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A Piece Of Newtown History, Six (Or More) Feet Under



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Since becoming pastor of the Newtown United Methodist Church (NUMC), six and a half years ago, the Reverend Mel Kawakami has overseen one of the rituals of spring there — filling in the sinkholes in the front parking lot. But until last year, when a 10-by-10-foot test hole was opened up and he had the opportunity to see what lay beneath the asphalt, Rev Kawakami and many of his congregation had no idea that the ongoing problem was a piece of history buried under their feet.

“I was completely surprised,” said Rev Kawakami, “when I saw the remains of a house down there.

“We had thought it might be the old water pipeline that was broken and creating problems under the parking lot, but it was everything and the kitchen sink,” he said, filling an old foundation.

The laths, plaster, tiles, and pipes lay strewn inside what was once the basement of the Fredericka House, torn down in 1967 to make way for moving the Methodist Church from Dayton Street to its present location on Church Hill Road, in 1972.

It was not an uncommon practice in the 1960s, one of the congregants told Rev Kawakami, to collapse a house into the basement, rather than dismantle it and haul it away.

The uncovering of the house created some interest among the congregation, he said. “We wondered what the house was, who owned it, and why it was here,” Rev Kawakami said.

According to information in the Newtown Remembered series edited by Town Historian Dan Cruson, Andrea Zimmermann, and Mary Maki, and in the E.L. Johnson book, Newtown 1705 to 1918, the Fredericka House stood at 92 Church Hill Road. It was given to Elizabeth C. Sanford upon her marriage to Edmond Trowbridge Hastings Gibson, a New York broker, by her brother, David Sanford, in 1842. The Gibsons used it primarily as a summer home, and it was known at that time as the Gibson House. Among the Gibson relatives was Charles Dana Gibson, creator of the iconic Gibson Girl drawings of the 1890s.

“It was built by one of the earlier Sanford family members,” Mr Cruson said, most likely within a year or two of 1810.

The Gibson House was sold in 1926 to the First Presbyterian Church of New York City to provide a summer refuge for needy city children, and became known as the Fredericka House.

The Fredericka House functioned as a summer camp for girls, and later for both boys and girls, throughout the 1940s and 1950s.

Jessie Ceccarelli, a longtime NUMC member, recalled the large house.

“We had Youth Fellowship meetings in the house,” she said, and also remembered the church fair held on the grounds of the Fredericka House. “We would open up the house for people to see the interior, and charge $1.” 

Inside, the house had a large center fireplace that served the living room and kitchen. “It was a very old type of kitchen, but a lovely kitchen. It was a very well-made house,” Ms Ceccarelli said, “and well used.”

Behind the Fredericka House, where Wesley Learning Center is now located, was a barn/carriage house, she said.

Another NUMC member of many years, Madeline Aregonis, said that she had memories of a church tag sale held inside the Fredericka House, as well as of the carriage house being used for church purposes.

Judy (Olson) Wheeler grew up just four houses up the street from the Fredericka House, and was married to NUMC minister Reverend Bob Wheeler at the time the house was demolished.

“I remember the girls would come up from the city for about three weeks at a time. They would put on little plays in the old barn on the property. They had a little theater stage in there, and they would invite the public to come,” Ms Wheeler said. “The girls used the river for their swimming hole,” she recalled.

The congregation was not 100 percent enthusiastic about the decision to tear down the house, she remembered.

“It was a beautiful, beautiful old building with a big kitchen, and bedrooms on the second floor. It was a well-known house in town,” Ms Wheeler said.

“Those girls are all grown up of course, but I often wonder,” she said, “if any of those girls ever come back to Sandy Hook.”

A Forgotten Piece Of History

In 1963, recognizing that the growing congregation needed a church on a larger piece of property, the Newtown United Methodist Church took ownership of the Fredericka House. Four women, including a Mrs Watkins, who was a church board member, bought the house for the church, with the idea that the church would be moved from its Dayton Street location, said Ms Ceccarelli.

A few years later, the house was torn down — or rather, buried — and in 1972, the congregation took on the monumental task of moving their church building across the street.

“It was a lovely home, and not everyone was happy about [the decision to tear it down]. People admired the beauty of the house,” Ms Ceccarelli said. But a certain amount of parking was required in order to move the church, and there was no way to accommodate that without tearing down the house.

With the old home paved over, it soon became a forgotten piece of Newtown history and church history.

“The old house is still coming up to say, ‘Hello!’ Newtown changes, but history is still here,” said Rob Sibley, a member of NUMC and deputy director of planning and land use in Newtown.

The proper practice for demolition of a building, Mr Sibley said, is for it to be demolished and then disposed off.

“But historically, if you had materials and a hole, well… A majority of older homes were demolished in this way,” he said. “It was a safe old way to get rid of a structure,” Mr Sibley said, adding that most homes built in the 1700s and 1800s were unlikely to contain great amounts of any hazardous materials, as newer buildings might.

Mr Sibley became aware of the structure beneath the parking lot when he looked at the ortho cartography map from 1934, he said, and at the survey of the area.

“I saw that there used to be a structure here. As a town goes through its cycle, anything in the ground that can rot or shift will do that. Every few weeks I get a call from someone wondering ‘What’s this depression on my property?’” he said.

The sinkholes created by deconstruction of a structure — or even privy holes left behind when an outhouse was moved — are not like the naturally occurring ones that have become an interesting, recent phenomenon, Mr Sibley was quick to point out.

But construction materials disintegrating underground are apt to sink, and depressions such as the ones constantly appearing in the NUMC parking lot are bound to occur.

Rev Kawakami and the congregation would like to take care of the annoying spring ritual of patching and hoping for the best, once and for all. In order to do so, it means digging up a large portion of the front parking lot and removing the remains of Fredericka House and the basement foundation. Clean fill would replace the demolition material, and provide a more solid base for paving. But that, he worries, could be a problem.

If lead paints were used in the Fredericka House, removal would mean adhering to hazardous waste material standards, according to information he received when the test hole was excavated. That is an expensive proposition, possibly running as high as $40,000.

Most of that cost, Rev Kawakami said, would be for digging up and disposing of the debris safely.

The church could continue to “just keep doing what we’ve been doing. It is a nominal fee now, but it keeps adding up. It will just keep sinking and settling. It makes more sense in the long run,” said Rev Kawakami, “to dig it up, put in clean fill, and cover it.”

He has issued a challenge to the congregation.

“Two families from our church have donated half the cost — if we can come up with the other half. Then we could get it filled,” Rev Kawakami said.

“If we could [dig it up and fill it in] this year, it would be fabulous,” he said, as there are larger plans afoot for NUMC.

“We would like to expand our parking lot, and relocate the driveway in back to go all around Wesley Learning Center,” he said. Doing so would mean better access for emergency vehicles. It would also allow the church to fill in the bridge area that now links the school to the church, and expand the interior space for the church.

“I’m a man of faith,” Rev Kawakami said. He feels confident that the Fredericka House will soon be a footnote in the history of the church — and not one that is underfoot.

This late 1800s photograph shows the sprawling Fredericka House as it would be seen if standing in today’s NUMC parking lot and looking toward the center of Sandy Hook.
As viewed from Church Hill Road, the Fredericka House in the 1890s was still home to the Gibson family, and known locally as the Gibson House.   
The Reverend Mel Kawakami, of Newtown United Methodist Church, points out one of several sink holes in the church parking lot. An excavation of a section of the lot last year to find out why so many sinkholes occur uncovered a surprise for the minister and many church members — the remains of the historic Fredericka House, collapsed into the foundation 
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