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Michael Tyrell Historic preservation can work in Bridgeport

October 2, 2018

Bridgeport holds a substantial inventory of historic landmark-eligible buildings. Many are aging and decayed, and some weigh down the city’s image.

However, razing and removing the Sanborn Library building in Bridgeport’s West End could hurt prospects for our city’s economic development. The elegant, neoclassical building, inspired by Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, was designed by award-winning German-Jewish American Architect Leonard Asheim in 1922.

Asheim is also credited with the well-known Klein Memorial Auditorium, several Bridgeport school buildings, and the West End Congregation/Achavath Achim Synagogue, which is on the national register of historic places.

It now seems likely that, given time for a proper application to be submitted, that the Sanborn Library building could be added to the register as well. The Sanborn building, though tired and in disrepair, possesses a civic decorum and dignity more representative of the Park City in the early 20th Century.

According to his granddaughter, the Sanborn was among Asheim’s favorite works, and it garnered him an award in 1925 “For Excellence in Architecture” from the Architectural Club of New Haven.

Bridgeport’s long line of good, practical-minded citizens value the city’s culture and history. However, many of its commercial property owners, where saddled with underperforming property, resort to demolitions that would have otherwise bolstered Bridgeport’s attractiveness — and competitiveness — had the property been restored.

Since being sold to Bridgeport’s Lafayette Bank in the 1970s, the Sanborn’s last major use was by non-profit organizations, ASPIRA of CT and then the Nehemiah Commission. Both groups served the growing Latino communities in our city.

Although these organizations stopped using the building about a decade ago, a colorful tile mural installed to celebrate the West End’s Puerto Rican culture remains affixed to the facade, and is itself worthy of preservation.

The building now sits unoccupied, and its current owners are saddled with growing tax obligations. The property has a potential pending sale to a buyer who stipulated the library building be cleared from the property before the sale.

However, reuse by an institution, perhaps as offices, a restaurant or a gallery-cafe, seems apt. Indeed other cities, including New Haven, Providence and Boston, use historic preservation as an economic re-development engine, and is partly why Boston, once a city in great disrepair, is thriving, as other less historically conscious cities in New England struggle.

Graced with an adjacent if underutilized park, The Sanborn Library occupies a lot large enough to include new retail uses and even an apartment block. We ask that the potential buyer exercise patience and study design alternatives for both preservation and new construction that showcase our building heritage and is tastefully conceived.

Losing this elegant landmark would be an environmental setback for the Park City. Young people — artists, creatives and investors among them — appreciate old buildings and see their conservation as a criteria in choosing where to live.

Fortunately, numerous surviving structures like the Sanborn remain available. Whether through tax abatements, State Landmark grants or earnest neighborhood advocacy, the preservation of such structures in tandem with new development, is a proven formula that we should all seize upon.

Michael J. Tyrrell is a consultant in architecture, planning and urban design. He lives in Fairfield.

Other signatories to this piece are Robert Halstead, a former member of the Bridgeport City Council; Frank Borres, president of the West Side/West End NRZ and the Citywide NRZ; City Council members Kyle Piché Langan, 132nd district; Aidee Nieves, council president, and Maria Valle, 137th district; and Peter Spain, 130th. Also, state Sen. Marilyn Moore and Alma Maya, a former town clerk and special community projects leader with the city.

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