West Parish Meeting House Historic Site, Westport, Connecticut: Historic Preservation and Sustainability
by Elena M. Pascarella, ASLA

Project Purpose

In 2010, Landscape Elements LLC in conjunction with James A. Gibbs, AIA Architect, Fuss & O’Neill, Inc. Engineers and Archeological Consulting Services, completed a preservation plan and cultural landscape assessment for a 5.9-acre property in Westport, Connecticut known as the West Parish Meeting House Historic Site (Figure 1). The work was done for the Town of Westport, Connecticut Historic District Commission (HDC) to reaffirm the site’s status as a State Archaeological Preserve. In the past, the site was threatened by suggested uses that would have destroyed extant archaeological artifacts; however, the development was never carried out.

Pascarella Figure 1
Figure 1: Aerial photo of project site and environs. Source: West Parish Meeting House Historic Site Preservation Plan and Cultural Landscape Assessment. Landscape Elements LLC.

The HDC stipulated that the plan follow the National Park Service’s Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties and Guidelines for Cultural Landscape Reports, and that it provide recommendations for the preservation of natural resources, recommendations for interpretive signage to promote community understanding of the site’s historic significance, and recommendations for long term management.   

The goal from the outset was to provide a plan and report that addressed, respected, and preserved both the natural and cultural features of the project site. As the treatment plan/concept design was developed, a spreadsheet of LEED criteria and Sustainable  Sites  InitiativeTM  (SITES TM) guidelines was continually referenced.

Historical Overview

In reviewing the site’s history, the project team found that the property had significance in at least three primary thematic areas: (1) Pre-historic indigenous habitation; (2) Colonial settlement; and (3) Revolutionary War.

As defined by National Register of Historic Places criteria, a cultural landscape must possess significance in at least one of four aspects of cultural heritage:

  • Association with a significant historic event;
  • Association with a significant historic person;
  • Embodiment of a method of construction; or
  • Example of high artistic or design values.

The project site met the first two criteria as being the location of the second West Parish Meeting House (Figure 2) built in 1737-1738, until it was burned in July 1779, during the Revolutionary War, by forces under the command of British General William Tryon. Tryon, an historic figure of note, is considered responsible for the British policy of “devastation warfare” which was intended to demoralize the American colonists through the destruction of all religious and community buildings within settlements in the colonies. 

Pascarella Figure 2
Figure 2: Interpretive illustration of the West Parish Meeting House completed for the Westport Bicentennial in 1911. Source: Westport Historic District Commission.

Archaeology

Project research and evaluation included a review of existing archaeological research as well as a surface site analysis by team archaeologist Gregory Walwer, PhD. A raised knoll in the southern portion of the site was the defining landscape feature of the property relating directly to the meeting house period (1737-1779). This area was described in detail within archaeological reports and historical resources inventories, which provided documentation to support the presence of the structure known historically as “the second West Parish Meeting House” (Figure 3).

Pascarella Figure 3
Figure 3: Photo of southern knoll at West Parish Meeting House site. Source: West Parish Meeting House Historic Site Preservation Plan and Cultural Landscape Assessment. Photo by Elena M. Pascarella, ASLA.

Subsurface testing completed by archaeologist and former Westport Municipal Historian, Lucinda McWeeney, PhD. recovered material culture that was interpreted as colonial meeting house artifacts. Subsequent use of ground penetrating radar ( by Nicholas Bellantoni, Ph.D., and a team of students from the University of Connecticut Natural Resources Conservation Service, revealed anomalies which were attributed to metallic objects. Archaeological test pits revealed artifacts of charred nails and other findings dating to the possible period of the meeting house. These findings confirmed the presence of a structure within this southern portion of the project site.  A probable schoolhouse associated with the meeting house was found with less support documentation.  Historic records describe the location of the meeting house as “about four rods and five feet southwesterly from the southwest corner of the schoolhouse in said society, standing on the west side of Muddy Brook.” 

