Widow's walk is rising anew

The “widow’s walk” missing for probably 100 years atop Ridgefield Town Hall is being returned — or, replicated. But don’t look for a bereft figure, staring out to sea, searching the horizon for a homecoming sail. It’s strictly decorative, unreachable from inside the building, so it’s really not a widow’s walk.

“It was meant as sort of a crown, you might call it, on top of town hall,” said architect Dave Scott, who did drawings for the restoration project based on old photographs that show town hall with the railing at the top.

“It was the most prominent building in town, other than the churches, perhaps. So, we want to bring it back to its original appearance,” he said.

“It’s a restoration of the original ornamental roof railing, would be a more correct way of calling it,” Scott added. “But everybody calls it the ‘widow’s walk.’”

The project has been in the works for some time.

“Mike Wise concocted the idea two years ago and asked me if I’d do the drawing, and I was delighted,” Scott said. “Mike did all the railings on the Lounsbury House, so he’s very experienced at this kind of work … This has really been his inspiration, his baby,” Scott said.

Wise’s plan was to first assemble the railing components in Scott’s garage, then take the assembled railing apart, bring the parts up to town hall’s roof by rented bucket truck, and reassemble the railing in place.

After the fire

Photos from the late 1890s and early 1900s — including one with town hall draped with black bunting, for an occasion believed to have been the assassination of President McKinley in 1901 — show that the railing was there, and what it looked like.

“We have many photographs with the railing in place,” Scott said.

“Town hall was built after great fire of 1895. Town hall was built the next year.”

There’s less definite evidence for when it was removed, Scott said, though he can make an educated guess.

“It probably lasted about 20 years,” Scott said. “I don’t know for a fact when it was torn off, but it was wood.”

So, the wood would be deteriorating and was probably taken off after 20 or 30 years.

“My grandfather’s house had a railing like that and it lasted into the 1940s, then it was torn off,” Scott said. The house was built in 1908.”

While the original railing was wood, and didn’t last very long as a result, the new one is going to be plastic.

“It’s PVC basically, polyvinyl chloride,” Scott said. “It’s all cut to the profiles that you need, but it’s not cut to the proper lengths, or anything. Mike has to do all that.”

No taxpayer cost

The project won’t cost the town anything.

“My mission was always to make sure the town didn’t have to pay for anything and we have succeeded,” Wise said.

Wise, fellow carpenters Mark Holzthum and Phil Mack, painter Pat Howard and architect Scott are donating their efforts.

“There may be a couple of other carpenters I know helping me,” Wise said. “Doing this because they think it’s kinda cool.”

But even with donated labor, there are expenses to cover — and two donor organizations are contributing to the cause.

“It’s over $40,000,” Scott said when asked about the cost. “But who can say what Mike Wise’s labor is going to be on it, and he’s donating it. Just as far as materials go and things like that, it’s over $35,000.”

The major donor is Fairfield County Bank, which is handling the materials, and rental of the boom lift.

“If you take what we paid for the boom lift and materials, that’s over $30,000,” Scott said.

Scott credits First Selectman Rudy Marconi with lobbying Paul McNamara of Fairfield County Bank for the donation.

The other major donor was the Ridgefield Historical Society, which is paying for the roofing work needed in connection with the project.

“They’ve been very supportive,” Scott said. “We were stuck, we couldn’t get anybody to pay for the roofing and they came through big time.”

Decorations and flags

The boom lift is needed because the area of the roof where the widow’s walk will be constructed is inaccessible from inside the building — and will remain so. Among the concerns was that if there were access, the town’s liability would increase.

“There is no access to the roof,” Scott said, “which is a disappointing to me because I was hoping they’d put Christmas trees up there, holiday decorations.”

The big trees that flank either side of the entrance to town hall are scheduled to be taken down this summer. And while Scott is not happy about that, he does think it will may increase the visibility of the new widow’s walk — especially at times when the big flag is hanging out front.

“When these trees come down, they’re going to have to find a new way to hang the flag. Rudy’s thought is to hang it horizontally, rather than vertically,” he said. “And this will make the railing more conspicuous, because the flag won’t tend to hide it.”