Lesley Mills hadn’t even been inside the Sanford-Bristol house when she decided to buy the historic home and restore it.
The Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation had just taken ownership of the house in a move to save it from demolition, but the trust didn’t plan to keep it. A buyer was needed, and trust Executive Director Helen Higgins said she sent Mills pictures of the interior of the house.
“She said she’d buy it, and she hadn’t even been inside,” Higgins said.
About 30 people involved in saving the house from demolition got a glimpse of the inside on Friday afternoon, walking into a structure that had been largely gutted. Paneling and siding had been stripped away, and many of the walls gaped open, showing the bones of the house underneath.
But Mills saw beyond that, to the seven fireplaces, the wide floorboards still intact, and the basic structure of the house.
When she first got inside the house after agreeing to buy it, she teased Higgins about some of the shortfalls she saw. But then she got serious and said, “Oh, all right — I love the house.”
She paid $200,000 for it, and expects to put in at least another $200,000 on structural repairs and restoration.
The house has been the center of a controversy for several months in Milford. In October, the Milford Trust for Historic Preservation, joined by the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation as co-plaintiff, sued under the Connecticut Environmental Protect Act to prevent the demolition of the 1790 house.
In November, the two trusts reached a settlement with property owners William P. Farrell Sr. and Gwendolyn Farrell, allowing the property to be sold to another party.
The Farrells had purchased the house and property on North Street overlooking the duck pond in January for $150,000. The house was in a state of disrepair, and they planned to restore it. However, William Farrell said the house turned out to need much more work than he’d imagined. The couple then decided to demolish it and build a more modern house on the property in the same style as the existing house, using some of the existing material.
The Historic District Commission in which the house is located OK’d the demolition after an inspection determined it was structurally unsound. But area experts and preservationists argued that the house could be saved.
The agreement between the historic trusts and the Farrells came with a tight deadline for finding a buyer for the house. If the house wasn’t sold by Jan. 12, the Farrells could knock it down on the 13th.
With the clock ticking, the Connecticut Trust stepped in and bought the house Dec. 19, and Mills took ownership of it Jan. 17.
Mills, who owns Connecticut-based Griswold Home Care, compared the mission to restore the house to her mission as a business owner. Her business provides care for elderly people. And she said caring for old homes is similar to caring for the elderly.
“For both, the cost to society is qualitative and quantitative,” she said. “In the case of older people, we risk losing their personal perspectives on history and the lessons they teach.
“We also pay a price by marginalizing old homes in search of McMansions and a maintenance-free lifestyle,” she added. “Not all old homes are beautiful, but what would our Connecticut be without the charm of our aesthetically pleasing old architecture? Who can argue that 100 years from now residents and visitors will be extolling the appeal of today’s construction?”
Mills has a couple of building experts working on the restoration, but she plans to work right beside them. She’s restored old homes before, including her Beach Avenue house that she said had water running through it when she purchased it.
She said she may restore the Sanford-Bristol house to a two-family, which it was at one time. She said federal historic preservation laws will allow her to write off some of the expenses for the house because it will be a rental property.
Richard Lutz was one of the many people who crowded into the house Friday. He and his wife, Kathy, bought the house in 1997 and owned it until 2005. They put a lot of work into it. Richard said the previous owners, Thelma and Stanley Chapell, had kept up the property until they got old, and then some things started to fall into disrepair. The Chapells bought the house from the Sanfords, who had owned it for 150 years, Lutz said.
According to city records, Richard Wincapaw bought the house from the Lutzes for $445,000 in 2005, but filed for bankruptcy in 2012.
At that point, the house was in bad shape, and much of the interior had been stripped and sold.
Milford resident Alfred Benjamin went to a tag sale there one day and bought wood panels, mantels, a stove cover, and other interior elements from the house.
The homeowner told him he was selling the house and the buyer was going to trash the inside and re-do it, Benjamin said.
Benjamin agreed to buy the mantels and paneling, plus a Dutch oven cover and fireplace crane, for a few hundred dollars.
“It was a steal,” Benjamin said. “It hurt taking it down, but it was better than seeing it go in a Dumpster.”
On Friday, Benjamin brought all those items back to the house, and is donating them to Mills for her restoration project.
He said he’s happy to see the material back where it belongs.
City Historian Richard Platt, who raised the first battle cry over the potential loss of the piece of Milford’s history, said Benjamin is one of “our angels,” Mills being the other.
Platt made Benjamin an honorary member of the city’s Preservation Trust, and Tim Chaucer, another historian who fought to save the house, honored Mills with two framed photos of the house from its earlier days.
Chaucer said the effort to save the Sanford-Bristol house was as much about the district as it was about the house. “Once you can demolish one house in a historic district, who is to say you can’t demolish others,” he said.
Because the house is on a national historic registry and part of the city’s historic district, “it should never have been an issue to have to save it,” Chaucer added.
The house is believed to have been built in 1790, according to city records, but Chaucer and others think it may date back to pre-Revolutionary times, based on some structural elements in the house. It is a Dutch half-gambrel saltbox with five mini dormers and a beehive fireplace.
Steve Belitz, who owns a restoration company in Glastonbury, was at the house Friday. Belitz has a passion for historic buildings and has done many restorations. He said months ago that the house could be saved, speculating it would cost $70,000 to $80,000 to make it structurally sound.
He couldn’t say how much it will cost for interior repairs because restoration is up to the individual doing it. However, he agreed that $200,000 might be a reasonable estimate.
Mills said she believes in recycling, and knows of a Hamden company that sells reclaimed construction material.
“We will bring to the Sanford-Bristol house the thoughtfulness, consideration and economic benefit that we bring to all our clients for the same reasons,” she said, “respect and because it is an honor for us to do so.”