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The General’s Residence, which had a storied history at the head of Main Street n Madison before falling into disrepair, is slated for demolition following Planning & Zoning Commission approval of a redevelopment plan. (Photo by Jesse Williams/The Source | Buy This Photo)
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The Planning & Zoning Commission (PZC) conditionally approved a modified application to demolish the house know as the General’s Residence and replace it with a replica, as well as construct a condo development on the property, a plan that has drawn concerns about the lost historical value of the building.
Trumbull-based lawyer Tim Herbst and former professional baseball player and State Senate candidate Adam Greenberg headed up the development group that took over a previously approved application for the property last winter, proposing several changes, including the razing of the original building.
In the end, only one PZC member voted against the approval. Commission member Joel Miller said he was unconvinced that restoring the structure was not feasible.
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 and members of the Hand and Scranton families. Most recently the home was inhabited by 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.
The final proposal will have a total of nine condo units, with two of those in the General’s Residence replica structure.
Questions about the viability of a full restoration of the building, its actual state of disrepair, and other impacts the development would have in the community took up much of a roughly 2 ½ hour public hearing session on May 21, with several residents calling in opposition to the project, and the demolition specifically, and others expressing support for the developers and the fact that the property would be rehabilitated after years of blight.
Though it has an honorific listing in the state historical registry, the General’s Residence has no protections as a historical structure at the local, state, or federal level, though a Madison ordinance does allow a delay in the demolition if a structure is a certain age and a mandatory review by the Madison Historical Society (MHS) and the Madison Historic District Commission (MHDC).
The developer consulted with both the MHS and the MHDC, along with neighbors of the General’s Residence property. Eleven nearby property owners signed a letter in support of the development, something that commission members cited when expressing their eventual support of the application.
Robin Phillips, speaking on behalf of those 11 residents, said at the public hearing that the neighbors had been involved in three “long” Zoom meetings with Herbst and Greenberg, and lauded them for their responsiveness and sensitivity to neighborhood concerns.
A handful of stipulations were added to the approval by Town Planner Dave Anderson in response to concerns or requests made by residents and local historical organizations, including the installation of a historical marker paid for by the developers and designed by the MHS, the commissioning of a historic survey of the building, and a public viewing area on the property that would be deed restricted in perpetuity.
No one on either side of the debate has disputed whether the building could potentially be rehabilitated; all agreed it is possible to fully restore the structure.
But Duo Dickinson, a nationally renowned architect and Madison resident who is working on the project, insisted that a full restoration was “not feasible” either economically or practically, something that was echoed by both the developers and some members of the PZC.
Madison Building Official Vincent Garolafo wrote a letter dated April 22 that he provided to The Source deeming the building “unsafe” and in violation of state building codes, something Herbst cited as evidence that the demolition and replica was the only viable option.
Another person who identified himself as Steve Bielitz, owner of a preservation company in Glastonbury, called into the public hearing and offered to transport the building in its entirety safely off the property, potentially out of Madison.
MHS Preservation Committee Chair Denny Van Liew told The Source the MHS had also been contacted by Bielitz and planned to respond to his communications, though Van Liew said the issue had not yet been discussed by members of the society.
Overall, objections focused on the historical value of the original structure, regardless of cost or other considerations.
Felicia Smith, who identified herself as a Madison resident with a master’s degree in historical preservation, spoke about the inherent value of Madison’s history and original architecture.
“I would just like you to consider whether we should persevere Madison’s history in its existing state, in its entirety, not create a facsimile,” Smith said to the PZC, “or if we should give precedence to the financial considerations of out-of-town developers over our own historic resources.”
Herbst has pushed back vehemently against the characterization of himself and his partners as being from out of town, pointing out that no Madison resident had purchased the General’s Residence property when it was up for sale, and also that the development group is steeped in local connections and experience, citing Dickinson’s participation in particular.
Jane Montanaro, executive director of Preservation Connecticut, a non-profit that “[champions] the protection of remarkable community assets all over the state,” called in to the meeting as well. She said that while she felt the developers had put together a “great project,” she also cautioned that “a replica is not the best solution” and said that state offers “incentives” for certain types of restoration of buildings like the General’s Residence.
Montaro emphasized she was not speaking in support or against the development, offering to provide further technical support, and said she hoped to work with the developers going forward.
Members of the PZC lauded the developers for their thoroughness and efforts to understand community concerns, as well as steps they had taken to reach out to work with the MHDC and MHS.
Commission member Peter Roos said that while ideally the building would be fully restored, it was clearly “in such a state of disrepair” that the plan the developers came up with was the best case scenario under the circumstances.
Commission member Giselle McDowall lauded the developers for their work with the neighboring property owners, and also cited a nearby development in Clinton put together by the same developers.
“With Duo Dickinson, we have a great commitment there,” she said.
Miller, in his dissent, said it was not “conclusive” that the building could not be restored, and that there was “enough interest” to save the building, while acknowledging that no one so far had stepped up to front the necessary money.
One final stipulation that Anderson added to the PZC approval to the project was a review by Madison Advisory Committee on Community Appearance, with the “assurance” that he would “take their direction” before he gave a final approval to the project.
PZC Chair Ron Clark went further, and said he wanted the project to be held strictly to materials and details presented, and didn’t want the project “watered down” in any way.