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Blast from the Past: How Cheshire Fought To Preserve A Bit Of History In 1975

Blast from the Past: How Cheshire Fought To Preserve A Bit Of History In 1975

That is certainly true in the here and now, as the entire world grapples with how to respond to a spreading illness — COVID-19, coronavirus. One day, sooner rather than later most likely, people will begin telling the story of these many weeks/months, and won’t stop telling it for years to come.

That’s why, over the course of generations, we as a society have often chosen to preserve our history. Sometimes we do so to commemorate world- or nation-altering events, such as the beaches at Normandy, the fields at Gettysburg, or the first edition of the Gutenberg bible.

For local municipalities such as Cheshire, the focus is less on preserving history-changing moments and, instead, more on recognizing what it took to become the community it is today.

In 1975, Cheshire was feeling nostalgic. There was a recession on and a bicentennial for which to plan, so perhaps residents were more inclined to daydream about its past than ever before.

In late March of 1975, it was announced that one of Cheshire’s oldest buildings would potentially receive new life. The front page article in the March 27 edition of The Cheshire Herald explained what the future could hold for the old structure:

A new idea for the Cornwall House’s rebirth, this time as “elegant professional offices,” was expounded by architect Augustus Franzoni at the Monday, March 24 meeting of the Planning and Zoning Commission … Mr. Franzoni applied for a special permit to convert the 1816 structure on the northwest corner of South Main Street and Cornwall Avenue into four business suites, two upstairs and two down, plus restoration of the central entrance hall and addition of a ground floor gallery.

According to the article, Franzoni had already been approached about renting space in the new office building, with two-thirds of the offices already accounted for if the project were given the go-ahead. The renderings offered to persuade the Town of the project’s viability were, according to the article, impressive:

A bevy of artist’s (drawings) showed the exterior basically unchanged, except for the addition of shutters at the windows and plantings of dogwood, maple, hemlock, yews, and juniper in the yard.

The inside, however, has been completely gutted, and the original six fireplaces all removed.

The story went on to explain a bit of the home’s history; how Dr. Thomas Cornwall, who ran his practice out of the home, lived there with his wife Lucinda Foote, whom the story describes as “precocious” and so studious that she “knew enough Latin and Greek at the age of 12 to be accepted at Yale College were it not for the drawback of her sex.”

The Cornwalls lived in the home until 1915, and then the structure changed hands on a number of occasions, including serving for a time as lodgings for Cheshire Academy faculty.

The home, according to The Herald editorial board on April 3, 1975, would perhaps struggle to find those seeking an apartment, but would likely draw plenty of interest from office space seekers:

Its proximity to the town’s main thoroughfare with its streams of traffic might well render the house less than attractive to apartment renters, but highly desirable as office space. Located in an R20A zone and hence requiring no zone change, the restored home would provide a means of transition between strictly residential Cornwall Avenue and commercial interests nearby on South Main Street. 

Ironically, E.R. Brown’s 1895 book of old Cheshire homes described the Cornwall House as one of the best maintained of the town’s historic dwellings. The accolade had become increasingly inappropriate during recent years as various uses followed one after another, culminating in the minor fire that ended its career as a rooming house. 

The editorial went on to explain that previous restoration projects, including one of the Foote House, coupled with the upcoming celebration of the nation’s 200th birthday in 1976, was perhaps incentivizing individuals to look at repurposing, rather than destroying, old homes:

The Bicentennial spirit is broad in scope, combining a backward look with the anticipation of new projects looking to the future. Although the Cornwall House was not yet built at the time of the Revolution, it is still a significant structure in Cheshire’s past as well as an aesthetically pleasing one. Under the timely and innovative remodeling plan proposed by Mr. Franzoni, it could regain its rightful place as an example of the town’s most dignified architecture …

Around the same time as plans were being presented to save one piece of Cheshire history, a more robust proposal was moving forward that was designed to preserve numerous buildings such as the Cornwall House. In the May 1, 1975 edition of The Herald, one of the week’s top stories told the tale of how many residents were split over a planned historic district in the community:

A retired physician and a dentist who live on opposite sides of Main Street were on opposite sides of the fence at a hearing on a proposed historic district in the center of Cheshire …

The physician, Dr. WIlliam Neff, Jr., of 93 Main Street, said, “I am an admitted nay.” He is one of 50 individual and corporate property owners in the district who will be eligible to vote on the proposal.

The dentist, Dr. Robert J. Craig of 92 Main Street, curator of the Cheshire Historical Society’s museum on the Green, strongly endorses the proposed district.

The article explained that, in order for the proposal to be passed, it would require 75 percent of the business owners in the area to vote in favor. Then, it would be sent to the Town Council, which would have three options: accept the ordinance establishing the district, reject it, or send the whole thing back to the committee reviewing the plan, with suggestions on what changes would be appropriate.

State representatives arrived to explain the benefits of such districts — of which there were 50 others at the time — and try to put opponents’ worries at ease. However, it didn’t seem to work on everyone:

Among those expressing opposition to the proposed district were Mr. and Mrs. Charles Wheeler, who operated the Cheshire Taxi and Livery Company, and own property within the district. James Crosby, headmaster of Cheshire Academy, raised questions about the effect of the proposed district on the school, which owns more land within the proposed district than any other property owner. 

While they didn’t get a vote at the meeting, The Cheshire Herald’s editorial board was clearly in favor of the district, as they made plain in the April 3 edition of the paper:

The 50 property owners who will decide the issue constitute less than 1 percent of all Cheshire property owners. But many of the buildings in the proposed historic district are landmarks that the other 99 percent of the residents treasure. The 1 percent who own the properties are the custodians of a heritage that should be preserved and protected …

There are aesthetic as well as historical values on preservation that are not just sentimental. The establishment of an historic district in the center would be a form of insurance against deterioration of the town’s core area. And this would have highly desirable practical consequences.

Of course, as everyone living in town knows, the historic district did in fact become a reality, and many of the buildings it was designed to protect remain a part of Cheshire’s landscape to this day. That includes the Cornwall House, which The Herald advised be saved and restored.

More than four decades later, The Herald would move into that building. Our offices are now on the second floor of 195 South Main Street, right about where Dr. Cornwall and his family likely relaxed after long days spent helping the sick in Cheshire.

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