State Council to Again Consider Significance of Winooski Mansion | Off Message

State Council to Again Consider Significance of Winooski Mansion


The house at 109 Main Street in Winooski, known as 'the mansion' - FILE: MOLLY WALSH
  • File: Molly Walsh
  • The house at 109 Main Street in Winooski, known as 'the mansion'
Critics of a plan to demolish one of the oldest houses in Winooski are hoping a procedural error will help them keep "the mansion" on the Vermont State Register of Historic Places.

The designation could slow or block a proposal to tear down the early 19th-century home on Main Street and replace it with a four-story, 75-unit apartment building.

The Vermont Advisory Council on Historic Preservation will hold a special meeting at 10 a.m. Thursday to consider the delisting question. 

The fate of the white house for which Mansion Street was named has captured local attention since news broke last month that it could be torn down.

Jeff Mongeon, owner of the mansion and developer of the apartment project, requested that it be removed from the historic register late last year. On December 20, the council agreed to delist by a vote of 4-0. Two other homes would be demolished to make way for the apartment building, but those structures are not on the register.

Citizens who were surprised by the delisting and the proposed demolition researched the matter and discovered that public notice about the December 20 meeting had not been properly made. State officials agreed to reconsider the question Thursday.

"It's been a long process, but these are all public meetings and we value public input," said Devin Colman, Vermont state architectural historian. "We felt it was best to hold another meeting, notice it properly, get everyone’s input and then the council can make a fully informed decision."

Winooski Historical Society president Joseph Perron is among those pushing for the council to keep the building on the list.

"Much more is yet to be learned of this house’s important role in the development of the community," Perron wrote in a letter to the state council. "The loss of this house would create a permanent void in the historical narrative of the city and region as communicated through its architectural assets."

Mongeon plans to repeat his request that the house be delisted.

"It was delisted by a council of professionals and it was reopened due to a paperwork error," Mongeon said. "So I tend to believe that those that are empowered to make the decision will make the correct decision."
The project will bring needed housing to Winooski and continue the city's revitalization, Mongeon said. 

"It will piggyback on some of the really positive things that have already happened in Winooski," he said. 

At a city meeting last month, many residents spoke out against the proposed demolition and said the apartment building would be out of scale with the neighborhood. They also questioned a new streamlined zoning review process called form-based code that's designed to promote infill growth on gateway corridors such as Main Street.

The prospect of less onerous local review appears to be attracting development proposals — and tear downs. At least seven properties on Main Street are currently proposed to be demolished.

The mansion project would knock down three. And developer Mike Crete wants to tear down four properties — two houses, a duplex and a small restaurant — at 211 to 215 Main in order to build a four-story building with 27 one-bedroom apartments on the upper floors and commercial space on the street level.

The form-based code process gives city zoning administrator Eric Vorwald the authority to approve gateway projects without the normal review at the city Development Review Board. He has not given the mansion project a permit yet, but has said it is close to meeting standards.

But the state meeting Thursday could complicate things. If the mansion is again listed on the state register, it's unclear if the demolition would be allowed, according to Vorwald.

At a minimum, "it would require an extra step" for the developer, Vorwald said, to show that the house's historical significance has been "compromised."

City regulations state that the "demolition of structures listed on the National or State Registers of Historic Places shall be prohibited unless prior approval is received from the Vermont Division of Historic Preservation or a letter from a qualified Historic Preservation consultant documents that the historical significance has been compromised and is no longer relevant."

The house was added to the registry in 1993 with a citation noting that it is believed to be the second-oldest home in Winooski and for many years was a visual landmark looming atop the hill. It was also the home of Revolutionary War officer Nathan Rice. 

When the state advisory council voted to delist, it concluded that extensive alterations to the former single-family dwelling, now a six-unit apartment house, had stripped the structure of architectural integrity. 

But critics say that decision failed to recognize that historical significance related to a structure's past use are also part of the listing criteria.

Perron and several historians filed new documents with the council in advance of Thursday's meeting. They suggest that the house dates to around 1803 and that it was home to Francis Childs, a late 18th-century "luminary" who was a close colleague of the nation's founding fathers Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson.

Also of interest: Childs bequeathed the house, upon the death of his wife, to “Henry Oakely, a colored young man, who has been brought up with my family, and has conducted with kindness and fidelity towards myself and my wife,” his will states.

Taking these facts into account, Perron wrote the council, "the house survives as a truly rare reminder of early African American history in the State of Vermont. "Additional research into what became of Oakely might yield insights into Vermont’s early race relations, Perron wrote.

Thursday's meeting will take place on the sixth floor of the Davis Building on the National Life campus in Montpelier. 

Meanwhile, Winooski's Project Review Committee will hold a meeting Friday to discuss the mansion project and Crete's proposed development. Vorwald has yet to approve the Crete project.