When a sign went up in front of the building at 436 Danbury Rd., at the corner of Cannon Rd., several people took notice. Driving by quickly, passersby can read, “NOTICE OF INTENT TO DEMOLISH THIS BUILDING” in big letters, very similar to signs on other older homes in town that are set to be demolished.
However, the town’s Building Department, which typically receives demolition applications before such signs are posted, reports that no such application has been filed for the property. “There’s no paperwork,” confirms building inspector Bob Root.
But look a little closer at the sign. In much smaller letters there’s one little word that makes all the difference: “NOT.” As in, intent not to demolish it.
“It’s an ironic twist, hopefully the sign catches the public’s attention, and if someone gets mad enough they’ll look at it and realize, ‘Hey, I can do something about it,’” explains John Paul, the man who has owned the property for the last 40 years.
He was inspired by the recent public efforts to block demolition of the historic home at 183 Ridgefield Rd. and other properties.
“There have been buildings demolished in the town of late, and after the sign goes up on other properties, good well-meaning citizens write [letters] and complain about buildings coming down. The owner never has a chance to state his or her case,” says Paul, explaining that, Having seen the recent outcry around similar properties too late after the fact, he wants the public to know he’s trying to save this piece of Wilton history. He’s hoping that somehow an individual or group will become involved before a real ‘intent to demolish’ sign is put up.
Paul is taking the chance that the sign will appeal to the public and attract someone who will want to either relocate the building to property somewhere else, or will buy the property and preserve the buildings.
“I want to give the public their fair shake. I don’t have a buyer at the moment.”
He has gotten offers to buy the property in the past, but only from people who want it just for the land.
“It would mean the demolition ball follows. So I say, ‘Sorry, I won’t sell to you.’” says Paul. Some of the projects that potential buyers have eyed the property for include a strip mall, offices, nursing homes and more. “Conversation stops when I say, ‘Please retain the buildings.’”
But after 40 years of owning the property, Paul feels it’s the time in his life to move on. And the clock may be running out of time for the buildings.
“If you have interest in the building and the property, please, by all means let me know. Otherwise, the next buyer that comes along is going to get it. I have to move on with my life.”
Paul has been dedicated to keeping the property in good shape and preserved, as much as possible.
“I feel like a caretaker of the place. It’s changed dramatically–it used to have a beautiful, sweeping front lawn, which it doesn’t have anymore because of Rte. 7. When I bought it in the 70s, the traffic was about 10 percent of today. The trees that were here are no longer here. It’s just not the same to me. But I do try to preserve it.”
436 Danbury Rd.’s History
According to Robert Russell‘s definitive book on the history of Wilton, the house dates back to 1879 when Charles Cannon built it as a gift for his daughter, Esther, and her new husband Samuel Miller, who eventually succeeded his own father as the president of Gilbert & Bennett Manufacturing. The Millers owned the large meadow across the street, known at the time as Miller’s Meadow. When their daughter, also named Esther, married Richard Allen, the meadow became Allen’s Meadow.
The main structure is the former residence, and was originally a 5-bedroom home. There’s also a small cottage that was once the chauffeur’s quarters, says Paul; it’s now a residential residence. Another tiny, 144 sq. ft. building was a potter’s shed; it has a potbelly stove but no heat or electricity. The fourth structure is the original carriage house, and there are two tenants with offices there–Wilton Internal Medicine and architect Rob Sanders.
The property is located in a residential zone that, according to town planner Bob Nerney is also zoned for adaptive use–allowing small businesses to operate in the existing residential structures but buildings have to stay as single family residences. Nerney says any requests to change the zone would have to be done through application to the Planning and Zoning commission.
Paul bought the property in 1979 and ran his burgeoning law firm out of it. As it grew he relocated it to the carriage house. At one point there was an antique dealer that operated out of the property, and the Renfrew Center, a nationally-known eating disorder treatment facility–occupied the main house from 2000-2010 before relocating to Greenwich. Over the years Paul has made some modifications and additions.
Now Paul and his wife, Lynn Flaster, own the salon Fraiche, on the house’s first floor. “But 40 years is a long time to own the property. I still practice law, the salon still works. This was a wonderful place. It still is, it’s just not what it once was,” Paul says wistfully.
It’s not clear whether the homes are architecturally significant, but clearly the property has historical roots in Wilton. Paul did offer to give the building to the Wilton Historical Society.
“They reviewed it and determined that they didn’t want the building, that the cost of maintenance or relocation would be too high, and they were afraid it would be very hard to find tenants,” he says.
Paul doesn’t know whether the chances are good that he’ll find someone to buy the lot who’ll maintain the same spirit of preservation and respect for the history and beauty of the property, leaving the buildings intact.
“I am doing my very best to try to preserve the structures. If I fail, at least I tried,” he says.
To contact Paul, call 203.733.9007.