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Monday, July 14, 2008

Historic house needs loving owner, much work

By Randall Beach
Register Staff
NEW HAVEN
— Wanted: local preservationist willing to buy historic "fixer-upper" in picturesque neighborhood.
The former Winchester Observatory Caretaker’s House now sits at 477 Prospect St., about 75 feet south of its original location, awaiting word on a new owner while gradually decaying.
The three-story house, its red-and-beige paint peeling, is surrounded by a black chain-link fence. The front steps have been removed. Piled-up furniture is visible through the windows.
City officials are frustrated about the situation, as are preservationists.
In 2002, Yale University representatives decided they no longer needed the structure to house graduate students and donated it to the city. At that time, it seemed like a good match for the Board of Education because its construction program leaders thought the house could be used as an annex for the soon-to-be-reconstructed Celentano School.
School officials asked the Board of Aldermen for authorization to acquire the house and the board approved, with the condition it be preserved, according to Susan Weisselberg, coordinator of construction for the school system.
But the house stood in the way of an expanded driveway on the Division Street side of the new school. So, in March 2004, at a cost of $198,000, it was moved toward the nearby Yale Divinity School.
The new school opened in time for the 2005 fall school year, but the house remained empty.
"We looked at it for the Early Childhood Assessment Team program, a good fit for Celentano," Weisselberg said. "We put it out to bid twice" for renovation. "But both times, the bids came in over budget. It wouldn’t have been fiscally prudent to proceed."
She said the bids were for more than $2 million.
Now, Weisselberg said, it’s up to other city officials to try to sell the house. Late last year, the Board of Education declared it surplus property and turned it back to the city.
"It’s a wonderful house," Weisselberg said. "It’d be great if it went to a family or nonprofit. But it needs work."
City Plan Director Karyn Gilvarg said before the house is sold, she would like to see it used to demonstrate how to apply "green standards" (environmentally-friendly) to an historic building. But she said a grant might need to be obtained for this.
John Herzan, an officer for the New Haven Preservation Trust, said an historic resources inventory form reveals the Queen Anne-style house was built for observatory officer Robert Wilson in 1882. Herzan said the observatory was affiliated with Yale.
According to Herzan, the house is on the National Register of Historic Places and a contributing structure to the Prospect Hill Historic District.
Noting the house’s historic significance and disrepair, Herzan said, "It’s a preservation concern. Anyone who values New Haven’s architectural heritage is worried about the future of this building. It’s not good to have a house empty indefinitely."
When the Preservation Trust featured the house in its newsletter last fall, it was called "important to the Prospect Street streetscape."
"One would hope a committed preservationist would step up to that purchase and restore the house," the newsletter writer added.
Noting such a commitment is not assured, the Trust’s writer added, "That’s why the establishment of a Local Historic District could make a difference."
Without an LHD, the writer noted, a property owner could remove a chimney or the front porch without review or approval or add an incongruous addition such as a garage.Property owners of the St. Ronan-Edgehill neighborhood, which includes Prospect Street, are expected to vote this summer or fall on whether to establish a historic district.
Randall Beach can be reached at rbeach@nhregister.com or 789-5766.

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