The Warren Town Council will hold a hearing Tuesday, Nov. 20 on the fate of the JD Tuell House, which is owned by the Wilbur Romano Funeral Home and sits adjacent to the funeral home at the corner of Main and Wheaton streets. Officials at the home say the building needs to come down not just because it is in disrepair, but also because the space it occupies could be better used as parking for the busy home. Since it lies within the Warren Waterfront Historic District, certain criteria must be met before approval is given to demolish it, and part of that review includes a public hearing before the council.
Ever since news of the proposed demolition surfaced in September, members of Warren’s preservation community have protested the possible demolition, saying it’s unnecessary and will weaken downtown Warren’s historic fabric. They’ve also set up a webpage dedicated to the issue, which includes exterior and interior photos, newspapers clippings and more.
“The society is obviously not in favor of tearing down a historic structure,” said society president Eileen Collins.
“The last thing we need is more parking,” added Steve Thompson, a member of both the preservation society and the VHDC. ”You can’t replace an 1850 building once it’s gone and this town has already lost way too much of its history.”
When the proposed demolition was first discussed by the town council in September, councilor Cathie Tattrie said she felt “badly” for the funeral home, which she said was having to wait too long to have a hearing before the town. Other councilors, including Independent Scott Lial, objected, however, saying the council shouldn’t rush the issue.
After VHDC member Steve Thompson questioned whether Ms. Tattrie had a conflict of interest in the matter due to her job as the owner of a competing funeral home, Ms. Tattrie said she asked the town’s attorney to determine whether she should vote on or recuse herself from the upcoming vote. Friday, she said she will recuse herself from the matter on advice of the town’s attorney.
The house, known as the JD Tuell home, was built between 1850 and 1860 by the owner of a copper foundry at the corner of Wheaton and Water streets. It passed into the Romano family generations ago and is now part of the funeral home property owned by Service Corporation International, a Texas conglomerate that bought Wilbur Romano several years ago.
One of the most passionate demolition critics to surface so far is Ray Romano, whose family built the funeral home in 1920.
“I don’t want people to think I’m opposed just because I don’t work there anymore,” said Mr. Romano, who left the company last year. “It’s more for sentimental reasons. I just can’t visualize the property without it there. It seems like it would take away a big piece of Main Street.”
Funeral home employees have a different take. Wilbur Romano’s Pat Keefe said that the vinyl-clad cottage has been vacant for some time and is in disrepair, making renovation prohibitively expensive. Given the tight parking in the neighborhood the most prudent thing for the funeral home to do is bring it down, she said. If the town gives the OK, the land on which the building currently sits would “go fallow” and would be used for parking.
“There’s definitely a shortage” of parking, said Ms. Keefe. “So it will be needed.”
Normally, razing a building wouldn’t require town council approval. But the old house lies within the Warren Waterfront Historic District, and as such must meet certain criteria before approval is given to demolish it. Town ordinances allow the town council to give the owners a demolition waiver if one of the follow conditions exists:
1. Keeping the building would constitute a hazard to public safety.
2. Preservation would cause undue or unreasonable financial hardship to the owner.
3. Preservation wouild not be in the best interest of the community.
Ms. Keefe said she hopes the business, founded in 1920, will be granted the waiver.
“If we don’t, I don’t know what we’ll do with it (the building),” she said.