Lonely Old House Seeks Loving Preservationist

THomas MacMillan PhotoFive years ago, the city paid nearly $200,000 to move a circa-1880s Prospect Hill home 75 feet. Since then it has sat vacant and crumbling. Now the city is looking for a buyer who can breathe new life into it.

The house, at 477 Prospect St., is known as the Winchester Observatory Caretaker’s Cottage. The city currently has an open Request For Proposals (RFP) seeking buyers for the 4,353 square-foot structure. City officials said they’d like to see it occupied by someone who can restore with historical sensitivity. Read the RFP here.

A recent site visit with Livable City Initiative (LCI) staffers revealed that the home will require a serious investment to revive it to its former grandeur.

The house was built in 1882 as a home for the caretaker of a Yale observatory, which no longer exists. The “Yale Observatory Officer” occupied the building for six years. Yale used it for other purposes for more than a century after that, until it was donated to the New Haven Board of Education in 2002.

Two years later, in 2004, the house was moved 75 feet south at a cost of nearly $200,000, to make room for the construction of the new Celentano school. At its new location at 477 Prospect St., the house sits on a new basement but without gas, water, or electricity. Whoever buys the house would also have to install a driveway, said LCI staff.

Time has not been kind to the old house, which has peeling paint and a sagging porch with a roof riddled with holes. A peek inside the ground floor windows reveals scattered furniture haunting dusty rooms.

The city isn’t trying to make money off the sale of the house, said Frank D’Amore, deputy director at LCI. “We’re not looking for a lot of money.” The buyer’s funds should go into restoring the house, he said.

“This is a unique house,” said LCI staffer Evan Trachten. “We don’t want to see it wrapped in vinyl.”

Trachten and LCI head Erik Johnson said they’d like to see the building occupied by a professional, such as a psychiatrist or architect, who could use it as a residence-cum-office.

The city hasn’t set a minimum bid. The sale will add a taxable property to the city’s grand list. “That’s what this is all about,” Trachten said. “This theoretically adds substantial value.”

Trachten acknowledged that the successful bidder will have his work cut out for him. “It’s a big-ticket rehab,” he said.

Johnson estimated it will take an investment of about $600,000 to renovate the house.

He said the selection committee will not go for bids that seek to split the building up into apartments. He said the committee will be looking for bids that offer a comprehensive restoration plan that emphasizes green building and historic preservation.

A pre-bid walk-through of the property drew about six interested parties, half of whom were serious developers, said Trachten. The RFP closes on Jan. 11. After an internal review, the winning bidder will be notified about 45 days after that, Johnson said. He said he hopes the sale will be completed by June 2011, and the house occupied by June 2012.

Once the sale goes through, the New Haven Preservation Trust is ready to assist the new owner with renovation planning, said John Herzan, a preservation services officer with the organization.

Herzan’s job is to advise people who are restoring historic structures. He helps with everything from selecting paint colors to choosing a contractor to cashing in on tax credits.

Herzan said 477 Prospect exemplifies the Queen Anne architectural style, which features design asymmetry and material and texture variety. The house features a subtle sunflower motif, which Herzan said was popular at the time of its construction.

“It’s the detailing that makes that house so wonderful architecturally,” he said. “It would be a crime to get rid of it.”

Herzan said he’d like to see the house restored according to Department of the Interior standards. Tax credit programs are available, he said.

“The Trust is ready to provide technical assistance to whoever acquires it,” Herzan said.

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posted by: anon on January 4, 2011  12:55pm

Why does it need a driveway? Can’t the owner get an easement to use the neighboring school property for parking, or add a few spaces right there? 

A driveway is pointless, expensive, adds more asphalt to an otherwise “green” neighborhood, and just adds more curb cuts to a street that is already a major challenge for elderly and youth to walk along.

Hope this is fixed up, but it would be easier if the city applied some creative thinking.  We already have more than enough parking lots.

posted by: Christina on January 4, 2011  1:11pm

What a beautiful house. I wish I could afford to buy it. Definately would preserve the history and dignity of this lovely home.

posted by: William Kurtz on January 4, 2011  2:09pm

I am as in favor of preservation as the next guy, but I have to say that $200,000 to move a crumbling house 75 feet seems like a waste of money.

posted by: JB on January 4, 2011  2:38pm

Beautiful interior!  However, it has no land around it.  It’s pressed right up against a school building.  That alone diminishes it value and interest for many buyers who may want to occupy it or sell it as a residence.

posted by: anon on January 4, 2011  3:38pm

JB - not everyone wants a yard.  In fact, a lot of people do not.

Also, if the parking situation can be worked out (or if City Plan will waive the requirement), this house is large enough to be turned into a handful of nice condos or rental units. 

I wouldn’t be surprised if this is redeveloped, in which case, the city’s financial investment to preserve it will be repaid.

posted by: Townie on January 4, 2011  3:54pm

Once again the city misspent municipal funds. $200,000 to move a house that should have just been demolished. No one is going to sink $600,000 into a house that is in such a state of disrepair. One can buy a really nice new house, in a really nice neighborhood, for $600,000.

The city should demolish it and build a parking lot for the school.

Or, they should bring it up to code and use it as an overflow shelter for the city’s homeless.

posted by: Pedro Soto on January 4, 2011  4:24pm

Mr. Kurtz,
While 200,000 might seem like a lot to move a property, the demolition and landfill costs while less would have erased a beautiful building from the landscape, ending up with a vacant tax-free lot.

Even if the city sells it for less than $200,000, this house will be brought back into taxable service and will employ or house people who will contribute to the city.

