Employees of the Wilbur Romano Funeral Home will appear before the Warren Town Council Tuesday night to ask for permission to tear down a 152-year-old house owned by the funeral home at 613 Main St. The old house lies just to the north of the funeral home itself, at the corner of Wheaton Street. The council is expected to schedule a public hearing on the matter, most likely for Tuesday, Oct. 9.
News of the demolition request was published on the Warren Times website on Monday and quickly led to opposition from members of Warren’s preservation community. Members of the Warren Preservation Society and Voluntary Historic District Commission (VHDC) quickly took to Facebook to decry the possible demolition, saying they don’t think it’s right for Warren.
“The society is obviously not in favor of tearing down a historic structure,” said society president Eileen Collins, reached by telephone on Block Island. “I had heard rumors about this but nothing definite.”
“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.”
One of the most passionate critics to surface so far is Ray Romano, whose family built the funeral home in 1920. Since 2006 the home has been a holding of Service Corporation International out of Houston, Texas, and Mr. Romano left the business last year after an injury. He said Tuesday that he was sad to leave an avocation he loved, and he is also sad to hear of the building’s possible loss.
“I don’t want people to think I’m opposed just because I don’t work there anymore,” he said. “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 point of view. Wilbur Romano’s Pat Keefe said Monday 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.
Though town records list the home as dating to 1860, research done by Mr. Thompson suggests it could date back another decade, to 1850. It was originally owned by a JD Tuell, who owned a copper foundry at the corner of Wheaton and Water streets. The Wilbur Romano Funeral home complex was nominated for inclusion on the National Historic Register a decade ago, the nominating committee wrote this about the cottage:
“A much altered end-gable roof, side-hall-plan Greek Revival cottage is the oldest section of this large complex that connects with a turn-of-the-century livery stable and a late-20th-century section at the corner of Luther Street to the south.”