Austin Wheaton remembers that when he was a child in middle school his class visited the Milford Historical Society homes on High Street and he had to wait outside while his classmates went in. Wheaton maneuvers life in a wheelchair and the building was not handicap accessible.
On Saturday, Wheaton cut the ribbon to unveil a nearly $200,000 renovation project at the main historical house on High Street. The project includes handicap accessibility.
One of three houses the society maintains at the end of High Street, the Bryan Downs house was saved by the society in the 1970s. It was bought for one dollar, dismantled and rebuilt on the grounds. The public space in the house is used for exhibit space, including the permanent display of the Claude C. Coffin Indian collection and the society’s general store.
The Historical Society developed plans to add an accessible ramp and restroom, increase space for exhibits and most especially upgrade the HVAC system to create a stable environment for delicate artifacts.
“Many items in our collection are very delicate, and great care will need to be taken,” one member said at the groundbreaking ceremony in November. “These improvements will be incredibly helpful in our continued efforts to preserve these irreplaceable pieces. Controlling the climate in the house will keep our collection in stable condition.”
Society President Marcia Winter led the ribbon cutting ceremony Saturday, pointing out that a number of descendants of the city’s founding fathers were on hand. There were descendants of the Baldwins, Platts, Smiths and Pruddens, some of the names on the Memorial Bridge in downtown Milford.
Funding for the project came largely from private donations. Tom Ivers, the city’s block grant coordinator, said $10,000 came through the city for designing the project, and another $50,000 helped pay for handicap accessibility.
Winter said the Society had saved up $120,000 over the years, through private fund-raising efforts and donations. Milford Bank was a large contributor, donating $15,000 for the renovations.
Westy Storage housed the artifacts while restoration took place. Now that there is plenty of storage space at the Bryan Downs House — the addition increased the size by about one-third — all the artifacts will be stored at the house.
Contractor Mike Saley pointed out some of the improvements as he walked through the house, including a handicap accessible restroom and modern interior stairway that will make it easier to get to the upper floors. The original staircase was narrow and winding, something that city historian Richard Platt said was typical of historic homes.
“They didn’t want to take up space,” Platt said.
An upper floor will remain insulated by unfinished until more money becomes available. For now, the space is perfect for much-needed storage, and the modern heating and cooling system throughout the house, including in the unfinished portion, makes it suitable for storage.
“It has central air and central heat,” Ivers said. “It used to just have strips of electric heat.”
Not only was the house nearly impossible to heat and cool, it was very inefficient and expensive to try to produce a comfortable temperature, he added.
Wheaton, a member of Milford’s Committee for People with Disabilities, is thinking about becoming a docent at the Historical Society houses, now that he can get inside.
He thanked the Society for its efforts.
“Being able to go inside and see everything is very nice,” he said.
The historical homes, including the Bryan Downs house, Clark/Stockade House and Eells-Stow House, are open to the public Saturdays and Sundays from 1 to 4 p.m., except holiday weekends.
For more information, go to milfordhistoricalsociety.org.