Bristol historic commission puts temporary halt to farmhouse demolition

By Kristen Ray
Posted 1/9/20

Patrick Usher may have the excavator all waiting to go, but the Lemuel C. Richmond/Usher Farmhouse in Bristol will not come tumbling down just yet, after the Bristol Historic District Commission held …

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Bristol historic commission puts temporary halt to farmhouse demolition

Posted

Patrick Usher may have the excavator all waiting to go, but the Lemuel C. Richmond/Usher Farmhouse in Bristol will not come tumbling down just yet, after the Bristol Historic District Commission held off on voting on its demolition during its meeting last Thursday, Jan. 2. 

Built by Seth Thayer around 1840, the Usher Farmhouse is a two-and-a-half-story, Federal-style, post-and-beam home resting on 110 acres at 616 Metacom Ave. Sold to the Usher family a century later, it became listed locally as a historic structure in the late 1980s – when the town “shoved it down our throat,” according to Mr. Usher.

Yet no one has lived in that house for 40 years, the decades of neglect wearing heavily on the nearly 200-year-old home. Outside, the damage is obvious; only recently, Mr. Usher said, the south wall now bumps out an inch. A report by his structural engineer, Jeremy Page, found the home to be “not structurally suitable” and “should be considered unsafe.”

“If this house were anywhere else in town, you guys would have condemned it many years ago,” Mr. Usher said.

Playing the blame game

Following a site visit in December and after receiving a report from state architect Roberta Randall, however, some on the commission wondered if demolition of the Usher house is the only solution. From what Ben Bergenholtz could tell, the house appeared to be “very salvageable,” and he wondered if Mr. Page had the familiarity with and understanding of post-and-beam construction.

“I don’t think he is, and I don’t think he grasps it,” Mr. Bergenholtz said.

Mr. Usher, however, defended Mr. Page’s credentials, stating that he works in the historic district in Providence and that they have worked together in the past. Nonetheless, both Mr. Bergenholtz and town solicitor Andy Teitz pointed out that Mr. Page failed to also provide a cost-analysis in his findings, giving them no indication of how expensive it would be to restore the building.

“Your engineer’s report, which you keep holding up as if it’s gospel, doesn’t really provide the proper information,” said Mr. Teitz.

Though Mr. Usher insisted that the house is simply too dangerous to remain standing, Mr. Bergenholtz argued that its current condition is, in essence, his family’s fault. To which Mr. Usher replied:

“I guess you guys don’t understand … don’t understand being poor.”

Meeting halfway

While chairwoman Oryann Lima acknowledged that it is likely too costly for the Ushers to restore the house themselves, board member Mary Millard pointed out that there are likely people who would be very interested in certain aspects of the house.

After only becoming aware of the issue recently, Catherine Zipf, executive director of the Bristol Historical and Preservation Society, wondered if there is anyway the HDC and the Ushers could meet somewhere in the middle.

“I’m looking for some compromises that will both help the Ushers and still save the building,” she said.

She suggested waiting to see if she could reach out and find someone who would be interested in moving the house for the Ushers, relieving them of that financial responsibility. Tom Bergenholtz agreed, stating that a number of businesses exist for just that very reason.

Yet that would still put a huge burden on him, Mr. Usher said, waiting to see if anyone would take on the job. Even delaying one month would be getting right into his busy season.

“My time I guess doesn’t matter,” Mr. Usher said. 

Setting parameters

In order to be sensitive to Mr. Usher’s work schedule but also provide enough time for Ms. Zipf to contact her list of “usual suspects,” Ms. Lima proposed holding a special meeting before their next regularly scheduled February meeting date. If no capable, interested parties willing to move the entire house came forward by noon on Tuesday, Jan. 21, then the commission would find a time to meet and reconsider Mr. Usher’s demolition request.

Based a straw poll taken that night, however, the vote could go in the Usher’s favor; while all five board members present – John Allen, Christopher Ponder, Ms. Millard, Mr. Bergenholtz and Ms. Lima – thought the house was an example of a significant structure, only Mr. Bergenholtz found it to be important among its context and setting as well.

“It’s not something that should just be tossed into the wind,” he said.

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