Restoring glory to Danbury's historic Octagon House 'still a work in progress'

Photo of Rob Ryser
A man peers through the fence at the historic 1852 Octagon House on Spring Street, in Danbury, Conn on Monday, March 8, 2021.

A man peers through the fence at the historic 1852 Octagon House on Spring Street, in Danbury, Conn on Monday, March 8, 2021.

H John Voorhees III / Hearst Connecticut Media

DANBURY — A judge’s decision to uphold the city’s shutdown order for a homeless shelter that for years had been a source of consternation for residents of Spring Street closed the loop on a longstanding quality-of-life issue for the downtown neighborhood.

But another problem surrounding Danbury’s storied Octagon House just a few doors down from the shelter remains unsolved — at least while the city has its attention on coronavirus recovery and the school overcrowding crisis.

“Part of the problem is with some of the economic issues that we’ve come across in the state and in the city — and now more than ever with this pandemic — that house is not our priority,” says Mayor Joe Cavo, speaking of the landmark 1852 treasure that Danbury bought off the foreclosure market five years ago. “Once we get our economy improved and we put this pandemic in our rearview mirror, then we will start looking at things like this.”

Five years ago, the city’s plans were nothing short of grand for the Octagon House, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The city was not only going to rescue the noble home from ruins and restore it to glory, but transform its neighborhood in the process by establishing within its walls a police substation and the new headquarters for Danbury’s blight-fighting squad known as U.N.I.T., for Unified Neighborhood Inspection Team.

In doing so, Danbury was going to make amends for allowing another treasure on the National Register of Historic Places — Hearthstone Castle — to deteriorate into such disrepair that only its exterior walls can be salvaged.

After years of trying to find enough grant money to engineer the Octagon home’s transformation, however, the city settled for waterproofing and securing the structure, to keep out weather and vagrants.

The historic 1852 Octagon House on Spring Street, in Danbury, Conn. Monday, March 8, 2021.

The historic 1852 Octagon House on Spring Street, in Danbury, Conn. Monday, March 8, 2021.

H John Voorhees III / Hearst Connecticut Media

“The goal was we didn’t want to lose this piece of Danbury history,” Cavo said. “We wanted to keep it from being ransacked and vandalized and falling into ruin, and that’s what we’ve done.”

The irony is that in its present condition, boarded up and surrounded by a chain link fence — its graceful iron veranda and scrolled brackets replaced with pipe railing and two-by-fours — the Octagon House no longer has the blighted appearance of a nuisance property.

Just ask Ernesto Rodriquez, a Spring Street organizer whose neighborhood protests against the Dorothy Day Hospitality House shelter were partly what led City Hall to intervene in 2015 to buy the Octagon House, and later to issue the shutdown order for the shelter.

“There has definitely been some work done to it — it’s better than what it was,” said Rodriguez, who remembers the Octagon House when it was home to squatters and vagrants. “It did get some attention, but I just feel like more work has to be done. They started it and now we’re waiting for it to be completed.”

Cavo agrees.

“It looks much better than it did when we bought it,” Cavo said. “The most important thing is that we have stabilized it until the time that we get through this pandemic.”

Part of the solution might come from a plan to establish a preservation trust for city historic sites that was announced at the end of 2019. According to the plan, the city would match the contributions of a philanthropist with the goal of building the trust to $5 million.

Among the first historic sites to benefit from such a fund would be the First Congregational Church of Danbury, which the city hopes to transform into an arts venue, and the Octagon House.

“It’s still a work in progress,” Rodriguez said.

rryser@newstimes.com 203-731-3342