‘Feels like a deeply personal wound’
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.
“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.”
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.
“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.
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