Preserving Easton’s Heritage – Demolition Delay Ordinance

When our ancestors built the first dwellings in Easton, they were much different from the homes we all occupy today. Most houses built in the 18th century were very modest in size, especially when one considers that many families often consisted of seven to ten people. A typical home built in 1770 might consist of three or four rooms on the first level with an additional two or three rooms meant for sleeping above.

Typical first floor plan of an early New England saltbox. This 1740 home was located on Rock House Road in Easton and was demolished in the early 1960’s.

The saltbox style of construction was popular among early farmers with modest means. A large center chimney could support a fireplace in each room – a necessity in New England since there was no means of heating a home other than burning wood that early in our nation’s history. Heavy, hand-hewn timbers provided a frame strong enough to support two levels covered by a steeply pitched roof capable of handling the snow load of a typical Connecticut winter.

Typical framing for an early saltbox style home. This one was built in 1740 on Rock House Road in Easton. Drawn as part of a WPA project for the Historic American Buildings Survey in 1939. This house was demolished in the early 1960’s to make way for a new sub-division, but thanks to the HABS project, we have several detailed drawings and photographs of one of Easton’s earliest homes.

Those first houses lacked two important features that all houses have today. The first was indoor plumbing of any kind. The second was a kitchen in the form we would recognize today.

The typical early home in Easton would have had a “keeping room.” While many today will describe a keeping room as a space next to the kitchen where the family could gather while the women prepared the food, in the 18th century it is likely better described as the room with the largest fireplace where a fire was always burning – or “kept.” In essence, for most homes, that would have been the room where the food was also cooked.  Pots could be stirred and tended from a swiveling cooking crane that allowed the heavy iron pots of the day to hang directly above an open flame. Many of those fireplaces also had ovens built into the masonry that provided an even heat for baking breads and pies. Some of these ovens were on the main level, while others were built into the base of the chimney and accessible only from the home’s cellar. Technically, the keeping room was the most basic form of kitchen, but very unlike the food production area that we know today.

1939 photo of the Keeping Room/Kitchen of the Jane Dillon house, built c.1720 on Rock House Road

As time progressed, even the most modest of those earliest homes began to see additions and alterations.

Rooms known as “summer kitchens” were some of the earliest additions. Keeping a constant fire alive in the main fireplace of the home to cook meals and bake breads made for a rather warm house during the months of summer. By constructing a small addition, either attached or detached, at the rear of the house with its own fireplace served by a chimney on an outside wall, the main house could remain cool while a fire was still kept alive for cooking meals and baking bread at the rear of the house.

Prior to the invention of Nathaniel Wyeth’s horse-drawn ice cutter around 1825, there would have been very few indoor ice-boxes used in local kitchens. Prior to the ability to keep food cool inside the home, hand-dug pits were lined with ice and hay to keep some items cool in the summer. In addition, every home had a root cellar, either underneath the house or just outside. Dug into the earth, the temperature of a root cellar remained relatively constant throughout the year, preventing fruits and root vegetables stored within from freezing during the winter and spoiling during the warmer months of summer and autumn.

Around the same time, America’s iron and coal industries began to grow, and soon thereafter, cast-iron stoves became available to the masses, negating the need to keep a fireplace going 24-7 to prepare meals. If a summer kitchen wasn’t already in use by the mid-1800’s, those homes without a separate room dedicated to the preparation and storage of food required the necessary alterations needed to establish one.

When indoor plumbing and central heating became affordable and popular, there were more major changes required to accommodate the additional fixtures, plumbing pipes, and ductwork needed to service the home. Framework that supported the walls and floors of old houses needed to be drilled and cut, often resulting in weakened structures that led to sloping floors and cracked plaster. Load bearing walls and floor joists were often compromised during the installation of central heating systems and indoor plumbing.

Adding electrical service during the 1920’s and 1930’s created its own set of problems, as wires needed to be run inside of existing walls. That required more cuts and additional holes through plaster walls that resulted in broken lath work and more cracked walls and ceilings.

By the middle to end of the twentieth century, the superstructure of many of our treasured old homes had been hacked and altered to the point of needing major repairs.

This 1740 Easton house was still standing in 1939 when this photo was taken. The owner hoped to restore it, and by the looks of it, it was still structurally sound and sitting squarely on its foundation. Instead, it was torn down to make room for a sub-division.

Fifty years ago, many of the larger, more historically significant homes in Easton had already begun to see the attention and detail needed to restore and renovate them, while only a few of the others in that category were still neglected. At the same time, most of the smaller, less expensive historic buildings either remained in a weakened state or saw minimal repairs to stabilize them.

For the most part, it is those older homes still in need of attention that concern us the most today.

The current pandemic has radically changed the local real estate market. Many urban dwelling families are now seeking refuge in the country where large yards offer more freedom, and a well-equipped home can serve as an alternative workplace.

Easton saw a rise in single family home sales in 2020 of an astonishing 42.15% despite only seeing the slightest rise in listings at 3.77%. Prices have continued to increase, with February of 2021 seeing a 52% increase in the prices of homes that sold during the month this year over those that had closed only twelve months earlier.

Lower inventories, higher prices, and continued high demand mean that at least some of our older historic properties still in need of major renovations and restoration are likely changing hands.

And there-in lies the problem. How does one come up with a comprehensive plan to renovate and rejuvenate a two-hundred year old house prior to taking it apart to assess the structural integrity of the building? Many contractors will look at an older home in need of major upgrades and simply declare such a process as being economically infeasible. Their recommended solution – tear down the old house and build a new one in the same location.

