From the Mansfield Historical Society Newsletter, Vol. 53, No. 3, November 2017
If you have driven through Mansfield Center lately, you probably have noticed the caution tape surrounding the Mansfield Center General Store and the large HELP banners attached to its front porch. The 131-year-old building in the heart of the Mansfield Center Historic District faced a preservation crisis this fall. The town of Mansfield deemed the porches on the iconic general store as in “imminent danger” of falling and declared them a public safety hazard. This apparently resulted from a complaint to the town by a visitor to the retail establishment in the building. The property owner, Shafer LLC, was given a deadline of October 1, later extended to October 10, to repair the deteriorated porches or else they would be removed. The businesses that rented space on the first floor of the building were forced to close, and the tenants living upstairs voluntarily moved out.
An engineering firm, hired and paid for by the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation, evaluated the porch structure last August. Their report agrees that the porches need to be repaired, but does not conclude that they are in imminent danger of collapse, especially if the second story porch is used for emergency egress only. The report notes the conditions and presents recommendations intended to be used as a basis for the scope of repair work. The report also includes the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties, as the general store is on both the national and state registries of historic buildings.
The property owners explored various ways to raise the funds needed to repair the porches or to rebuild them if they were taken down. However, they were unsuccessful in securing financing or raising adequate funds prior to the town’s deadline. Gail Bruhn, Chair of the Mansfield Historic District Commission, was instrumental in aiding the property owners through this process and in seeking the assistance of the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation and the State Historic Preservation Office.
Once news of the general store’s plight became public shortly before the town’s imposed October 1 deadline, neighboring property owners rallied to its defense. An extension was granted to October 10 and the issue was added to the agenda of the Town Council meeting scheduled for that evening. Members of the Historic District Commission and a number of Mansfield Center residents attended the meeting and several spoke out against the pending removal of the porches. A letter from Mary Dunne, Deputy State Historic Preservation Officer, was also read. It asked that the town consider stabilizing the porches instead of demolishing them, and, if that was not possible, to allow the documentation and salvage of historic building material so that the porches might be reconstructed in the future. Nevertheless, the protests by residents and the recommendations from the State Historic Preservation Office went unheeded. The town building official proceeded with plans to remove the porches. Demolition was slated for 7:00 a.m. on Monday, October 30.
Meanwhile, the owners of the general store, along Gail Bruhn of the Historic District Commission and the other interested parties continued to seek a way to save the porches. And it appears that they have been successful!
The engineer who produced the engineering report funded by the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation recommended Black Sheep Post and Beam LLC of Colchester, a construction company experienced in historic restoration work. They are currently serving as the preservation team for the Governor Jonathan Trumbull House on the Lebanon Green. The company’s owner, Jason Tinelle, and a fellow carpenter inspected the porches on the general store and have agreed to do the repair work at a much reduced cost. A member of the Shafer family will pay for the repairs.
Just 20 minutes before the town offices closed on Friday, Oct. 27, a building permit was issued and the demolition order was cancelled. It seems that a happy conclusion has been reached. Work should proceed quickly. The repairs must be completed by the town imposed deadline of November 17.
While this historic preservation crisis has been averted, others will surely follow. Mansfield is fortunate to have created three historic districts that are listed on both the State and National Registers of Historic Places — Mansfield Center, Spring Hill and Mansfield Hollow. These districts were formed “to promote the educational, cultural, economic and general welfare of the public through the preservation and protection of the distinctive characteristics of buildings and places” associated with the history of Mansfield. However, establishing a historic district that is recognized with a listing on the National Register does not guarantee the preservation of its historic resources.
The Mansfield Historic District Commission provides oversight over the local historic districts, and its regulations are intended to preserve the integrity of the designated areas. Any proposed alterations to the exterior of historic buildings within the districts must first be approved by the Commission and a Certificate of Appropriateness be issued. It is also the responsibility of each property owner within the district to maintain their property. But this is not always enough. The community must also come together to advocate for its historic treasures. As was just seen in the case of the general store, and a few years back, in the battle over the Farwell/Jacobs barn, it takes the voices of many to prevent further loss of Mansfield’s historic past.