FAIRFIELD, Conn. – After the home of aviator Gustave Whitehead was demolished Monday, one Fairfield woman moved her fight from saving the property to changing the town's demolition delay ordinances.
“Town ordinances failed this house, and it’s failed houses in the past and will continue to fail houses in the future,” said Melanie Marks of Fairfield.
In 2007, she approached the Fairfield Representative Town Meeting with new wording for the town’s demolition delay ordinance. She cited a 1988 study that found that 650 houses in Fairfield had been identified through an independent study as “historically significant, architecturally significant and culturally significant.”
The study was updated in 2008 and found an additional 150 houses to add to the list, including the Whitehead house, she said.
Under her 2007 proposal, the Whitehead house would have been automatically granted a 60-day delay if the owner wanted to demolish it.
Fairfield can advocate for the preservation of historic resources, including houses, Marks said, and should have the authority to save historic houses such as the Whitehead house.
Marks became involved with a group working to save the single-family home on Alvin Street in Fairfield shortly after the members realized that the house was slated to be demolished. Her role was to determine the age of the house.
On April 16, a group of protesters stood outside the home in the rain as Marks announced she found information that could prove the home was at least 100 years old. Ultimately, it proved three months shy of 100 years, dating the house at 99 years and nine months old.
This wasn’t the first time Marks has fought for a house that was ultimately demolished. She researches and works to preserve historic buildings around the state through her company, CT House Histories.
“The problem with [the Whitehead] house is that they didn’t have enough time "to make a plan for a permanent site to move it to, Marks said.
Whitehead has been the subject of controversy in recent years after it was claimed he made the first-powered flight in 1901, two full years before the Wright Brothers are crediting with making their flight at Kitty Hawk.
When the protesters went to Town Hall to deliver a petition Monday morning asking the town to grant a 60-day demolition delay, the owner, Gary Tenk of Stratford, tore down the house. There was no answer when calls were made to Tenk’s office for comment.
“Sometimes you win and sometimes you don’t, and unfortunately, they brought this to the attention to people too late,” Marks said. “I wish I could have done more. I felt that everything I had given them with the age of it was used against us.”
Now, Marks said she’s gearing up to fight the ordinance again. She says she kept all the research from 2007 and with some updating, plans to bring a revised ordinance to the RTM when she can get it on the agenda.
“Houses can’t talk for themselves, we have to speak for them,” Marks said. “Once they’re gone, they are gone. You can’t replicate it.”