Since the completion of the five-year restoration of the historic Innis Arden Cottage, the Greenwich Point Conservancy has been working with the town on plans to restore the Old Barn (aka north concession building). It was originally built in 1887 as a livestock barn at the entrance to the J. Kennedy Tod estate, and is the oldest surviving building at Greenwich Point. It is listed on the Connecticut State Register of Historic Places, and has been approved for listing on the National Register as well.
The GPC's plans for the Old Barn, which were unanimously approved by the Board of Selectmen and the RTM, are to upgrade it and restore it to its original configuration and materials (stone and shingle), and add a dining deck on the beach side. The Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation supports the restoration plans, as do local preservation, conservation and other cultural and civic groups.
The Old Barn originally had two wings and an open section in the middle, covered by the roof. Under the restoration plans, the food concession located in the south wing would be rehabilitated, and restrooms would be added to the north (opposite) wing, which formerly housed the Bruce Museum's Seaside Center prior to its move to the restored Innis Arden Cottage. The open center section and the new deck would become an indoor/outdoor dining pavilion, and arguably the most beautiful and best waterfront dining spot in town, available for use by the whole community.
The 1950s-era brick municipal restroom building would be demolished, and the views up the beach and through the center of the Old Barn from the roadway would be opened up, and would be spectacular.
The plans also call for the addition of safety upgrades recommended by the town, such as a pick up/drop off area and pedestrian walkways connecting the Innis Arden Cottage to the main beach and Old Barn areas.
The GPC's original plans for the Old Barn preceded Hurricane Sandy, which did significant damage to the structure (although most damage was to sections that had been altered in recent years -- the original parts weathered the storm the best). Both before and after Sandy, the GPC has worked closely with the town and the state DEEP to include in the plans various types of construction to mitigate future storm issues.
The GPC has privately raised the funds for all of this work, and has also offered the town an endowment to cover future storm damage, so that the project will not impact the town's FEMA insurance coverage generally.
Last week the town (as the owner of the building), assisted by the GPC, went before the Planning and Zoning Commission for a preliminary site approval for the project. Because the Old Barn is a listed historical building, it is eligible for a variance from the requirement to raise its elevation pursuant to new FEMA guidelines. This is a good thing, for without such a variance the building will be torn down, which would be a huge loss (it will not be possible to raise the building nine feet and still have it be usable; handicap access would not be feasible, nor would it be realistically accessible by anyone for that matter).
Some people in town are opposed to the plan, because they believe that buildings such as the Old Barn do not belong in coastal and flood zones, and that when existing buildings in these zones are damaged, they should be removed and the coastline reclaimed by nature.
Further, it has been suggested that as a former barn, the building is not as historically important and "worthy" of our preservation efforts as some other types of structures.
In effect, these people think that this beautiful 125-year-old building, which has stood on the beach for more than a century, should now be demolished.
The GPC could not disagree more. While we are sensitive to coastal and environmental concerns at Greenwich Point, we believe that a balanced approach is called for, and that it would be a tragedy to lose the Old Barn, which is the oldest among an amazing and rare collection of historic buildings there, including the Innis Arden Cottage, the Chimes building and others, all of which are in the flood zone. Greenwich Point is a town park and beach and needs to have services for its residents, and it is a gift that we have beautiful historic buildings, such as the Innis Arden Cottage and the Old Barn, that can be upgraded, adapted and reused to provide such services.
As to the relative "value" of an historic barn, we would highlight that the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation has introduced a program to save historic Connecticut barns, which have been identified by the state as a particular priority for preservation efforts since so many of these cultural treasures have been lost.
Last, we point out that no one is prejudiced by granting a variance for the restoration of a public building such as the Old Barn, as it will benefit and be used by the entire community.
It is notable that the Old Barn is only a few hundred feet away from the Innis Arden Cottage, and is at the same elevation. When we began planning the restoration of the Innis Arden Cottage in 2004 the GPC faced similar challenges.
It was slated for eventual demolition, and there were some people in power who did not believe it should be restored, even though it had survived on that site for 110 years, including through the Hurricane of '38, our worst on record.
The GPC had to fight to get the building recognized as an important historical asset and to save it. Now, most people love the restored Cottage and would not think of recommending that it be razed.
The GPC needs your help to save the Old Barn from demolition. It is a diamond-in-the-rough, and following its restoration the Old Barn will become a well-used and much-loved community resource, like the Innis Arden Cottage.
Please contact our town officials, P&Z commission members and other land use officials and let them know that we value this special 125-year-old building and must not allow it to be lost forever.
Chris Franco is the president of the Greenwich Point Conservancy.