White Oak Shade Home Under Cease-and-Desist Has Curious Footnote in New Canaan History

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The White Oak Shade home now under a cease-and-desist order after an unpermitted demolition of its second floor dates to about 1750, historic preservationists say, and appears originally to have belonged to a Canaan Parish family that earned a curious—and rather treacherous—footnote in the history of the town.

251 White Oak Shade Road in New Canaan. Credit: Michael Dinan

According to New Canaan Historical Society files cited by Rose Scott Long, co-president of the New Canaan Preservation Alliance, the home at 251 White Oak Shade Road had been labeled at one time as the “William Reid, Sr. House.”

Records show that it has been renovated several times since the 18th Century, making it “difficult to discern what was original and what was fabricated to appear original,” Scott Long told NewCanaanite.com. One historical record also notes that the home at some point was “moved back from the road.”

A census records list unearthed by Scott Long indicates that in 1790—the year of the first census in the United States—the home was inhabited by a “William Reed, Jr.”

Turning back to the clock about a dozen years, to the American Revolutionary War—historians note that in Canaan Parish (recall that New Canaan, as we know it, wasn’t incorporated until 1801), one practice among patriots as well as Loyalists seeking to maximize value in trade was to drive cattle across Westchester County to trade with the British, who paid in coin rather than unreliable Continental paper money. (Mary Louise King notes in her “Portrait of New Canaan” history that Maj. Benjamin Tallmadge, among other heroic feats of battle during the war, in 1779 moved against that illicit trade.)

The year that Lord Cornwallis would surrender, in October, at Yorktown, Va.—1781—opened in Canaan Parish with “Samuel Cooke Silliman presiding over the trials of three men and a woman who had been trading with the enemy,” King writes.

“While on coast guard duty, officers and men of the Canaan Parish Train Band had intercepted boats from Long Island attempting to land, and they produced in court the ‘foreign and India goods’ they had captured as evidence that their neighbors were involved in illicit trade. In April, four men from West Road were caught trying to smuggle cattle to the British in Westchester County. Tried for a state offense by the Superior Court, sitting in Danbury, all four served jail sentences in Litchfield. That same month, William Reed Jr. of White Oak Shade, fled to New York City. Apparently unsuspected before, Reed had concealed and then assisted a number of Tories to get to safety inside British lines.”

Thus ends all reference in King’s history to the redcoat-loving Reed.

Caught up more recently in a different kind of mischief, the antique home is under a cease-and-desist order from New Canaan Chief Building Official Brian Platz until its owners have undergone the demolition permitting process and obtained a permit. That process typically takes six to eight weeks, Platz said.

The New Canaan Building Department on Jan. 29 issued a permit for an interior renovation on the first and second floors of the 18th Century Cape Cod style-home at 251 White Oak Shade Road. The homeowners on Feb. 7 applied for a demolition permit. Yet on Feb. 8, a look at the house showed that its second floor already had been demolished, prompting Platz’s order.

It’s up to the owners themselves to weather-proof the house in the meantime, he said. Unless a house is deed-restricted, he said, no one can prevent a demolition—they can only impose a 90-day delay, as per Town Code, if the home can be shown to possess “historical, architectural or cultural significance” to the town.

According to Scott Long—a member of the New Canaan Historical Review Committee, which fields formal applications for such delays—preservationists are eager, given the vulnerable state of the home now, to see it closed to the elements.

“As the structure meets the 50-year plus requirement, there is an automatic process which applies,” Scott Long said. “If the usual 14-day process would prove to be detrimental to intended preservation any original historic elements, we would request that the process be shortened and that the contractor be allowed to render the site weather-proof.”

5 thoughts on “White Oak Shade Home Under Cease-and-Desist Has Curious Footnote in New Canaan History

  1. Mike – thank you for your research on this property and its original owner, William Reid, Sr. The extent of my “unearthing” was to request info of the Historical Society’s Librarian Archivist, Michael Murphy who is always super helpful. Irreversible damage to historic elements has already occurred due to method of demolition at 251 White Oak Shade. A date of 1750 would designate the core of this home as included in our dwindling collection of pre- Revolutionary War structures in New Canaan.

  2. Michael, thank you for this article. It was very sad to read however since this was our family home from the early 1950’s until my parents sold it in 1974. While all things inevitably change, it is too bad that this was not handled with a bit more discretion given the historic nature of this beautiful old New England treasure.

  3. Hi Barry – I remember visiting your house – it was charming – and was hoping something like this wouldn’t happen. Of all the older homes in New Canaan, there was something extremely special about it. Now I see why!

  4. Barry,

    As I sit from my office looking out on the partial demolition….your home, Barry, and your neighbor of 42 years, I cherish the memories of your Mom and Pop inviting us down to visit on July 4, 1976, our bicentennial birthday, the day we moved into 241 White Oak Shade. If I am not mistaken, the original house was built in 1700. It is a shame the town does not take a more pro active stance in preserving pre-revolutionary war homes. So many of your parents’s friends have seen the wrecking ball taken to such dwellings over the decades.

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