees everyday,” Gulick said. “[The General’s Residence] is a pillar on the east side of downtown.”
Herbst again disputed vehemently the assertion that he and the development group had no connection to Madison or did not understand the community. The developers have actively worked to bring in Madison-based designers and experts, according to Herbst, including nationally recognized architect Duo Dickinson, a longtime Madison resident.
Herbst also pointed out that Greenberg grew up in Guilford, and claimed he personally has deep connections to Madison, with family members buried in town.
Because the General’s Residence does not have any real protections or historical designations, the developer is not required to collaborate with or consult local historical organizations on the demolition. The fact they have chosen to do so, Herbst said, shows good faith and a sincere desire to respect these things.
“We are trying to work with the town, with the [Historic District Commission], with key stakeholders...in a very strategic way, to extract certain critical historic features from within the home to integrate them into the replica. We think it is a very strong plan, and we think it is in the best interest of all stakeholders,” Herbst said.
The virtual public hearing is scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. on Thursday, May 21. Information about the project and instructions on how to join the public hearing can be found at www.madisonct.org.