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Norwalk loses 1677-built house in illegal demolition

‘Feels like a deeply personal wound’

21 Willow St., after a contractor demolished much of the property. (Contributed)

21 Willow St., before the demolition. (Contributed)

NORWALK, Conn. — Mayor Harry Rilling is promising the “strictest penalties possible” for a contractor who “illegally” demolished one of Norwalk’s oldest homes.

Situated around the block from City Hall at 21 Willow St. and referred to by some as the John Hiatt House and the Thomas Hyatt House by others, its original construction dates to 1677.

“I am disgusted by this contractor’s actions and want to ensure he knows that when someone violates the City’s requirements to issue a demolition permit or get a proper demolition license, there are consequences,” Rilling said in a statement. “What he’s taken from us was more than just a building, it was an integral part of Norwalk’s history. In coordination with the Norwalk Historical Commission and our Legal Department, we plan to pursue this matter to the fullest extent of the law, including potential civil and criminal penalties.”

Local Historian Lisa Wilson Grant likened the demolition to “when Penn Station came down,” as the irreplaceable house appears to be destroyed.

“This is so far gone,” she said. “… You can’t rebuild this.”

The City was alerted to the demolition Saturday, the City news release said.

21 Willow St., after a contractor demolished much of the property. (Contributed)

“While the contractor had a permit to renovate the second floor, a demolition permit was never issued. Upon getting the call on Saturday, Bill Ireland, the City’s Chief Building Official, immediately went to the site to ascertain what was going on. Ireland saw that the illegal demolition was underway and issued an immediate stop work order. A no-work situation remains in effect,” the news release said.

Ireland did not reply to a NancyOnNorwalk email. News12 quotes him as saying, “They had a permit for a second-story remodeling with no change to the footprint and first floor kitchen, bathroom laundry only.”

“The contractor was not a licensed demolition contractor. These serious violations are currently under review by the City of Norwalk’s Legal Department,” the City’s news release said.

Norwalk Preservation Trust President Tod Bryant called the destruction “a tremendous loss.”

“It’s one of the few houses remaining, that speaks to our very, very early history,” he said.

Grant said buildings like that give the City character.

Although Grant and Bryant said the house was on the National Historic Register, NancyOnNorwalk could find no record of that. Bryant said he’d been mistaken. Therefore, penalties under the Connecticut Environmental Protection Act (CEPA) do not apply.

Bryant believed John Hiatt was given the land by the Council in recognition of his service in King Phillip’s War, also called the First Indian War, the Great Narragansett War or Metacom’s Rebellion, which was fought in 1675-76.

The “core” of the house dated to 1677, Bryant said. “It was one of the oldest, if not the oldest house at Norwalk.”

Historic marks revealed at 21 Willow St., after a contractor demolished much of the property. (Contributed)

It has been expanded but, “we could see the bones,” Grant said. There were handmade nails sticking out of boards, old shingles and fireplaces with cubby holes.

A house at 68 Strawberry Hill Ave. was built in 1675 but underwent a major renovation in the 1750s, Bryant told The Hour in 2011.

“It’s hard to tell which one is older,” he said Tuesday.

City land records show that Cesar Diaz and Kembery Mora bought the house from Richard Bellefeuille for $310,000 in November 2021. Kathleen Virginia Morrow owned the house from 1967 to 2004.

Morrow as known for helping to save the Lockwood Mathews Mansion, multiple people say.

She lived there 50 years, according to her obituary. “The house was an extension of her passion for the history of Norwalk and conservation,” it said.

The neighbors talked about Morrow and said she’d be spinning in her grave now, according to Grant. “When she renovated or did anything she was always really conscious of its history. And she would never, never have wanted this to happen.”

Former Mayor Alex Knopp released this statement:

“The unauthorized demolition of the Willow Street house is more than the loss of a residential structure— even worse, it is the tragic destruction of an irreplaceable part of Norwalk’s Revolutionary War legacy. Mayor Rilling has taken the right step of announcing he will use the City’s full authority to seek justice against this criminally negligent act.

