Stowe barn in Walnut Beach eyed as possible cooking school

The long-empty Stowe barn in the Walnut Beach section of the city has a very interested buyer, a woman who is considering buying it from the city to convert into a culinary arts center and cooking school.

Heide Lang has run the Fig Cooking School in Hamden for about six years. She and her staff offer a range of classes, with menus ranging from Girls' Night Out to Farmer's Market to a French Bistro Dinner and Spice Market series, according to the company’s website. Lang said the business has grown so much that she needs more space.

“Milford is a great destination town and has done some dynamic things,” she said, explaining that Walnut Beach business owner Susan Patrick took her on a walk through the area several months ago and she fell in love with the old Stowe barn.

The barn has been empty about 14 years and is starting to show signs of neglect, she and city officials said. Although Lang is still looking at other properties, she said she is hooked on the old barn and would love a chance to restore it and turn it into a vibrant economic piece of the Walnut Beach art district.

“It’s a beautiful building and someone needs to preserve it,” Lang said.
A little history
The city bought the Stowe property in 2002 to save the barn and other structures from demolition. A local builder had bought the former dairy farm and planned to raze the old farmhouse and one-time dairy barns and build nine houses. But he compromised with the city on a plan that would appease historians, artists and nearby residents who didn’t want to see the historic buildings razed.

The city had planned to pay $825,000 for the land, but Mayor Ben Blake said that went down to $625,000 because a couple bought one of the buildings for $200,000.

The goal at the time was to make the Stowe property a central part of a Walnut Beach art district, adding to the artsy offerings at the Firehouse Art Gallery and art shops that were popping up in the area.

But several efforts to find a developer to transform the main barn into an art center failed. One group proposed turning the old dairy farm into a children's museum and another submitted a plan to use the property as a performing arts center and another a holistic learning center. None of those panned out.

According to the Connecticut Post, “a 2007 ‘conceptual plan’ would have required $7 million to create a  that would have outfitted the large barn with a lighting nest, sound board, stage and seating, along with creating a sculpture garden and rental spaces for artists and musicians.”

Three years later, “a downsized project would have shored up the structure and brought it into compliance with building codes and accessibility laws so that it could host public events. The price tag for that 2010 plan was $750,000, allowing the barn to be used as an art gallery, but not performing space,” according to the Post.

With no plans adopted, the barn has stood empty. And while the outside is still in good shape, city officials say the interior is starting to show signs of insect damage and other wear due to the elements.
In the talking stage
Last week Milford’s aldermen discussed Lang’s cooking school idea in executive session, and while there are no deals yet, Blake said he thinks the cooking school is an idea worth bringing to the Board of Aldermen for consideration.

“We want something in there because it’s deteriorating at a quick pace,” Blake said.

In addition to the barn, there is about two acres of land. The mayor said any discussion would include talk of whether to break up the parcels.

Tim Chaucer, a local historian and preservationist, attended the aldermen’s meeting to urge city leaders to consider holding onto the land.

“It is a parklike setting and that barn is absolutely gorgeous, from the outside,” Chaucer said.

He compared the parcel to Boothe Memorial Park in Stratford, which combines open space and historic buildings.

“So I would think long and hard before this property is sold,” Chaucer said. “If you insist on selling a portion, it should be the barn and not the open space. A lease arrangement would make a lot of sense if someone wants to try out a business in this area.”
The art of cooking
Susan Patrick is one of the people who has been working over the years to transform Walnut Beach into an artist community, and she agrees the Stowe barn has been deteriorating.

“I do think a cooking school is a great idea,” Patrick said, adding that Lang has also talked about creating a community garden and hosting art shows at the barn.

“She loves the space,” Patrick said. “It seems to be a good fit.”

Joseph Garbus, who has dedicated a good number of years to bringing arts to this little corner of the city, said a true art venue would be his first choice for the barn, but he is open to hearing more about the plans for a cooking school.

“I think Heide is a very nice person and will try to work with the community,” Garbus said.

While he said Lang is sincere — and that’s important, Garbus said — he wants to see more of her plan.

“Once it’s theirs we no longer have control over the property,” Garbus said.

Lang said a cooking school fits the area for a number of reasons. She said it’s not a high traffic business, and that her cooking school really “comes alive in the fall,” just after the summer beach crowds have thinned.

If she buys the property, she envisions spending at least six months having the barn refurbished and then moving in with her cooking school, bringing possibly harvest dinners, rotating art exhibits, poetry readings and reaching out to school groups to visit and businesses to hold events there.

She envisions the cooking school becoming a real destination in the Walnut Beach area.

“Everybody loves food: it’s emotional, it’s social,” Lang said, adding that from creme brulee to other culinary offerings, cooking is definitely an art.

“The barn should keep its integrity. That’s my intention, no bells or whistles,” Lang said. “What we really want to do is bring that beautiful barn back to life and make it a vital part of Walnut Beach and Milford at large.”
Fig Cooking School
A quick Google search brings up a number of news articles about Lang and her Fig Cooking School, including a Hartford Courant piece published in 2014 highlighting a cooking demonstration by Lang that was hosted by the New Haven Museum at the historic Pardee-Morris House in New Haven.

According to the Courant, Lang, a former journalist and radio producer at WABC News, “developed her passion for cooking into a new career after training at the French Culinary Institute in New York City. She opened The Fig Cooking School in Hamden in 2009, offering hands-on culinary classes for home cooks of every level.”

In addition to holding classes at the school, Lang and her team demonstrate at fundraisers and farmers markets across Connecticut, the Courant reported, adding, “They are frequent guests on WTNH's ‘CT Style’ and teach a free monthly cooking class at City Seed's Wooster Square Farmer'.”