Natural Features and Resources

Site analysis involved field inspections as well as reviews of existing aerial mapping, wetland mapping, and archaeological reports.  The project team took note of land uses at the site and the immediate surroundings, vegetation, site hydrology, topography, soils, wildlife habitats, pedestrian and vehicular circulation, and other landscape characteristics. Almost 65% of the 5.9-acre site was identified as wetland containing a large amount of invasive Phragmites australis (common reed) within the central section. The use of this site subsequent to the burning of the meeting house by the British in 1779 had been limited to agriculture. As is typical of many abandoned and inactive agricultural properties, the presence of invasive plant species was noted throughout the upland forested areas, along stone walls and along forest/meadow transition areas.

Although the natural features for this site were not unique, they represented a variety of natural areas typical of the New England landscape.  Removal of invasive plant species and restoration of open water areas within the wetland will provide a greater diversity of habitat for wildlife. Removal of invasive plants along the existing stone wall will help in its restoration and maintenance. Invasive plant management in upland areas will enhance the meadow and forested ecosystems. 

These treatments meet LEED criteria, SSC5.1 Site development, Protect or restore habitat and  SITES (TM) criteria to protect floodplain function, preserve wetlands, preserve habitat, and control and manage invasive plants.

Preservation Goals

Primary preservation goals were based on site analysis and research completed in conjunction with the Secretary of the Interior Guidelines and both the LEED and SITES (TM) criteria. Project goals were to:

  • Preserve historic archaeological resources.
    • Key archaeological resources are the artifacts of the meeting house, the possible schoolhouse and Native American artifacts. These elements will be preserved within a tall grass Conservation Area which will be mowed only once per year.
     
  • Minimize impacts to historic archaeological and natural resources.
    • Proposed trail improvements should not impact existing wetlands or historic site features.
    • Proposed parking, trail improvements, signage, plantings, and historic site demarcations should not impact the subsurface archaeological artifact.
    • Provide improved site access to the historic features and to the natural resource features of the site.
      Safe vehicular access and a pervious (grass) parking area are proposed.
      Proposed trail improvements through wetland areas will utilize methods that minimally disturb the existing ecosystem.
      Provide interpretive signage which may be used as an educational resource for the community.
      Interpretive signage will be sited in key locations and will provide information about the site’s historic and archaeological significance, natural resources, and ecosystems.

Management Philosophy

In developing the treatment plan or conceptual design for the site, consideration was given to long-term management and general maintenance requirements.  These recommendations reflect both preservation and sustainability.  Recommendations included:

  • Manage invasive plants and site mowing.
    • Invasive plants will be removed and will need to be continually monitored.
    • Site mowing will be limited to times of year when ground birds are not nesting.
     
  • Manage community access and use through:
    • Marked trails that are well defined and that limit access to preservation areas.
    • A pervious surface treatment of limited size for vehicular parking which is defined by fencing to limit vehicular access to other areas.
    • A Conservation Area defined by tall grass and demarcated by evergreen trees at each corner to preserve the most historically sensitive area of the property.
    • Perimeter barriers (stone wall, buffer plantings, fencing) that limit site access only through proscribed entrances.
     
  • Maintain the site using methods that minimally disturb subsurface archaeological resources.

Proposed Treatment/Concept Design

As the primary charge of the project was to preserve archaeological resources, the concept design/treatment plan restricted access to outside the “Conservation Area” (Figure 4) which was determined by Dr. Walwer as the area with the most historic sensitivity within the site. The Conservation Area is composed of tall meadow grasses to deter pedestrian access into this area. The grasses will be mowed only once per year thus mitigating compaction of soils and helping to preserve the key archaeological resources.

Pascarella Figure 4
Figure 4: Illustrative Concept View of “Conservation Area”. Source: West Parish Meeting House Historic Site Preservation Plan and Cultural Landscape Assessment. Rendering by Bethany Harre, Landscape Designer.

The proposed concept design/treatment plan (Figure 5) limits vehicular access to an area outside the Conservation Area but provides access to a grass parking area bounded by wooden post and rail fencing.  Pedestrian access is limited to an existing breach in the stone wall. To interpret both landscape use and ethnographic components of this site, the proposed treatment recommends installation of 26-foot tall posts to demarcate the four corners of the meeting house site. This “ghost structure” of the meeting house serves as a 21st century sculptural feature so that visitors have a visual image of the footprint, height, and location of the building. The height of these posts is based on historic documentation for the height of the meeting house from ground to roofline. Interpretive signage is placed outside of the Conservation Area near the parking area and at the entrance to the proposed wetland boardwalk. Such installation of interpretive signs for educational purposes promotes sustainability awareness and education. Native buffer plantings are suggested for the eastern boundary line to restrict access from this area and to screen views to 20th century structures.  Prior to the installation of the tall posts, the fencing, signage, and plantings, more detailed archaeological investigations must be completed. 