“When I was elected Mayor, I looked for ways to halt the demolition of historic structures but there was no available law in existence so my administration worked with historical preservation advocates like Tod Bryant and Gail Wall to enact Norwalk’s first demolition delay ordinance. It requires property owners to notify both the city and the public before any planned demolition of an historically significant structure could be undertaken. That period of delay was designed to give residents an opportunity to have their voices heard and City officials an opportunity to persuade the property owner not to demolish the structure.

21 Willow St., after a contractor demolished much of the property. (Contributed)

“The demolition delay ordinance we enacted successfully prevented many tear downs. The delay period has been extended. But unfortunately under current state law cities like Norwalk have only limited powers of criminal law deterrence and financial penalties. This new atrocity shows the City should seek additional ways to deter and punish unauthorized demolitions like this one by property owners who trample on the public interest in valuing historic preservation.

“The destruction of this historic home feels like a deeply personal wound. Its former owner, Kathleen Morrow, a revered teacher at Tracey School for many decades, was my dear family friend who served as my first campaign manager and even organized other friends to bring meals to my wife and two young children in 1989-90 when I was hospitalized for seven months with a paralyzing disease called ‘French polio.’ Anybody who was active in the Norwalk Democratic Party in the 1970’s and 1980’s surely attended many pot luck parties at this house or bought old junk at Kathleen’s annual tag sale for our local Democratic Party district committee. Her house was historic, by many accounts the oldest residential structure in Norwalk that survived the British efforts to burn down the town in the eighteenth century, but she offered it as a warm and welcoming home even well into the twenty-first century.

“What shocks me even more about this shameful demolition of her historic home is that one of Kathleen’s monumental achievements was her work with Mary Brewer, Ralph Bloom and others in the history preservation community to go to court to prevent the City from using the Lockwood Mansion Mansion and Matthews Park for the Public Works garage. They won, and to this day the Mansion and the Park sparkle as among the brightest crown jewels in Norwalk. Kathleen’s house may have been demolished but her legacy of devotion to preserving Norwalk’s history will never be torn down.”

 

Grant sees a recently planted row of Arborvitaes at 21 Willow St. as suspicious, given that the new shrubs block the view of the house from the road. There was also a machine parked in the line of sight. “I think it was premeditated.”

“I don’t know, I think there should be something ‘more’ when people buy houses,” she said. “I don’t know if it’s a deed restriction or some kind of thing. When it’s something so special, at least the part that should remain intact. This kind of thing shouldn’t be able to happen.”

Updated, 3:21 p.m. Nov. 2 and 8:44 p.m. Nov. 5: More information.

Reminder: NancyOnNorwalk requires full names from commenters. For more information, go here.

21 Willow St., after a contractor demolished much of the property. (Contributed)

21 Willow St., after a contractor demolished much of the property. (Contributed)

21 Willow St., after a contractor demolished much of the property. (Contributed)

18 comments

Jessica Garnett November 2, 2022 at 2:58 pm

What would have happened if the neighbors hadn’t alerted the city? The fact that no one at City Hall had this on a watchlist of houses to purchase/preserve is mind boggling. Given what I see daily being renovated and built around this city, this sadly comes as no surprise. I’m glad Mrs. Morrow isn’t here to see this.

Mike Murray November 2, 2022 at 3:09 pm

It seems that if the city wants to interfere with property owners rights the city should make the property tax exempt. Why should the Coty be able to tell the owner how to renovate their property because it has public value if the public isn’t paying for that value?

David Muccigrosso November 2, 2022 at 3:29 pm

So, Nancy, you’re just reprinting this Grant lady’s inaccurate assertions as fact? And then not questioning any of her other wild assertions and accusations?

Nice to see that justice and due process all fly out the window when you slaughter one of the historical society’s sacred cows.

Evan Spears November 2, 2022 at 3:53 pm

As a Norwalk resident I could care less. The company may have broke the rules …. but this seems like a power flex for Harry. If our politicians really cared they’d be more concerned about building more affordable housing for Norwalk residents. Let history be history, we dont have space for the numerous historical homes around here.

Benjamin Gates November 2, 2022 at 4:02 pm

@ Mike Murray while I agree with you that the house should have been tax exempt due to its historic nature, your comment about why should the city be able to tell the owner how to renovate their house makes absolutely no sense.

