The one-word epitaph is written boldly, in big black letters on an otherwise blank white sign, perched next to a 153-year-old house on Long Neck Point in Darien, its presence breaking the silence of the stately property.
The house has stood at 203 Long Neck Point since 1860, when it was built by Hugh Collender, and the home still boasts custom wood floors created by his Stamford-based billiard table factory, with unique patterns made of oak, mahogany and walnut. There are so many luxurious elements in the 9,937-square-foot mansion — such as 325 feet of direct waterfront on one of the state’s priciest peninsulas — that when it hit the real estate market for the first time in more than a century back in March 2010, it was listed at $16.8 million.
The house, named Firwood, has since sold, for $11.9 million. The demolition sign now sits next to the 14-bedroom house.
“It’s definitely a shame when these houses go down, because you’re losing all their history,” said Karen Jewell, a Fairfield-based author who has written three books about life and history along the shore in Southwestern Connecticut.
Tearing down old homes is a part of the life cycle of waterfront properties in the area — part of a natural progression.
“Generally, you always see more tear-downs in more valuable locations, and clearly the water is a more valuable location,” said Katsiaryna Bardos, an assistant professor of finance at Fairfield University.
Bardos has published several research papers about the value of waterfront real estate in Connecticut, and has found that the price of waterfront real estate along the Gold Coast includes a premium for the option to redevelop.
Ellen Cavallo Buccitti, a real estate agent who specializes in waterfront properties along Candlewood Lake in Brookfield and New Fairfield, said teardowns aren’t as frequent in her neck of the woods as they are along the Sound.
“There have been teardowns here, but I don’t think they’re as prevalent as they are at the shore,” she said. “The shore is a different ticket. There’s the Sound, and saltwater. I think it attracts a different buyer.”
A couple years ago, Bardos, along with a professor from the University of Connecticut, published a paper in the Journal of Urban Economics, in which they mapped every home in Greenwich between 1994 and 2007, to quantify the effect that proximity to the water has on home prices. They found that in Greenwich, being within one mile of the harbor increased a home’s value by 17 percent, while having a view of Long Island Sound adds 8.5 percent to the value.
With that kind of additional price tag, many people are priced out. Even when they’re looking for a simple house that would cost less inland. And those with bigger pockets may not be thrilled with the small or old houses, which is why teardowns become such a normal part of life along the water. Bardos found that 43 percent of the teardowns in Greenwich during her study were along the water.
In her research, Bardos found that the price difference between older or more modest homes and newer mansions next door is relatively small.
“It’s difficult. Even you say, ’OK, I don’t need the mansion, I’m happy with a small house, and I just want to be by the water,’ unfortunately, you’re still paying for the price to have a mansion by the water. So in a way, that prices out people who want a modest house, but still want the proximity by the water,” she said.
And with a multimillion-dollar price tag, buyers expect more than a dated or modest home.
“People like the concept of going and spending a month in a really cool old antique in Nantucket, but they don’t want to live in it full time if they’re spending a lot of money,” said Becky Munro, a real estate agent at Halstead Properties in Darien, who represents homes on the water.
“The older houses were built for protection, so there were less windows on the waterside, because they were defending the house during the storms,” Munro explained. “Now with all the specialty glass and hurricane windows and all this stuff, they can capitalize on what’s the biggest value of the property, which is the water situation.”
Munro said that oftentimes, buyers will change where the house is on the property, and which way it faces to bring it closer to the shore and optimize the view. With technology available to provide protection and a window to natural beauty along the Sound, Munro said many homeowners rebuild with the idea in mind of bringing outdoor life to indoor living.
That’s what Jim Duffy and his wife did when they built a one-story home on Brush Island Road in Darien in 2002 for a little more than $3 million. They knocked down the original structure, and built a 6,433 square-foot three-story Colonial, which Duffy said is “designed to bring in the outdoors.
“There’s nothing but glass in the front of the house now,” he said. “You could never have windows like we have in that house without the kind of glass that’s available today.”
While Duffy and his wife were intrigued by the ecosystem the house is placed within, the existing house just wasn’t what they wanted. And as the reality of what it would cost to update the structure set in, it became clear that the more financially feasible option would be to start from scratch.
“What ended up happening is as soon as we started the design process, it became obvious that the house that was there was in really crappy shape,” he said. “So as soon as you realize you’re going to have to pour money into something you could have just torn down, it sort of changes your mind.”
Now the Duffy’s home is back on the market, a decade after it was built, with an $8.3 million price tag.
As for what Firwood will become, there are more guesses than answers. Munro’s colleague Robyn Kammerer, a spokeswoman for Halstead who worked on the sale of Firwood, said the new owners don’t plan to subdivide the 4.8-acre lot.
“The buyer turned out to be someone who loved the piece of property, but when you think about the work that had to go into it to make it work, it wasn’t the right move to keep the house,” Kammerer said.
“Of course I was enamored with all the antique work and the wood floors. It’s gorgeous, and the tiling was crazy. But then you look at all the kitchen, and all the electric and the wiring that had to be done in all the house — the roofs. It just makes more sense,” she said.
The thought is sad for some, but it’s also just the reality of life along the water.
“You can’t really blame the modern-minded individual to want to update their homestead — and it’s their property — but it’s too bad you can’t also maintain the integrity of the past era,” Jewell said.
So in the circle of life along the shore, the manor house, complete with 13 fireplaces, will take a bow and exit the landscape to make way for a new mansion.
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