Wilton's 183 Ridgefield Road: The untold story
The number of people who signed the petition to save the Schlichting House was greater than the number of ballots cast at the last Town Meeting, but the historic structure at 183 Ridgefield Road was razed March 23 nonetheless.
Vicki Mavis, who started the petition and spearheaded the preservationist effort it inspired, called the 1,522 signatures an “unprecedented outcry from the community” and the demolition “flagrant disregard for the community’s hopes.”
The truth is that Jim Fieber, the developer who ordered the demolition, did what was within his legal right to do as property owner.
But according to prospective buyer, builder, and New Canaan Town Councilman Joseph Paladino, that didn’t have to happen.
The house could have been saved, Paladino told The Bulletin, and he was under the impression that he’d be the one to save it.
“I thought we were on the same page,” Paladino said.
By Paladino’s account, he and Fieber had been in talks about an exchange when he was asked to wait until the Planning and Zoning Commission approved a subdivision of the property next door, which the developer detached from 183 Ridgefield Road through a first cut.
“The dialogue ceased until those approvals were issued, and I thought they would pick up again,” Paladino said. But when that time came, and Paladino reached out to Fieber via email, he got no response.
The untold story
Paladino first entered the picture when Mavis put him in touch with Fieber as a prospect.
“I just thought it would've been good for the community, as much as I would have overspent doing it,” Paladino said.
“It would have been a major commitment for someone like myself, to purchase and renovate that house — it would have been a lifelong home. It was not something you could renovate, flip, and expect to make money on,” he said
But Paladino was “willing to take the challenge.”
He would have had to put $1-1.2 million into a depreciating asset, but he was OK with that. “I figured I would be living there with my wife and college-aged children,” Paladino said.
“I don’t know where things broke down,” he said.
“The way it was left, in several emails, is Jim had said he was looking forward to working with me, so what was never confusing, in my mind, was that capacity that we would be working together.”
After the two were put in touch by Mavis, Paladino toured the house and the grounds, and began developing plans.
He would either be deconstructing and removing the house, purchasing it where it stood, or seeking zoning relief to relocate it to a nonconforming part of Fieber’s property.
In any event, he said he would be preserving the house.
Towards the end of December, “Jim indicated he really was not prepared to move forward on securing any sort of deal with regards to the dwelling until he had P&Z approval … and then we could talk about the changeover,” Paladino said.
“I understood how it might have created confusion,” he said. “A standing application asking for four or five lots, and someone asking for zoning relief at the same time, before you have approval for that, can become confusing.”
So Paladino conceded and agreed to wait. “Here I am, sitting developing a plan, and just waiting for this to happen, hoping he got what he wanted with his zoning approvals.
“At the very least we would have deconstructed the house, just like they did with the barn,” Paladino said. “All I needed to know was what’s the due date.”
What changed, Paladino doesn’t know, but he had become “attached” to the house and was “shocked” when he learned through third-party sources on Wednesday that it had been demolished.
“I was under the impression this would be moving forward,” he said. “I’m thrown off as much — if not more — than anybody. I just don’t understand the motivation and the change of heart. It’s just out of nowhere.”
“With all the thought, and energy, and waiting — and waiting for specific approvals — I was attached to the property, and looking forward to restoring it.
“I feel badly for my family, the Schlichting family, and the town of Wilton. This thing could have been very easily exchanged and saved, with no effort and expense to Jim.”
Paladino said the house was “absolutely” salvageable. “There’s no question in my mind that this was worthy of restoring,” he said.
“I do a lot of renovation work with many historically significant properties,” Paladino said.
“Believe me when I tell you, I’ve seen a lot of properties people have begged folks not to take down, and this one was so far ahead of most with its structural integrity; it had very good bones, oak framing, and I saw everything from the basement to the attic.”
“It was not only historically significant and unique; it was like a beautiful car that just needed a paint job. The interior frame of this house was magnificent and deserved a second chance.
“To me, there’s no rhyme or reason why this house couldn’t have been saved as an act of goodwill for the community, because there was such an outcry, so when you have a willing participant under the impression that it’s just a matter of time, and to see everything go into a Dumpster, makes you feel badly about humanity in general.”
Fieber did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
“Jim was generous with his time,” Paladino said. “He was kind, allowing me the opportunity to come in; I knew he didn’t have to do that, and he was nothing short of a gentleman any time we had conversations. Obviously there was a change in his plan that I was not privy to. I just wish that it went differently.”
The 160-year-old Schlichting House was one of only three remaining built in the Victorian Italianate villa style in Wilton.
Until the house was sold last summer, at least one member of the Schlichting family had occupied it since 1897.
When the developer announced plans to demolish it, the Wilton Historic District Commission imposed a 90-delay, which expired Jan. 7.
The barn on the site — also a historic structure — was disassembled and relocated on March 8.