Have you ever heard of pulling permits for renovation? its pretty par for the course in any civilized society that has building codes. The entire point of building codes and pulling permits is to ensure that buildings are built to certain standards of safety. They aren’t perfect, but they are a big reason why we don’t have houses collapsing or fires started by bad wiring and people dying as a result.

Regardless of that, the contractor only had a permit which was limited in scope to certain renovation items. Even if they did have a permit to demolish the house, which wouldn’t have been granted but lets say it was for arguments sake, the contractor still WASNT a licensed demolition contractor. No matter which way you slice it they broke the rules here and were clearly trying to get away with things without the building department knowing. Because of this they should be penalized to the max.

Not sure how you feel about unlicensed contractors and shoddy work but I for one am not a fan. This wasn’t a case of the city trying to dictate what a homeowner could do to their house, it was a case of a contractor going beyond the scope of a granted permit and trying to get away with it, about 200 feet from city hall I might add.

This was either a blatant attempt to do something illegal and keep it from the building department or a case of astonishing stupidity on the part of the homeowners and contractor. From my vantage point its pretty clear which one of those it was.

Victor Cavallo November 2, 2022 at 4:04 pm

It was a relic and remnant symbolizing the colonial oppression of native American tribes. Reverence for this artifact is tantamount to a celebration of their massacre.

It existed only because the Narragansett tribe was decimated. It should have been torn down long ago.

This, from the article cited by Nancy on “King Phillip’s War”:
“Unparalleled Destruction: …Thousands of Indians were killed, wounded or captured and sold into slavery or indentured servitude. The war decimated the Narragansett, Wampanoag and many smaller tribes and mostly ended Indian resistance in southern New England, paving the way for additional English settlements.”

Bryan Meek November 2, 2022 at 4:11 pm

Reminds me of the Carriage House at the Norwalk Inn. No one cared about it rotting into the ground with squatters frequently making a mess of things. And who knew skylights were a thing in 1677. I mean seriously, if the historic nature of the home was an issue why were modifications allowed for the last 350 years? And does anyone know what they plan to put it its place? How do we know that it doesn’t have more character in line with our historical landscape? Would the permitting process even have prevented this?

Tysen Canevari November 2, 2022 at 4:17 pm

All of a sudden the mayor is up in arms about the character of the city. How do we prosecute him for allowing one apartment building after another in our town?

Benjamin Gates November 2, 2022 at 4:18 pm

@EvanSpears, let me see if I have this right. Your advocating for more affordable housing in Norwalk and saying we don’t have the space for the numerous historical buildings in Norwalk because we need more housing?

I must say, that is an interesting take considering all of the apartments that have been build in Norwalk over the last several years. You are aware that per state law a certain percentage has to be put aside as affordable housing right? Please explain to me exactly where else you would like to see cheaply built monstrosities in Norwalk. I would also love to hear your take on the road congestion in Norwalk. Let me guess, should we knock down buildings and build more roads?

In terms of the historic buildings in Norwalk, please cite for me one instance in which the building got in the way of something other than apartments. I wasn’t aware that there were so many historic buildings in this town that it prevented other things being built. More open space and old buildings have been replaced by huge apartment buildings or housing complexes in the last few years than at probably any other time.

This lot would have never been big enough to accommodate anything other than a small house, which is exactly what was there. The historic nature of the house happened to just be there as well.

David Muccigrosso November 2, 2022 at 5:55 pm

@Bryan, finally something we agree on.

As far as I can tell, this thing was sitting in some suburban neighborhood. It’s not exactly the historic Washington Street facades.

John C. Miller, Jr. November 2, 2022 at 7:26 pm

As a lifelong resident of Norwalk who grew up on Lockwood Lane, a short distance away from this home, this is really a shame. It’s a bit puzzling, however, that this structure was never registered as a National Historic site.

