An eyesore or historic treasure?

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04/29/2010 12:00 AM |

Claudia Ramone tells the town Historic Preservation Commission on April 20 why she and her husband want to demolish and replace their 19th century house in Orient.

The Orient couple looking to demolish an old house and build a new one have made their case to the town’s Historic Preservation Commission, which has yet to rule. But if comments from several panel members are any indication, the couple’s dream of a new house may be heading into a buzz saw.

Claudia and Julien Ramone appeared before the commission on April 20 seeking permission to raze their small mid- to late 1800s house at 130 Village Lane, which lies within separate federal and town historic districts. They plan to replace the house with a two-story structure of similar design.

The commission has never before considered a request to tear down a house within a historic district.

The application appears to boil down to one basic question: Would the demolition of an old house, one the preservation group’s chairman described as “lackluster” and “nondescript,” amount to an unacceptable cultural loss for a community that contains both town and federal historic districts?

During her presentation, Claudia King Ramone said she and her husband want to replace “an eyesore” with “a suitable and safe home that would fit in with the character of the village. We’re not out-of-town yahoos trying to build a McMansion on Village Lane as a weekend home.”

As to the current building’s historic significance, she directed the panel to an Oysterponds Historical Society book that lists the structure but makes no mention of any significant architectural details. Neither does it speak to any historic relevance. It’s unlikely the house’s current appearance matches how it looked when listed on an 1858 map, Ms. Ramone added. Exterior additions since then include a front porch and a bay window and asbestos siding.

She told the commission members the cost to preserve the structure and complete recommended upgrades and repairs is prohibitive.

“Without the right to maximize the livable space in our home, including a full second story, the investment required to restore the property will not be made,” she said.

All but one of the other speakers supported the project, but several commission members seemed to hint that the Ramones face an uphill fight. The engineer hired by the town to examine the structure declared it “sound and in good condition,” a finding that contradicts a report submitted by the Ramones.

While change within a community is expected, the federal law that established the national historic district says an original structure must be maintained if it is found to be in good condition, said commission member Ron Rossi.

“It’s common in Southold town to rehab old buildings,” Mr. Rossi said, adding that he’s done it twice. Each of the commission’s seven members lives in a historic house.

Jamie Garretson, an Orient architect and commission member, said the Ramone home’s modest nature “is a representation of the diversity of the town. It sits at the northern end of Village Lane, next to what once was “a muddy thoroughfare at the edge of town.”

It does hold a place in local history and so the phrase “complete tear-down is jarring to me,” Mr. Garretson said.

The commission’s approval would set a precedent for other tear-downs, said member Barbara Schnitzler, who asked how many demolitions could occur within a historic district before the area loses its historic value. The commission has reviewed 11 applications to alter historic houses, the bulk of them in Orient, and approved each one. The Ramones’ demolition request is the commissions’s first.

The replacement structure “could be built anywhere in America,” said Ms. Schnitzler. “And that’s the point.”

Freddie Wachsberger, former president of the Oysterponds Historical Society, didn’t see it that way.

“I always thought of Village Lane as an organic, living streetscape,” she said at the meeting. She suggested that the proposed house is a good fit for the neighborhood and that the existing house currently “is not sympathetic to the needs of a 21st-century family.”

The Ramones, who both work in Manhattan, have two small daughters.

“It isn’t a museum,” Ms. Wachsberger said, and suggested that the commission’s approval “seems a no-brainer.”

Village Lane resident Walter Millis called the house “ugly” and “of no use to anybody.” In a letter to the commission, Burke Liburt said he “can’t imagine a more welcoming gateway to Orient than the charming home they propose.”

But another Orient resident, former Planning Board chairwoman Jeri Woodhouse, said the request is far from a no-brainer.

“I wouldn’t say this house is ugly,” she said. “It talks to some of the history of the town.”

Its demolition, Ms. Woodhouse told the commission, “would be one more way that we chip away at our history and our heritage.”

The commission will continue to accept written comments on the Ramones’ application through May 4.

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