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Darien's Historic Preservation Doyenne

Armed with her powers of persuasion, Marian Castell saves one historic home after another—after another.

Marian Castell has spared Darien’s historic homes from the wrecker’s ball since 1981.

Wearing many hats—including Selectman, Historical Society board member and President and, since 1996, town historian—Castell credits her gifts of persuasion to her rescue of Darien’s oldest and most significant buildings.

Marian has talked owners and prospective buyers out of their plans to demolish the Hanford House (c.1802, 23 Leroy Avenue) and the Bates Bungalow (c. 1840, 701 Post Road). Each house is enjoying a second life. The diminutive Hanford House serves as a guest house and reception center for Middlesex Commons, at Marian’s suggestion. The Bates Bungalow is the home of the Community Fund of Darien. Marian participated in its restoration in 1981 by stripping and sanding the old doors.

When Marian learned the Selleck-Weed House (c.1811, 444 Mansfield Avenue) was a candidate for tear-down, she convinced the owners to leave it standing and build their new home to the rear of the property. She helped with securing Planning and Zoning approvals to achieve the preservation solution.

In 1987, she advocated for preservation of the Benjamin Weed House (c. 1785, Hollow Tree Ridge Road), which she called “a very important home with significant original material.” When a prospective buyer backed away, Marian encouraged the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation to acquire the home and fix it up for resale to an appreciative buyer. And so they did.

Where a house cannot be simply spared, Marian has persuaded those intent on demolition to dissemble old houses and reassemble them elsewhere. Indeed, the late 18th century house in which she resides with her husband, George, is a transplant from Rowayton. It arrived by barge to its new Contentment Island Road address. (It was already there when the Castells purchased it in 1970.)

In a spirit of reciprocity, Marian oversaw the disassembly of the c. 1795 Noyes Mather House, once on the Darien/Stamford line on the Post Road, to its reconstruction in Rowayton.

Marian was a key player when the town enacted a demolition delay ordinance in 1990. The ordinance puts a 90-day hold on the demolition of buildings over 50-years-old, to buy time for potential negotiations to preserve the structure or modify plans.

With each of the 312 applications for demolition filed to date, Marian was appointed to the Historic Architecture Committee by Judy Groppa (Executive Director of the Darien Historical Society) and Susan Lawrence (an architectural expert) as they inspected each structure. Of the many applications that proposed to tear down nondescript 1950s-era housing stock, the women found five historic gems worth fighting for; although each was eventually taken down, a few were dissembled for reconstruction, and a few were harvested for their valuable, antique wide boards for other building and restoration projects.

Marian credits her powers of persuasion to the private elocution classes she took as a young girl growing up in Montclair, New Jersey. They gave her confidence to speak comfortably in public, she said. Marian went on to practice her oratory skills in sessions with the Board of Selectmen, the Zoning Board of Appeals, a preservation review board in Hartford, and in meetings with commercial developers intent to “make money fast.”

Marian insists she is not an “old lady in sneakers, behaving unreasonably.”

The Wellesley graduate (Class of 1958) is eminently reasonable, and she picks her battles carefully. That is what she has had to do to attain her goal of preserving what is distinct about Darien.

“The streetscape is like fabric,” she says. “If you keep pulling out the threads, the fabric will fall apart. You become Any Town, Every Town.”

“A lot of people don’t want to put their necks out in any way,” Marian says. “But you can’t be afraid of what other people will think about you.”

The preservationist fire in Marian’s belly first flamed in 1965, when she was a young college graduate working in publishing in New York City.

She was drawn into the uproar over plans to demolish the four Brokaw townhouses at Fifth Avenue and 79th Street to make way for a 26-story apartment tower.

The controversial 11th hour demolition that took place while a Landmarks Preservation Law was on the Mayor’s desk awaiting his signature, coupled with the loss of the landmark Pennsylvania Station around the same time “got me started,” Marian recalls. “That upset me.”

With a degree in history and much art coursework behind her, Marian eventually furthered her historic preservation education as a volunteer and board member at the Mathews-Lockwood Mansion in Norwalk, arranging for lectures by experts in the field.

Now Marian researches her own masterful lectures on Darien history; she prepared one on the prominent Mather family to coincide with the Darien Land Trust’s campaign to acquire the “Mathers Meadows” on Brookside Road several years ago.

Most recently, Marian headed the Building Committee of the Historical Society during its four-year project to reconstruct the c. 1827 Scofield Barn on the Historical Society home on Old Kings Highway. The ribbon-cutting ceremony took place last month finally, after  numerous setbacks including a devastating flood.

She remains constantly on the watch for threats to the National Register Historic District she helped to create: a cluster of late 18th century to early 19th century buildings in the downtown Darien neighborhood, where the Historical Society has its headquarters in the Bates-Scofield House.

Applications to demolish historic buildings are way down this year, perhaps because of economic conditions.

Or—perhaps—because of Marian, and her formidable ability to persuade for historic preservation.

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