And anon, amen to the easement idea. The structure is penned in on both sides and any little greenery would be lost via asphalting for a driveway. One or two spots in the giant Celentano lot would eliminate a curb cut and give this house a little more room to breathe.

I hope a strong developer is found and that this house is given a new life.  And definitely to emphasize, the NHPT will be happy to assist the new owners with restoring the property to its former grandeur.  The federal and state tax credits are a fantastic opportunity for a project like this.

posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on January 4, 2011  5:54pm

Moving the building to the south exposed Division Street to the rising sun in the morning hours, which creates a blinding effect for people traveling east on Division Street, up the hill. The house was also previously on axis with Division Street, making for an interesting contrast between the axial, formal city planning and the asymmetrical form of the Victorian facade.
The move of the house was done for idiotic reasons having to do with parking lot access and has resulted in the negative effects mentioned above as well as in the article. Parking lot access does not trump basic principles of urban design. We have to be very careful whenever we change something in the city, because most likely, buildings, streets, hills, streams, etc are in a certain place for certain reasons and by not understanding those reasons, we risk running into unintended consequences like this.
I almost got hit by a car while riding my bike to Cross while going up the Division Street hill and it was because of the blinding effect that now occurs in the morning due to the house move.

I agree with anon about the driveway requirement - it’s pointless especially when open space is scarce on what remains of the house lot and when there is an enormous school parking lot 2 feet away, which is empty or underused the vast majority of the time.

posted by: John on January 4, 2011  6:05pm

@Townie: “No one is going to sink $600,000 into a house that is in such a state of disrepair.”

This statement is almost certainly false. But let’s wait.

“One can buy a really nice new house, in a really nice neighborhood, for $600,000.”

One person’s nice is another person’s McDonald’s and, with due respect to the golden arches, I’d rather live in this house than in some soulless plastic [literally] suburb. Of course, the best option would be an old farmhouse.

I should probably preempt anon’s inevitable comment that this farmhouse will make me car-dependent and energy inefficient (drafty old houses). So I promise I’ll bike to work using a wooden bicycle, and grow organic vegetables in my backyard using carbon-neutral tractor fuel. Lots of insulation in winter. Just teasing you, anon. You know I agree with you 50% of the time.

posted by: JB on January 4, 2011  6:38pm

JB - not everyone wants a yard.  In fact, a lot of people do not.

And many, many people who live in large expensive N.H. homes suitable for a family do want green spaces for gardens and yard spaces (which follows the model for the upper part of East Rock- big, single family homes on decent sized lots).  LCI already nixed the idea of choosing an owner who will subdivide the house.

Why would anyone assume that people who lay out big bucks for real estate would buy something newly built?  The really prestigious homes in the area are the historic ones.  I just think the city picked a darned odd spot to put that beauty.

posted by: This is Criminal on January 4, 2011  10:07pm

The house has been empty since 2004. 6 or 7 years worth of weather damage. About $70,000 to $100,00 in lost property tax. The city was too cheap to make utility connections when the house was re-located, but spent $200,000 to move it 75 feet and let it get into this state. LCI has prevented sub dividing it so people can live in it. I must have missed something. I thought houses were for living in. The fence is so close that prospective occupants can pee into their neighbor’s lot without difficulty. An absolute necessity as there’s no water or sewer. Then there’s some artsy fartsy group ready to tell anyone dumb enough to buy the place how to spend a cool $600,000. I just can’t believe it. If everything’s added up it looks like $1,000,000 of taxpayers money has gone down the tubes on this. Is it any surprise that Johnny Boy expects a $58,000,000 deficit this year. It takes great skill to put together so many incompetents in one place at one time to waste so much taxpayer money. I bet this rotting hulk would have been forgotten about for many more years if the city hadn’t been going belly up. Now these incompetents think they’ll find someone even dumber to drop $600,000 on it. About twice what they’d pay for a Frank Lloyd Wright in Chicago, without all the hard work, grief, and frustrations of dealing with the New Haven bureaucrats. Next thing they’ll be contemplating torching it, not realizing the city is self insured. DOH!

posted by: Steve Bradley on January 5, 2011  10:47am

Are’nt we all so full of ideas, it’s just too bad they are so unworkable in the real world.It’s never a waste of money to preserve a piece if history and add something tangible and functional to the neighborhood where the house is located, as long as we’re mindful of the neighbors. I wonder if any of the local developers who specialize in rehabs has had look at the property. It would be a great office space for such developers. (Than are you listening?).

posted by: juli on January 5, 2011  1:20pm

why prevent a potential buyer from splitting it up into apartments?

if someone is willing to put so much money into fixing their property, then why aren’t they allowed to do with this building what they wish?

it seems large enough for a couple of smaller apartments, and if that’s what it takes for the buyer to make their money back, why not?

there is an old saying that seems fitting: ‘beggars can’t be choosers’

posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on January 5, 2011  4:15pm

Parking may have been an issue for a multi-unit house especially with the city’s idiotic zoning ordinance requirement of mandatory on-site minimum parking per number of units. It may have also been because the house is architecturally significant and subdividing houses often means gutting the interior and refinishing walls and building new walls, getting rid of openings and doors in order to meet multi-unit safety, access, and fire rating standards. Much of the interior moldings, and trim work would likely get lost.
If a buyer could be found that would use the Secretary of Interior Standards, as Pedro mentioned, and subdivide the house, then the city would be wise to actively pursue that and grant a variance for the parking requirements. That way much of the interior character of the house could be maintained and preserved and the building could be reused and the potential would still exist to eventually turn the house back into a single family dwelling if there should ever be a buyer for that.