One of the most difficult parts of the otherwise pleasant job of being an official town historian is being called upon to evaluate and offer recommendations on historic structures where the owner has requested a demolition permit. Age notwithstanding, some buildings are obviously more historically significant than others, and when it is one of those structures listed on the demolition application, it is often a challenge not to be influenced by nostalgia. But part of the job is to objectively look at the building, its present condition, its significance to the town’s history, and then recommend steps that might mitigate the loss of the building as it falls victim to the proverbial wrecking ball. The fact of the matter is that not all old buildings are good candidates for preservation. Not because they aren’t significantly important, but because they have already begun to self-destruct due to years of benign neglect. Unfortunately, there comes a time when it’s too late to save what could and should have been saved had action taken place earlier.
As one of the official Co-Historians of the Town of Redding, I was faced with assessing such a building this past week. The old West Redding Store and train depot goes back over 150 years and is a familiar icon to anyone who has called Redding their home for more than just a few years. But the application for demolition read “3 Side Cut Road,” so that is the address we needed to look at.
When the railroad between Norwalk and Danbury began operations in 1852, James L. Griffin was appointed as the first postmaster of West Redding. Griffin first operated a general store & post office, along with Redding’s first railroad station on the northwestern side of the tracks on Long Ridge Road. The structure at 3 Side Cut Road appears to have been built by Griffin sometime around 1864 on land owned by his family. Griffin also built and ran a hotel on the northern side of the tracks that sat on the same property as his original store and post office. Exactly when he moved the store and the post office into the building at 3 Side Cut is unknown, but it clearly shows on the 1867 Beers map as being used as the train depot.
The first confirmed use of the structure as a store and post office was when Weston Barnes was appointed postmaster there in 1880. The 1880 Census also shows Barnes as being the proprietor of a dry goods store at that location. William Mandeville purchased the store from Barnes in 1881 and was appointed postmaster that same year (National Archives – Appointments of US postmasters 1832-1971). A Danbury News article from 1882 confirms that Mandeville was also the station master and was living in the apartment over the store on November 3, 1882, when the hotel owned by the Griffin family caught fire and was destroyed. In addition to being the proprietor of the store and postmaster, Mandeville had been elected Redding’s Tax Collector in 1891 and local residents were encouraged to pay their taxes at his store. (Newtown Bee).
The 1900 US Census shows Charles Bronson as the proprietor and postmaster of the store, He was also living there with his wife and two children. 19-year-old Francis Eden was listed as a boarder as well as the station master. The report suggests that Bronson owned the property, but it is far more likely that he leased it from Mandeville who had moved to Danbury and was running another store on Balmforth Avenue by then.
John Jennings was the next proprietor of the store as well as the postmaster. The 1910 US Census showed John and his wife Mary as operators of the store and indicated they were renters. A March 27, 1911, deed shows William and Sarah Mandeville transferring ownership to the property to Jennings. Charles Burr Todd’s 1906 The History of Redding Connecticut shows a photograph of the property with Jennings’ name across the awning in front of the store. Jennings was also one of the founders of Putnam Park in 1887. It was during Jennings’ tenure as station master that Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) made two noteworthy trips through the depot – his first arrival in Redding in June of 1908, and his final departure inside his coffin in April of 1910.
In 1915, Emory P. Sanford purchased the business and the property from Jennings in a deed dated January 4. (Volume 31, Page 275 of the Redding Land Records). Sanford had been displaced by the Bridgeport Hydraulic Company in late 1914 after the company had taken his family’s land on Poverty Hollow Road where he had been operating a slaughterhouse. There he butchered the meat before selling it on a retail route run out his father’s Gleneyrie Farm. After moving to West Redding, Sanford wasted little time in establishing the district’s first volunteer fire department on the property across the road near where today’s post office is located.
Emory added a covered porch to the southern side of the structure. He also installed a gasoline pump and offered long-distance calling from Southern New England Telephone – both firsts for the western side of Redding.
Photos, survey maps, and depot floor plans from that era indicate that the depot office was approximately 26 feet long and 15 feet in width, occupying the northwest corner of the building. The platform was 11 feet in width at its widest point and its total length was just shy of 300 feet. There was one siding where freight cars could be detached and parked. Alongside was an additional passing siding directly across from the depot that allowed opposing trains to pass. Redding’s processed lime was all shipped via railcar from the West Redding siding.
In 1920, Emory sold the business and the property to J. Birdsey Sanford for approximately $3,100. It was then run under the name of Sanford’s Store. Gertrude Sanford recalled carving cheese from wheels and selling butter from tubs. They sold coffee by the pound and ground it in a large grinder that sat in the store. In addition, they sold both green and oolong tea by the pound. (Brent Colley’s HistoryofRedding.net, 2011).