Pascarella Figure 5
Figure 5: Overview map of proposed Treatment Plan/Concept Design. Source: AutoCAD drawing from composite plan maps by Town of Westport. James Gibbs AIA Architect and Landscape Elements LLC.

By maintaining pervious surfaces within the project site; using native meadow grasses, wildflowers and forbs; and maintaining open space, the project meets LEED criteria: SSC5.1 Site Development, Protect or Restore Habitat, and SSC5.2 Site Development, Maximize Open Space.  The project also complies with  SITES (TM) criteria for protection of floodplain function, preserving habitat, providing outdoor spaces for social interaction, and providing views of vegetation and quiet outdoor areas.

A number of additional LEED Criteria and  SITES (TM) Guidelines were also met through the proposed concept design/treatment plan.  Through the recommended use of pervious grass surface for the parking area and the use of wood chippings from site tree removals for trail surfaces, the project meets LEED Criteria SSC5.1 Site development, Protect or Restore Habitat and SSC7.1 Heat Island Effect, Non-roof. The addition of buffer screening along the eastern property line composed of native trees and shrubs meets LEED Criteria SSC5.1 Site development, Protect or Restore Habitat, and  SITES (TM) criteria for reuse and/or restoration of plant communities native to an ecosystem. Recommendations for the use of locally available  Forest Stewardship Council certified wood for boardwalks, signposts, and fencing meets LEED and  SITES (TM) criteria for the use of certified wood and regional materials.  The project also meets  SITES (TM) criteria for protection of floodplain function, management of storm water, and use of recycled organic matter during maintenance operations.  Additionally, the plan does not recommend installation of lighting for night use which meets LEED Criteria SSC8 Light pollution reduction. 

Historic Preservation and Sustainability

Although LEED Criteria and  SITES (TM) Guidelines are new introductions to design professions, professionals in historic and cultural landscape preservation have continually documented and respected the concepts of sustainability.  Cultural landscape preservation work by its very nature “treats” landscapes and properties in ways that are appropriate for preserving the integrity of the site and its resources. Hence, treatments that require extensive clearing of vegetation and disturbance of earth or the introduction of materials that are inappropriate to the character of the place are not a part of the historic landscape preservation toolbox.

The final recommendations within the preservation plan provides a guide for the Town of Westport and the HDC for securing the property’s natural and archaeological resources, providing an educational experience that highlights a piece of Westport’s Colonial history. Preserving the archaeological resources and the cultural landscape elements at the West Parish Meeting House Historic Site meets national standards for both preservation and sustainability.

Elena M. Pascarella, ASLA, is the principal of Landscape Elements LLC, which is based in southeastern Connecticut. Ms. Pascarella serves as HALS liaison to the Connecticut and Rhode Island ASLA Chapters as well as at-large member to the executive board of the Connecticut Chapter. She can be reached at emp@landscapeelementsllc.com.

 
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CONTENTS


Letter from the Chair
West Parish Meeting House Historic Site, Westport, Connecticut: Historic Preservation and Sustainability
What’s in the Water: Vendome Well, Chickasaw National Recreation Area, Sulphur, Oklahoma
The End of an Era: The Ten Year Anniversary of the Laurance S. Rockefeller Preserve Donation
The Historic Waterpower System of North Family, Mount Lebanon Shaker Village: A Model of Sustainability (HALS NY-7)
 

 

Andrew Kohr, ASLA, Chair
(678) 689-2377
adkohr@gmail.com

Earen Hummel, ASLA, Vice Chair
(970) 484-6073
ehummel@bellefontainecemetery.org  

Tina Bishop, ASLA, Chair-Elect
(303) 477-5244
tina@mundusbishop.com

David Driapsa, ASLA, HALS Coordinator
(239) 591-2321
agarden@naples.net