BEACON FALLS — Some people prefer to preserve the past. Some prefer to shape the future. Others try to do both. All three of these options were laid out to Beacon Falls residents and officials recently.
In August 2008, the town purchased a 1.52-acre property on Wolfe Avenue for “future municipal use.” Now, some 22 months later, town administrators are poised to make a decision on what that use should be.
Architect Paul Bailey, who was hired by the town for just under $21,000, presented his report to the Wolfe Avenue ‘Lewis House’ Exploratory Committee last month, outlining the viable options for the structure.
The committee, which comprises town residents, has been formed to investigate the best options for the property’s use. Recommendations that have surfaced include a public library, a community center, town offices, a history museum and a teen center. When the best options are clear to the committee, it will present them to the Board of Selectmen, who will make the ultimate decision.
Bailey was asked to come up with a detailed report regarding the best usage of the plot, and the work and cost involved in bringing the structure up to building and fire codes.
In the report, he outlines three viable options for the Wolfe Avenue lot. The first option, Scheme A-1, is to renovate the existing house to allow short-term municipal use and long-term incorporation into a new library, at an estimated cost of $990,926. The second option, Scheme A-2, would involve renovating the house and adding a 16,000-square-foot addition, at an estimated cost of $4,208,672. The final option, Scheme B, would be to completely demolish the existing house and construct a new, 19,000-square-foot property, at an estimated cost of $3,903,045.
The Board of Selectman is currently awaiting a letter from the committee, in which the committee plans to inform the board that it did not feel the report presented by Bailey was 100 percent complete. The questions the committee needs answered concern the structure of the house itself, and the strength of its aging foundation.
“The structural analysis didn’t go into as much detail as we were looking for or requested,” Kirk Shultz, chairman of the exploratory committee, said. “The architect needs to improve on the details of the stability and integrity of the structure.”
The town is seeking various grants to support the project.
“It bases around us trying to build a facility where we can get the best bang for our buck, and grants help us do that,” Selectman Michael Krenesky said. “We don’t want to burn the taxpayers with a huge project, so we are trying to get as much state and federal money as we can find.
“What it comes down to is it will have to be a multipurpose facility. Just based on the way grants are today, there’s ‘x’ number of dollars for libraries, there’s ‘x’ number of dollars for community centers, et cetera. Singly, they are pennies; together they become much, much bigger.”
Some, like Krenesky, believe the house holds too much historical value to be torn down and rebuilt. It was built sometime around 1916, according to Beacon Falls town records. It is a large two-and-a-half story, wood-framed colonial that was, at one time, an image of elegance.
The house was designed by renowned architects, the Olmstead Brothers, and was owned by the Beacon Falls Rubber Shoe Company. Tracy Lewis, who was president of the company at the time, used the house as a weekend getaway. A wealthy industrialist and socialite, he often brought Broadway show girls back with him, according to Krenesky, who is also the municipal historian.
“Over time, we’ve lost a lot of our heritage in Beacon Falls, so I’d like to find a way to reuse this house and not tear it down,” Krenesky said. “I think there are many major historical reasons why it should be preserved. To lose the house, to tear the house down, I think would be a big shame.”
The Wolfe Avenue Committee is divided on the matter, and hasn’t yet reached a consensus on the property’s use.
“Right now the committee is split,” Shultz said. “Some members think it is useless to keep the structure, and others feel it would be terrible to tear such a historical building down. I’m not sure we’ll ever get a unanimous decision, but we’ll try to have the majority decided one way or the other.”
Shultz acknowledged the significance of the building and said he would rather keep it standing, but added that people must look past just the historical value.
“It does have historical value and I would like to see it stay,” Shultz said. “But if it’s going to cost considerably more money, then I don’t think it is worth it.”
Bailey, the architect, says he is not in the business of making suggestions to the town, but did give his input.
“We were merely trying to show that a Library, Community Center, or other similar use could fit on the site with or without renovating the Tracy Lewis House,” Bailey wrote in a response to the committee. “Our study has shown that a new Town Library facility is feasible on this site under both scenarios. Considering the importance of the existing house to the town history, we recommended the former approach.”
First Selectman Susan Cable said Monday she hopes to receive the exploratory committee’s letter at some point this week.
“The first plan was to let the committee look at the report and see if they were satisfied with it,” she said. “They had a couple things that they were not satisfied with, so they are going to put that in writing. My next step is to see what questions have to be answered. When we get those answered we will bring it to a town meeting. We will set something soon in terms of where we go from here, definitely by our next meeting, which will be in the beginning of July.”
The wheels are seemingly in motion, but the road ahead will lead in one of many possible directions.
“We absolutely need to come up with a plan for the property and understand what future facility we are going to have here,” Krenesky said. “It’s not until that point we can decide whether we’re going to tie this building in somehow, or demolish it and have the full property to build whatever is planned.”
The time to make history, or preserve it, is coming.