During the time the Sanford’s owned the building, the front porches were enclosed, and all-weather windows were added.
In 1946, Kenneth Bell purchased the store from the Sanford’s when he was appointed as the new postmaster. After a new post office was built across the road, Bell sold the store and property to William Gordon. In 1952 when the railroad’s lease expired for the depot in the main building, the company built a rather spartan looking building a few yards to the west on property they owned. That building served as a waiting area rail passengers for many years.
In 1953, Fred Cole became a partner with property owner Bill Gordon. Fred became the proprietor of the West Redding Store and sometime after Bill Gordon’s 1969 death, Cole and his wife Ada became the sole owners of the property. By then, the vacated depot section of the original building had been converted into a liquor store and a bay window added to the western side of the building. In addition, the southern side of the building had been extended outwards to the west by about twenty feet, making the entire western façade even and providing enough extra space to accommodate an additional retail store. The front porch was extended all the way across the western façade, retaining the building’s original character.
In 1957, another business – The House of Wares opened in the southern end of the building and the offices of Fran Rumsey (Real Estate?? The sign on the building appears to read “Town & Country Estates”) occupied the second floor over the grocery store that Fred Cole ran. After The House of Wares closed, that space was occupied by the Redding Paint and Hardware store.
The late 1950’s saw the complex become the hub of commercial activity in West Redding. After the Country Emporium opened on the northern side of the railroad tracks, additional traffic supplied more customers to the area. With a liquor store, a full grocery store, gasoline pumps, and a hardware/paint store on the first level, the complex provided many of the essentials for area residents.
On January 15th of 1965, a massive fire destroyed most of the second floor of the main building, while smoke and water damage ruined a good deal of the main level that housed the West Redding Store. An architect was engaged to draw up plans that would restore the building to look almost identical to the original. The only major change was in the roof. The front façade of the building retained the westward facing gable, allowing the building to keep its traditional historically correct appearance, but the rest of the structure received a flat roof covered with asphalt and stone. Redding builder Ted Dachenhausen was the contractor.
The Cole’s operated the store until Fred’s death in 1977, and after that, his widow Ada and the couple’s son Doug continued to run the Bay Window Package Store for several more years. Space once occupied by the hardware store was leased out to Gail’s Station House Restaurant, a very successful breakfast and lunch eatery.
In 1990, Ada Cole sold the property to Fred Levy & Holman Inc. They leased the stores and the two apartments to various tenants but failed to make the monthly mortgage payments to Ada. After a two-year ordeal, Ada foreclosed and retook possession of the property. She then sold it again in 1999 to investor Lewis Finch, the father of Barry Finch, the last owner prior to the recent sale of the property to its current owners.
Over the past twenty-plus years, Finch allowed the building to deteriorate, neglecting to address issues with the flat roof when it began to leak.
The recent inspection of the building revealed that almost all the structural and mold issues are the direct result of a failed roof system that had gone unrepaired for many years. The only section of the building that is still viable is the front apartment which sits at least partially under the original gable roof. The rear apartment has major issues created by the leaking roof at the rear of the building and is currently uninhabitable.
The entire lower section of the building contains partially collapsed ceilings due to water leaks from above. Much of the blown-in insulation is scattered about on the floors and given the 1965 renovation date, that insulation may contain asbestos. Mold is prevalent throughout the lower section of the building and in some cases is so extensive that it is dangerous to even enter without wearing a respirator. Mold and asbestos abatement and remediation costs alone will almost certainly make saving this structure untenable.
Given the extent of the water damage, the time that has elapsed, the obvious signs of exterior rot and sagging roofs in the flat sections, it can be assumed that there is significant structural weaking in the entire flat roof, and quite possibly, more hidden damage within certain sections of the interior walls.
The only section of the building that clearly exhibits any original framing is in the west side of the second-floor front apartment. The visible framing in the attic is mortise and tenon and the rafters show saw marks consistent with a water-powered pitsaw from the mid-1800’s. These are consistent with the approximate original build date but otherwise are not particularly note-worthy.
The historic significance of this building earns it Redding’s 180-day demolition delay so that the town’s historical review committee can negotiate with the new owner in an effort to mitigate the likely loss of this structure. But given the neglect this building has suffered over the past twenty or more years, it is certainly doubtful that it will survive.
As sad as that may be, that is the reality that the good people of Redding must face. If there is one good thing that comes from having a demolition delay process, it is that it forces historians such as myself to take immediate steps to record and preserve the history of the structure involved. Contrary to popular belief, every historical building in town doesn’t come with an already prepared house history. But when time is of the essence, we can do the research, take the photographs, and create a record that will long outlive the building.
A special thanks goes out to Deborah Cole who provided information about her family’s tenure with the property, as well as the 1965 fire photos and the painting that is seen in the masthead of this piece.