Lenox Historic District Commission OKs plan to raze, replicate historic house for use as boutique

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LENOX — The Historic District Commission has approved plans by Anthony Chojnowski to tear down a building he owns and replicate it with a historically authentic new structure for his Casablanca fashion boutique.

After a raucous, often-heated two-hour debate this week, the commission voted 4-1 to allow Chojnowski to raze the three-family residence he owns at 50 Church St.

He has operated the store on Housatonic Street for more than 30 years in a leased building.

The cost of the project, presented by John Ineson of EDM Architects and Engineers in Pittsfield, is put at $1 million to $1.5 million. Demolition would take place this fall followed by replacement of the structure.

The issue has posed a conflict between the commission's mandate to preserve buildings in the downtown commercial district and the need to enhance local economic development. The commission deadlocked 2-2 last June on a previous application for the project.

But this week, the board, now with five members, reached a consensus favoring the project, with Acting Chairman Kenneth Fowler, building designer Mark Smith, downtown developer Jason Berger and Realtor Elaine Steinert voting in favor and preservationist Lucy Kennedy opposed.

Ineson — whose firm was involved in the Beacon Cinema and Colonial Theatre restorations in Pittsfield — described the project as dismantling and replacing the 1888 house while "carefully storing and reusing elements of the building on a structure that's going to be on the same footprint but slightly higher" in order to meet required commercial establishment building codes.

Those elements include louvres and dentil trim moldings along the roofline and previously removed porch railings.

He said "repurposing" the existing building is not possible because of "non-negotiable" building code issues, such as complete accessibility required by the change of use from residential to mercantile.

Before the vote, Steinert applauded Chojnowski's design application because "it looks old, I know it's not, but it's going to preserve that part of the history, it's going to look like the old house. I don't know how we can do anything else but this."

Smith cited the opportunity for a new building that meets all building codes, including health, safety and energy conservation, rather than "a deteriorating structure which is falling into the ground."

While Kennedy described Chojnowski's application as "thoughtful," she declared that "I don't think you can allow demolition and preserve the historic character of the town. That sets a dangerous precedent and is inconsistent with my role as a commissioner. ... I think we have to work particularly hard to maintain the unique and historic flavor of the village."

According to Kennedy, the commission needs to prevent downtown Lenox from resembling and competing with "generic suburban shopping centers."

She also contended that "we could flatten everything in the village and rebuild everything new to look like what was there before, and we would no longer be a historic district."

Kennedy also suggested that "the misuse of words that we're experiencing here is close to doublespeak. It may be a lovely design, it may in many people's opinion be an improvement. But we're listening to a proposal to tear down a historic building and replace it with a different building. Over and out."

Berger responded that "We all have a stake in the historic district, but I believe this project really incorporates a lot of the characteristics of the existing building."

Reading from the commission's guidelines, Kennedy stated that partial or complete demolition of historically significant structures "is prohibited except when, in the opinion of the commission, it is warranted by extraordinary circumstances. The vote of this commission tonight will determine whether this is an extraordinary circumstance in order to authorize demolition, no matter how lovely the replacement design may be."

Fowler acknowledged that he's "very concerned about the historic district. I can't imagine Lenox without it, and it's our job to preserve the integrity of the architectural features of these buildings."

But he expressed approval of Chojnowski's design "that looks like the building that's there. These buildings as they stand are very unsafe."

Fowler observed that the historic district is "in conflict" with the commercial district and "that's why we always have this problem when we deal with this." He described the 1888 Mahanna House as having been "neglected" for some time and called for "common ground we can stand on as preservationists and as developers so we can continue to have buildings that look like this in the historic district."

"If this project doesn't answer most of the needs of what we're trying to preserve in the town, then I don't know what does," he asserted.

Olga Weiss, chairwoman of the Historical Commission, a separate advisory group, objected strongly: "Before you consider this plan, you're supposed to consider an alternative plan that would deal with the actual preservation. That has not taken place. [Otherwise] it seems that having a historic district is a mockery. Replication is not preservation."

Last May, the Zoning Board of Appeals had approved Chojnowski's application for the project.

Much of the debate during Tuesday's commission meeting centered on whether the historic district approved by Lenox voters in 1975 allows pre-1923 buildings to be demolished.

Citing the commission bylaw and informal guidelines, Town Planner Gwen Miller said that demolition is considered "an alteration" and is permitted "either due to natural disaster or through a certificate of appropriateness" allowing reconstruction.

Chojnowski's proposal also included an application for a "certificate of hardship, financial or otherwise" because the building must be code-compliant to operate as a retail business.

Now that the project has a green light, Building Commissioner Don W. Fitzgerald would issue demolition and building permits, making sure that the final plans for the reconstruction conform with the approved application.

Contact Clarence Fanto at 413-637-2551.

In their own words . . .

Some of the public comments during the Lenox Historic District Commission meeting that approved business owner Anthony Chojnowski's project to demolish his 1888 residential building and replicate it as a new home for Casablanca, his retail establishment:

"Tony [Chojnowski] is going out of his way to build a building that's very similar to what he has right now. I think as members of this town, we should be applauding him and not trying to run him out of the town. Today we still have seven or eight stores that are vacant. We're in a very challenging time in this town because there's a lot of transition. We're having trouble filling all the spaces, we're six years past the recession and we still haven't filled up the stores. I'm afraid of the next recession and having 25 stores vacant that we can't fill."

— Robert Murray, downtown property owner and Lenox Chamber of Commerce president

"It is the charge of the Historic District Commission to preserve the historic building stock in this town. If you don't do that, we can't have a Historic District Commission. Then everybody's real estate is going to fall because who would want to come here anymore to look at whatever anybody feels like putting up."

— Suzanne Pelton, resident, former commission member

"We could raze every building downtown and put shiny new buildings up, but that really wouldn't change the economy of the town. We have to work with the assets we have, this funky little downtown which is half-comprised of houses. Do we take down an historic house because somebody, an owner, decides they want to have a commercial use in it? This is not a replica, this is a caricature and you need to understand it as that."

— Kate McNulty-Vaughan, Planning Board member

"The owner of this building wants to stay in Lenox to own the building he has his business is in. I can't imagine he would be giving this proposal if it wasn't necessary. I feel like there's a breakdown in this room between the repurpose, the replica, the demolition. We certainly would love to have it as a commercial business in great repair for the next 150 years."

— Mary Jane White, owner of Cohen & White Realty Associates

"A lot of us are doing our best to bring some life back into Lenox, to try to move it from being a two-month town into at least a six-month town. Anything we can do to promote a healthier retail environment is a great way to bring people in. If you're going to put a commercial building in that spot, this looks like an excellent solution that keeps Church Street looking as it does now and provides another jolt of positive energy toward us trying to bring this town back up."

— Scott Barrow, local business owner


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