Winooski's Historic Mansion Could Be Demolished | Off Message

Winooski's Historic Mansion Could Be Demolished


The house at 109 Main Street in Winooski, known as the mansion - MOLLY WALSH
  • Molly Walsh
  • The house at 109 Main Street in Winooski, known as the mansion
The large, historic Winooski house that put the "mansion" in Mansion Street might get knocked down. The Main and Mansion Street house — among the city's oldest — is one of three homes that a developer wants to demolish to make way for a four-story apartment building with 75 units.

About 15 people attended a meeting of the Winooski Project Review Committee at City Hall Wednesday, mostly to speak against the demolition and the apartment building, which they said was grossly out of scale.

Rita Martel, a lifelong Winooski resident in her late 80s, bemoaned the lack of historic preservation codes in the city and the looming loss of the circa 1818 white house at 109 Main Street known by locals simply as "the mansion."

"We're just going to tear it down and build this monster," Martel said.

The developer, Jeff Mongeon, countered that the new building would "bring out the best in Winooski" and help revitalize Main Street. "I see housing. I see restaurants. I see a vibrant corridor up Main Street," Mongeon told Seven Days after the meeting.

Mongeon's plan calls for tearing down the mansion, now a six-unit rental; a two-unit rental house next to it at 101 Main Street and a single family home around the corner at 18 Mansion Street. He owns all three properties and lived for a time at 101 Main Street, but he now resides in Colchester. Mongeon is the president of the Winooski Insurance Company.

Once the houses are razed, he would build an apartment building with a rooftop deck and commercial space on the ground floor. It would accommodate 27 studios, 26 one-bedroom units and 22 two-bedroom units. About a third of the apartments would meet the city definition of "affordable units."

An underground garage would hold 60 parking spaces, and a surface lot behind the building would have 20 more.

Critics said the building wouldn't fit in with the single-family homes on Mansion Street and that the plans do not include enough parking. They predicted their street would be flooded with cars and parking problems.

"The size is just unbelievable," said Dave Carter, who owns two houses on Mansion Street — one that he lives in and one that he rents out. 

Opponents could be out of luck. The proposal has met most of the requirements needed to qualify for a zoning permit under a streamlined review process embedded in the city's form-based code zoning. It was instituted in 2016 to encourage growth on city gateways such as Main Street. 

Projects in the gateway zone bypass the normal Development Review Board process conducted by appointees who typically hold multiple public meetings for major projects. Instead, the city zoning administrator has the authority to approve or deny a project with input from city staff who serve on the Project Review Committee.

The meeting Wednesday was the only public session that has been held for the project, and no others are scheduled.

Planning and zoning manager Eric Vorwald told the crowd that the project conforms with most of the required regulations and suggested he was likely to approve it. However, small details on the lighting, landscaping and windows still need to be worked out, he said.

Vorwald said he wasn't sure exactly when he expected to make a final decision. If Vorwald issues a preliminary zoning approval, opponents have 15 days to file an appeal to the city Development Review Board. If no one appeals, the permit is considered final.

Mongeon said he was confident he would obtain the permit soon and hopes to break ground within a month or two. Construction would take about 18 months.

Several people in the crowd expressed frustration with what they saw as a lack of public input in the process.

They also questioned how zoning that is supposed to push growth to main arteries had produced a project that would demolish a home on a side street to make way for parking. 

Vorwald approved a lot line adjustment that put the house at 18 Mansion Street onto a single lot fronting Main Street. Without the adjustment, the project as proposed would not conform to the streamlined zoning rules. 

Carter said the adjustment sets a worrisome precedent of a developer being allowed to combine lots and thus qualify for an incursion onto a side street that is outside the gateway zoning district. If approved, more side-street properties could be demolished and eaten up by new development, Carter said. "What's to prevent people from buying up a whole block?"

Vorwald and City Manager Jessie Baker, who was also at the meeting, repeatedly responded that under the streamlined review code, developments that meet regulations are supposed to be approved. As they suggested their hands were tied by the zoning, some in the crowd responded that they didn't feel city staff were representing the public.

The zoning changes are having an impact, with new buildings going up both on Main Street and East Allen Street.

At least half a dozen houses on city gateways have been demolished or are approved to be demolished under the new zoning. One historic house that was in the path of a new apartment building was moved to Burlington.

Several residents urged city officials to create a local code or ordinance to protect important historic structures from demolition. The mansion's demise could open the city's eyes to valuable at-risk properties, said Sarah van Ryckevorsel. "I'm really sad to see that building torn down," she said. 

In a post on Front Porch Forum, Joseph Perron, president of the Winooski Historical Society, wrote that approximately half of the city properties on the Vermont State Register of Historic Places are in the gateway district and suggested they, too, are at risk. He wrote:

The question remains; if 200 year old structures like (the Mansion) are expendable, what is regarded as worthy of preservation in our City? We should not repeat the mistakes of the recent past, and good development should not require us to sacrifice what truly makes this place unique.
Being listed on the state register doesn't necessarily protect a property from demolition, but it can lead to requirements that discourage tear-downs.
The mansion was listed on the Vermont State Register of Historic Places in 1993 but was delisted last December at the request of Mongeon.

Vermont Advisory Council on Historic Preservation meeting minutes show that state architectural historian Devin Colman recommended that the property be delisted due to "lack of integrity."

The council voted 4-0 to delist. In an interview Thursday, Colman said the building had been degraded with window replacements and other alterations, and he concluded it no longer met the listing standard to demonstrate both architectural and historical significance.

The 1993 listing says the structure is believed to be the second oldest dwelling in Winooski. "For many years it was a visual landmark looming prominently at the top of the large hill upon which the village was built," the listing states.

Extensive Italianate alterations during the Civil War added a cupola, a bay window and a large veranda. Originally built for colonel Nathan Rice, it was later owned by merchant John W. Weaver and the Burlington Mills. In 1870, it was sold to the Episcopal Diocese as a rectory and school and became known as the Mansion House. It later was turned into apartments and, as the listing noted, was renovated in ways that obscured its past.

"Recent aluminum siding alterations have had an unfortunate effect on the building's appearance," the listing states.

Mongeon said he looked at options to save the building. An architectural salvage company would remove some of the interior's historic detailing before it is demolished. "Nothing's going to the landfill," he said.

Wednesday, a Tibetan prayer flag hung across the long front porch and a Weber grill stood on the front lawn. Although the granite front steps are scarred and some of the original details have long since been concealed, the ample proportions of the house, perched on a steep bank, are evident.

Still, some residents see the proposed apartment building as progress. Eli Harrington lives next to the mansion in the rental at 109 Main Street that would also be slated for demolition. He would be displaced, but still supports the project.

He wrote a letter to city officials explaining why. The "scrappy blue-collar mill town" is evolving, with "new residents, new businesses, and new opportunities such as this development," he wrote, adding that the modern building would provide "much-needed housing."