That being said, since when has zoning and permitting ever been a problem in Norwalk. The following suggests otherwise:

APARTMENT COMPLEXES IN NORWALK (PARTIAL LIST)

Address #Units
The Waypointe 515 West Avenue 662
The Berkeley at Waypointe 30 Orchard St 69
The Curb Building A 150 Glover Ave 232
The Curb Building B 200 Glover Ave 235
The Curb Building C 170 Glover Ave 294
1 Glover Glover Ave 132
The Beacon 10 Willard Road 219
The Confluence Belden Ave 311
Halstead Norwalk 8 Norden Place 240
597 Westport Apartments 597 Westport Ave 235
The Sheffield SoNo 55 N Water 136
Shirt Factory Lofts Crescent St 122
Brim & Crown 230 East Ave 189
Soundview Landing 20 Day Street 345
Harborside SoNo 123 Water St 129
Iron Works SoNo 1 N Water St 129
Total 3679

PENDING COMPLETION
SoNo Metro 1 Chestnut St 122
The Pinnacle at Waypointe West Avenue 393
North Seven Glover Avenue 1,303
Total 1818

Mark A Demmerle November 2, 2022 at 7:47 pm

It is important to respect our historic structures. They embody memory and spirit. Historic Preservation could review and sign off on permit applications for all houses 75 years and older.

Susan Guerrero November 2, 2022 at 8:14 pm

This is one of the oldest tricks in the book. Knowingly flaunt the law and accept your slap on the wrist, if any, as a cost of doing business. Laugh all the way to the bank.

Benjamin Gates November 3, 2022 at 10:09 am

@ VictorCavallo. Your take is absurd. “Reverence for this artifact is tantamount to a celebration of their massacre.” has to be one of the most dramatic lines ever written.

With a comment like that I hope you stand firm on your high moral ground by not buying product from China(communist suppression of anyone who opposes them, particularly Uyghurs), not driving a car or heating your home with oil products (climate change and all), and support small businesses even when they cost more( you know, local economy vs globalization). Otherwise, you are nothing more than a blatant hypocrite that selectively chooses stances based on convenience.

I bet you think anyone who disagrees with your comments or point of view is a racist too.

Chyretta Robinson November 4, 2022 at 4:51 am

While homelessness rises!! Unregistered,illegal people on the rise. People sleeping in cars with all their belongings. Where are the police?

Morrow Dowdle November 5, 2022 at 9:22 am

I will preemptively admit that I am biased regarding this case, as I grew up visiting my grandmother, Kathleen Morrow, in that house, and it was the magical center point of my childhood. Not only because my grandmother was an incredible human being, but because of the house itself. If you have never had a chance to be inside it, it was literally walking into a living history, as most of the original structure was still intact. Whatever renovations were made to the house never diminished its historicity; they were made to preserve the materials of the house as it went through the wear and tear that one would expect in a house over 300 years old. Caring for historical structures in our country isn’t always fetishizing the past or refusing the march of progress. It’s an agreement that the relics of our country’s history are worth acknowledging because it’s part of what helps citizens cultivate awareness and understanding of our past in all its complexities. There may be times when the removal of a historical artifact seems more positive or productive than to let it stand, but in this case, this house honored the establishment of Norwalk as a city and was intrinsic to the fabric of the city’s history and culture. As far as I can tell, it was not causing harm to anyone. The fact that someone so callously and illegally took it upon themselves to destroy it is something to grieve.

Jon J Velez November 5, 2022 at 3:31 pm

@ Tysen. The old Blue Moon Parking lot for patrons back in the day was converted into six units. Each unit has a two car garage. Yet the NEW tenants ALL park on sidewalk. Get this, Manny’s Deli a well known restaurant serving the spanish community is in the old Blue Moon building & NOW THEIR PATRONS HAVE NOWHERE TO PARK because of the approval of OUR P&Z/MAYOR? How can the city take a parking lot away from a restaurant & build CONDO’S? So in the end the nightmare continues on BOUTON & the do nothing council people do whatever KING HARRY says!

Linda Becconsall November 6, 2022 at 1:00 pm

There are two different issues in place here. Regardless of historic nature of this house, the owners/contractors didn’t have the proper permit to demolish this house. They should be punished servely for their actions, so other owners and contractors don’t disregard the permit process and building codes. It is sad to lose a part of Norwalk’s history. I hope the state, Norwalk,other local Historical Societies check their records to make sure other Connecticut historical buildings have the proper registrations and protection.

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