Officials seek funding for Lewis House


BEACON FALLS — A month after a committee charged with exploring municipal uses for the former home of Tracy Lewis, president of the Beacon Falls Rubber Shoe Co., recommended demolishing the structure, the conversation once again switched to preserving the home.

Selectman and Town Historian Mike Krenesky leads state officials and town residents through a tour of the Wolfe Avenue house formerly occupied by Tracey Lewis.

Selectmen Michael Krenesky, who is also the town historian, called a special Board of Selectmen meeting last week to discuss possible sources of funding to preserve the town-owned property, which is located at 35 Wolfe Ave.

Krenesky invited officials from the Historic Preservation Division of the Connecticut Commission on Culture and Tourism to Beacon Falls Town Hall to educate the board on feasible grant funding the house and property may be eligible for.

“We want to know where and how the State of Connecticut can help the Town of Beacon Falls in an attempt to do whatever project is decided upon,” Krenesky said. “The purpose was to get a better idea on costs, and compare possible prices with funding to the prices expressed in the committee’s report.”

The state officials informed the board, and a large gathering of residents, that before any funding can be appropriated the house must be listed on the Connecticut State Register of Historical Places. The register is a listing of properties and sites important to the historical development of Connecticut. Officials said getting the house on the registry would not be a problem and could be accomplished within months.

At that point, two grants were mentioned as possibilities for the house: a survey and planning grant and a historical restoration grant.

A survey and planning grant provides up to $20,000 for preservation activities such as feasibility studies, structural and engineering studies, architectural plans for municipally-owned properties and predevelopment studies. This funding would be mostly aimed toward figuring out a use for the property and developing a plan—activities for which the town has already received state funding.

A historic restoration fund grant, on the other hand, provides up to $200,000 and would be aimed at restoring and reviving the property. This grant is applied for on a yearly basis and provides 50 percent of project costs on a reimbursement basis. The town would have to appropriate the total sum for the project up front, and they would not be reimbursed until the project is completed.

State officials felt the Wolfe Avenue house may have a slight edge over others applying for these grants because the project has already received some funding in the past.

“We like to see projects completed fully,” said David Bahlman, Division Director of the Connecticut Commission on Culture and Tourism. “The fact that you have already received almost $200,000 in funding would give you somewhat of an edge. It is, though, a very rigorous and demanding selection process.”

The Lewis House Exploratory Committee, which is composed of Beacon Falls residents, favored demolition of the house after architect Paul B. Bailey, who was also in attendance, conducted an adaptive reuse study in June and presented the committee with what he found to be the three most appropriate options. The committee chose Scheme B of Bailey’s report, which calls for the demolition of the existing house and construction of a new, 19,000-square-foot building at an estimated cost of $3.9 million.

This was chosen over a renovating the existing house, or Scheme A-1, and Scheme A-2, a more expensive approach of renovating the house and adding a 16,000-square-foot addition at an estimated cost of $4.21 million.

Bailey expressed decisions should not be made based on the price tag of each recommendation he outlined in his report.

“The town should not be looking at the expressed costs from the study as an either-or choice,” said Bailey. “There are many more steps be taken along the road then just that factor. The point is here, it’s not one million dollars or tear the house down, the choice is taking some steps to save it or tear it down.”

The historic preservation officials proposed an all-or-nothing approach to the house, and said renovating parts and adding additions is not what they prefer to see happen.

“It’s not really preservation if you’re taking bits and pieces of an old structure and applying it to a new structure,” said Bahlman. “Either the structure is worth saving or it’s not worth saving, and that’s a decision that the town needs to make. If you take parts it won’t express to future residents of the community what actually is there or what it looked like. It creates a false sense of history.”

Krenesky suggested looking for funding to “mothball” the house for the time being while a plan is developed and a decision on what to do with the house is finalized. He suggested an endangered building grant which could provide up to $25,000 to stabilize the building. Bahlman all but turned that idea down.

“This project probably wouldn’t be eligible for the endangered building grant because that is for buildings in immediate danger of collapsing, which this house is not,” Bahlman said. “Also, if you haven’t made the decision whether to destroy the building or not we won’t get involved. The state doesn’t want to throw money at mothballing a building if it will be torn down six months from now.”

Deliberations are ongoing as to which direction to go with the house, but a decision does not appear to be immediate. Whether the town tears down the house or preserves it is yet to be seen, but either way, Bahlman believes Beacon Falls officials will be making a well formed decision.

“I commend the town for dealing with this so carefully and not making any rash decisions,” said Bahlman. “One way or the other, the decision will be a sound one and it will be made after a lot of thought and deliberation. We often see situations where people don’t think when they act but I’m glad in this situation the town is.”