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Monday, March 19 News

Documents cloudy on age: Effort to save aviator's house may fail to take off

An effort to save aviation pioneer Gustave Whitehead's homestead may have crash landed.

A review of town tax records Monday could not establish that the house at 184 Alvin St. existed in 1914, so the property does not appear to meet the 100-year requirement to trigger a 60-day delay on the planned demolition of the bungalow.

Whitehead is credited by "Jane's All the World's Aircraft," the bible of the aviation industry, with having flown a powered, heavier-than-air craft in 1901 -- two years before the Wright brothers flew at Kitty Hawk, N.C.

Gary Tenk of Stratford, who bought the house in March for $220,000, plans to build a new home on the site. The 10-day notice to demolish the existing 1,286-square-foot home expired Sunday, meaning Tenk could get a demolition permit immediately, officials said.

However, Tom Conley, Fairfield's chief building official, said Monday he was attempting to contact Tenk and Town Attorney Stanton Lesser to determine if the town could have a little more time.

"One of the gray areas is, what constitutes a building," Conley said. "Is it when you dig a hole? Is it when you get a certificate of occupancy?"

He said both the demolition contractor and the developer "have been kind enough to hold off a while we try to make a determination."

First Selectman Michael Tetreau said he does not have the authority to order a 60-day waiting period, though he said he asked Tenk last week to hold off for a few days to allow a review of tax records.

Tenk could not be reached for comment Monday.

Assessor Donald Ross said Monday the age of the house is still unclear.

"The dates that we have at this point are that the Whitehead family purchased the land in May 1914," Ross said, "and that there was a dwelling on the site in September 1915.''

Tetreau said the Whiteheads' purchase of four lots on May 27, 1914, doesn't launch the waiting period because no structure was built yet. He said the Oct. 1, 1914, grand list shows four parcels on the site, but no structure.

Land records show Whitehead's wife, Louisa, received a mortgage Jan. 28, 1915. But the document states that it is for "land and buildings,'' Tetreau said, and leaves open for interpretation whether the house existed before the loan was taken out.

The first selectman said he would like to find a way to create something that memorializes Whitehead as being the first to fly and helps bring tourist dollars into the area.

Conley said it would be cheaper to replicate the home than to move it.

"Some of the building has already been dismantled," Conley said.

"No one has any plans for this building," he said. "No one has the money."

But for Ed Collins, one of the preservationists fighting to save the house, the mortgage is the proof that's required for the 60-day stay.

"Nobody builds a house in 28 days, especially in January,'' he said. "Construction would have started the year before."

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Preservationists, including Carol Way, a member of the Representative Town Meeting, do not oppose Tenk's right to tear down the house and replace it with a new one. They are seeking time to find a new location for the house and money to move it.

It would make sense, Way said, to move it to Tunxis Hill Park.

"It's only a short distance from here, which would reduce the cost of moving it," she said at a rally Friday morning. "There is plenty of open space in the park where it can go."

Actor and Bridgeport native John Ratzenberger, of television's "Cheers" fame, has suggested putting up billboards along Interstate 95 that read, "Welcome to Bridgeport, Conn., Home of Gustave Whitehead, First in Flight."

"Just put 'em up," Ratzenberger said in November, "and let the chips fall where they may."

Ratzenberger's grandfather is listed as a witness in accounts of Whitehead's early flights.