Railroad Station rises again, an ornate tribute to lost era

The larger Ridgefield Supply project involves a total of 13 buildings and will go on for another year or so. The station building is expected to be done sooner, and will serve as a window showroom. — Macklin Reid photo

The larger Ridgefield Supply project involves a total of 13 buildings and will go on for another year or so. The station building is expected to be done sooner, and will serve as a window showroom. — Macklin Reid photo

Fanciful and nearly forgotten, the Ridgefield Railroad Station, where passengers got on and off trains from the 1870s to the 1920s, is pretty much gone. But a look-alike has risen not far from where it stood and has begun catching eyes with its ornate Victorian trim — including restored roof brackets that are the last remnants of the original station.

“I got really excited when I looked up at it today and saw the old station starting to reappear,” Dave Scott of the Ridgefield Historical Society said Monday.

Peggy Block called The Press Tuesday to report workers on the station roof, carrying sections of “gingerbread” trim.

Scott, an architect, was a consultant on the station project, undertaken as part of the Price family’s redevelopment of the entire Ridgefield Supply property on Prospect Street.

For decades the station building was a forgotten part of the Ridgefield Supply site, used mostly for storage.

Its glory days were the late-19th and early-20th Century, when there was still passenger service to the center of town — before the automobile began eroding the importance of trains.

“The railroad stations that were built in that period, the late 1800s, were quite ornate,” Scott said.

Having a railroad station said something about a small town.

“It was the cutting edge,” he said.

“When I stood out there today and looked up at it I felt I was back there in that day, watching the building go up — which was the most important place in town in those days.

“The railroad really is what built our town — all these rich folks from New York City came up and built their country cottages.”

Local historian and former Press editor Jack Sanders’ RidgefieldHistory.com offers these notes on the station in its timeilne:

  • June 25, 1870 – The first train arrives in Ridgefield center on the new branch line from Beers Station [Branchville]. Building the four-mile line has taken a year and has cost the Danbury and Norwalk Rail Road $250,000, as much as it spent 19 years earlier to build a track all the way from Norwalk to Danbury. The station was probably ready when the line opened.
  • Aug. 8, 1925 – The last passenger train from Branchville arrives at Ridgefield station.
  • Feb. 8 1964 – The last freight train comes up the branch line from Branchville.

Sanders also pointed to L. Peter Cornwall’s In the Shore Line’s Shadow: The Six Lives of the Danbury & Norwalk Railroad, which views the ornate Ridgefield station as perhaps an indulgence by the railroad’s head man, LeGrand Lockwood — who lived in what is now Norwalk’s Lockwood-Matthews Mansion, another local gem of Victorian architecture.

“In dimensions and trim it was far more elaborate than existing D&N station buildings, apparently reflecting the wishes of LeGrand Lockwood,” Cornwall wrote.

The tracks from Branchville to the town center ran where the “rail trail” now provides a recreational footpath. Trains crossed Florida Road, Cooper Hill Road and Ivy Hill Road on the uphill route, and entered the village along what is now Sunset Lane — but used to be called Railroad Avenue.

The larger Ridgefield Supply project involves a total of 13 buildings and will go on for another year or so. The station building is expected to be done sooner, and will serve as a window showroom.

The original station building was in such disrepair that a project that began as a restoration morphed into what is essentially the construction of a replica. But a standard of visual integrity has been maintained, despite the reality that almost all of the building is new.

And, the roof brackets — arguably the building’s distinguishing architectural detail — were saved.

“Those are the original brackets,” said Mike Gulick of Gulick Construction from Norwalk, general contractor on the job. ”We had the brackets restored.”

The other gingerbread is replica — but done with painstaking attention to accuracy.

“All the trim detail, the scroll work, we literally cut a section out of the building as we demolished it, so we could reproduce, to scale, everything,” Gulick said. “You’re looking at a perfect 1870 restoration — down to the flat roof.”

“The original roof actually pitched and drained towards the middle,” said Craig Sinclair, vice president of Ridgefield Supply. “They saved the water in a cistern and used it in steam engines. And by 1910 they put a gable roof on it and filled in the flat roof.”

It's all coming together over on Prospect Street. — Mack Reid photo

It’s all coming together over on Prospect Street. — Mack Reid photo

The design calls for railroad tracks to be recreated along the front of the old station house, which is perpendicular to the project’s main retail structure.

“They’ll have a brick sidewalk, and then the tracks, and it’ll convert to concrete in front of the building,” said Gulick.

As a builder, he’s having fun.

“This is awesome. It’s so many different pieces” Gulick said. “You have historical replication married with the latest technology.”

Scott enjoyed advising on the project.

“They saved as much as they could,” he said. “When you see the windows go in with the old ornate trim around it, it’s going to look just like when it was built, which I find quite exciting.”

A member of the Ridgefield Historical Society’s board, Scott was the architect on the relocation and reconstruction of the society’s Scott House — no known relation to his family — which was moved from Catoonah Street to Sunset Lane, the old Railroad Avenue.

He was also involved in an earlier effort to save the old railroad station by moving it from Ridgefield Supply to a location off Governor Street to serve as a home for RMAC, the student music and arts group. That project was the baby of Linda Haines, who headed at RMAC at the time. It never came to be, but Scott feels Haines’ vision started something.

“She helped preserve that building because she showed everybody it was worth saving,” he said.

Now, the recreated station will become a significant part of the town’s visual landscape, Scott thinks.

“It going to be a landmark,” he said.

“I just think it looks great. It’s fancy. It’s ornate. It’s kind of funny. And it makes you smile.”

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