That solution is not at all a new concept. Many of Easton’s earliest homes from the early 1700’s met the same fate later during the same century when their sills rotted or their original masonry failed. Their owners simply tore them down and built a newer better constructed structure on the same site. Other homes of the era caught fire and were lost as the original chimneys constructed with native stones held together with clay mortar mixed with hay began to fail and allow hot embers to escape prior to reaching the top of the chimney.

At issue today is our need to convince some of our newer residents that many these historic houses are worthy of being saved.

Of Connecticut’s total of 169 towns and cities, 59, including more than half of Fairfield County’s 22 towns and cities, have enacted legislation whereby whenever there is a proposed demolition of a historic building, a waiting period is triggered before the entire structure can be torn down or major portions of it – both interior and exterior – can be demolished to facilitate additions or extensive renovations. The idea behind such legislation is to create a window that would allow for discussion of alternatives to demolition, or at the very least, allow town historians to document and photograph what will be lost. Additionally, it allows time whereby arrangements might be made to salvage important architectural features that might otherwise end up in landfills or be incinerated.

Even when a house isn’t saved, it is often possible to save some of the original hardware or at least record what it looked like so that future generations might study its design and function. This HABS drawing was produced in 1939 from the Jane Dillon House on Rock House Road. Some of the hardware depicted here likely dates back to the very early 1700’s.

While neighboring Redding has had a demolition delay ordinance in effect for several years, Easton has yet to address the issue of preserving our houses of heritage. At the Historical Society of Easton, we feel that some small measure of protection is long overdue, and we have recently drafted an ordinance that is similar to the one that has been working well in Redding for the past eight years.

It should be noted that both National and State Register of Historic Places designations are only honorary in nature. They do not protect a building where an historic easement has not been granted by the title holder to the town or an organization interested in preservation. Such designations do however bolster pride of ownership while at the same time announcing to the broader community the historic significance of the site. In addition, such designations can provide eligibility for incentives like Connecticut’s historic tax credit programs to owners who can then receive economic benefits to aid in caring for or restoring their property.

According to a March 5, 2021 post on the Connecticut Preservation website, the increase in the number of recent demolitions in the state is alarming. In 2020, the 19 communities whose demolition delay ordinances require their towns to send Connecticut Preservation written notices of impending demolitions, the number of approved demolitions totaled 191. “For comparison purposes, in 2019 those same 19 towns sent out 121 demolition notices. That amounts to over a 50% increase in demolition of typically sound, well-built historic structures in the course of one year!

“What’s more, those 191 demolished buildings total approximately 769,659 square feet (the area of more than 13 football fields!) of wood framing, brick chimneys, stone foundations, wood flooring, and historic windows, not to mention carpeting, linoleum, drywall and other non-historic materials that wound up in landfills. Now, think about the fact that these numbers represent only 11% of towns in the state! What would the number be for all of Connecticut’s 169 towns?”

c.1900 Easton Center School stood on Westport Road until early last year. It had been converted into a house and then abandoned, condemned, and demolished by the town of Easton. A demolition delay ordinance would have allowed an organization such as the HSE to document the remnants of the original structure before it was razed and hauled away.

A demolition delay ordinance does not guarantee that any property will be spared from the wrecking ball. It is not designed to usurp an individual’s property rights. It is meant to inform the owner of the property’s historic significance and then to assist in efforts to either preserve or document any historical elements that might be salvaged. In the best-case scenario, the property owner may be convinced to renovate rather than demolish, but that isn’t always – or even usually – the case.

Some historic buildings are simply beyond saving from a practical standpoint. Extreme rot or severe fire damage might be just two examples of when the cost of restoration would far exceed any reasonable expectations of saving the structure. When that is obvious, the waiting period for delaying demolition is often much shorter than the statute allows. Once the property owner has been offered suggestions on how to salvage certain historically significant trim, windows, and hardware; and once the town has had the opportunity to document and photograph the structure prior to demolition, the remainder of the waiting period is then waived, and a demolition permit is issued. In my limited experience as one of Redding’s official town historians, the waiting period in such cases often ends between 30 and 45 days from the initial application.

While some may find any delay in issuing a demolition permit an annoyance, such an ordinance allows those interested in preserving our historical buildings at least some opportunity to persuade the owners of those properties to consider reasonable alternatives to demolition. Perhaps even more importantly, it provides us with an opportunity to document and photograph a historical structure before it is lost forever.

It has been over forty years since an article in the Connecticut Preservation News put forward this statement: We must be able to explain why, aesthetically, socially, and economically, preservation makes sense…Even more crucial than effective last-minute action, however, is planning ahead. Preservationists must establish a preservation mentality in their cities and towns- to make sure that government officials, business people, and developers as well as the preservation community understand the social, aesthetic and economic benefits of preservation.”

Until society values its past as much as it does its future, we can only serve up gentle reminders of the need to preserve our heritage. Having the Town of Easton join the other 59 concerned communities in our state in enacting a demolition delay ordinance is a good first-step in that direction. If you agree with our mission, please contact one of the selectmen (Board of Selectmen | Easton CT) and ask him or her to put this ordinance on the agenda for consideration at an upcoming town meeting sometime in the very near future.

The entire proposed ordinance can be viewed here: HSE Proposed Demolition Delay for the Town of Easton – Historical Society of Easton Connecticut (historicalsocietyofeastonct.org)

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