Candice Brashears, chairperson of the Historic Properties Commission, acknowledges some confusion exists concerning exactly what the commission does.
“Our commission speaks for the people in town,” she said, of a group that applies regulations to properties that Wallingford, in partnership with the state, deems historic. “Our town has decided that these buildings are worthy of preserving their look.”
Brashears said she believed the town of Litchfied in Western Connecticut established the first historic properties commission in Connecticut nearly 50 years ago. Wallingford established a commission by ordinance in 1998, although the commission did not convene until 2001.
Then, the owner of several properties requested its assistance in qualifying for grants to preserve the historic structures while maintaining their architectural integrity. An awareness of funding sources for single properties — rather than properties that abut each other, as is the case in historic districts — is among the areas of the commission's expertise.
“When an owner wishes to alter the exterior of an historic building or any structures such as stone walls or earth mounds, they must go to our commission first,” said Brashears, citing a second function of the commission. “We can lend advice on most any aspect of restoration and materials.”
For the exterior of an historic property, the commission’s stipulations apply to the type of alteration and the materials. So, the commission would not deem a cupola an appropriate addition for the 17th c. Nehemiah Royce frame saltbox, which is one of its charges. On the other hand, it approved work on a cupola for the 19th c. Franklin and Harriet Johnson Mansion, because the small boxlike structure that crowns the building was appropriate for a two-story, Italianate building from the Victorian era.
Brashears said that the commission’s purview does not apply to the color of paint on an historical structure — unlike the town of Nantucket, Mass., which offers a selection of colors homeowners use on their houses’ trim.
And the commission is not inflexible. When the Historic Preservation Trust, which owns the Johnson mansion and plans its use as an American silver museum, asked for permission to put an elevator on the back of the building to accommodate visitors, Brashears said the commission, whose authority extends only to that part of an exterior that is in public view, complied because it found the alteration an appropriate use.
Brashears, who serves as a director of the John Trumbull, Jr. house in Lebanon, seems to have an unyielding passion for structures. She took a major in interior design from the Paier College of Art in Hamden, before she turned her attention to exteriors. A second undergraduate degree in historic preservation preceded a master’s degree from Trinity College in museum studies.
Among her abiding interests, she said, is why towns look the way they do.
She emphatically disputes the notion that preserving buildings is “too pricey” and that it is more cost-efficient for developers to pull the structures down.
“When you have preserved buildings, the price of that real estate does not fluctuate as fast or as deeply as nonhistoric neighbourhoods,” she said recent studies on the economics of historic preservation have shown. “It’s more than fighting for aesthetics. If you fix a building well, even in this economy the value goes up.”
Some time ago, she worked with Habitat for Humanity to rehab two houses. Yet, her most recent experience with housing came this fall with the arrival of Hurricane Sandy. One of her three adult children lives in New Jersey. Although the family’s house survived the storm, the family retreated from the floods to Brashears’ house in Wallingford.
“They just hustled in,” Brashears said.