Historic house faces uncertain future

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It is a place steeped in history, with roots in the Revolutionary War era and ties to some of the area’s most prominent families.

Now, the Nathan Westcott House on Scituate Avenue is up for sale – and there are fears it may be razed in the near future.

“We don’t have that many pre-Revolutionary War houses or buildings of any kind left in Cranston … I feel morally obligated to do everything that I can to stop [the potential demolition],” said Sandra Moyer, president of the Cranston Historical Society, who has been exploring potential avenues to preserve the structure.

Built circa 1770, the Westcott House – which is named for its builder, and has an official address of 150 Scituate Ave. – is adjacent to Joy Homestead. The Westcotts, Moyer said, were among the state’s earliest settlers.

The home sits on the Washington-Rochambeau Revolutionary Route, along which French troops passed on their way to meet American forces commanded by George Washington in 1781. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in the late 1980s.

Moyer said during the early 19th century, the home was part of a small village known as Joytown – an area that provided “a place for artisans and tradespeople to live.” At different points over the years, members of the Fenner and Knight families owned the home.

Moyer said the historical society also owned the Westcott House at one point and was offered the chance to reacquire it when it last went on the market roughly four years ago. The associated expenses, however, made doing so unfeasible.

The home’s most recent owner, LiQiong Zheng, purchased it in 2016 for $80,000, according to city property records. Her stewardship would prove profoundly damaging.

Zheng, who authorities say is currently a fugitive from justice, was indicted earlier this year on federal drug charges after the discovery of scores of marijuana plants being grown inside the historic home. As part of the drug-growing operation, the interior of the home was gutted – including the removal of the floor separating its two first and second floors.

As a result of Zheng’s indictment and subsequent flight, the home has been seized by the U.S. Marshals Service. Now, it is on the market again as part of the agency’s asset forfeiture and sale program.

The sale was contracted to Colliers International and then subcontracted to Doorley Real Estate Inc. The price of the home is listed as $126,500.

At press time, the U.S. Marshals Service had not responded to an inquiry regarding the status of the sale. But Moyer said her understanding is that at least two parties have expressed interested in the property, and a buyer may have been selected on Aug. 2.

Whoever acquires the property will face several challenges. In addition to being unlivable at present, Moyer said the home requires a sewer hookup and has a lien for unpaid taxes.

As a result, Moyer said she believes demolition of the existing home to make way for a new structure is the most likely outcome.

The property at 150 Scituate Ave. is zoned as A-6 residential, which allows for single-family dwellings on lots with a minimum area of 6,000 square feet. The city’s property records indicate the lot encompasses 7,280 square feet. The current valuation of the land and building is $115,900.

Since the drug-growing operation and interior damage at the Westcott House came to light earlier this year, Moyer has spoken with a number of officials at the local, state and national levels in an effort to find a way to preserve the building.

“In trying to save it, I had a lot of avenues to try,” she said.

Initial inquires were directed to the National Parks Service and the office of U.S. Sen. Jack Reed. While applicable grant programs do exist, she said, the timing means there is virtually no chance funding would become available in time to acquire the property.

“All of them get back to me … but they really have nothing that they can offer. There’s no [readily available] pot of money that’s out there,” she said.

Moyer said she has also spoken with officials at the Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission regarding the matter. She said there may be a means of seeking a review of potential future plans for the Westcott House through a provision of the National Historic Preservation Act, although further study of that possibility is needed.

Locally, Moyer said she has been in contact with Mayor Allan Fung and Citywide Councilman Steve Stycos in hopes of finding some solution.

Specifically, she said, Stycos helped to explore the feasibility of seeking a zoning change to include the Westcott House within the historic district that includes Joy Homestead. Doing so, she said, would prevent its potential demolition.

The cost and time involved in the process, however – combined with the uncertainty surrounding the property’s future ownership – make that possibility unfeasible at present.

Moyer said at this point, her hopes rest largely “two small glimmers of hope.”

One is the potential late entry into the process of a person or entity with the resources to preserve the home.

The other is moving the Westcott House to the nearby grounds of Joy Homestead. Moyer acknowledged, however, that such a process would be costly and reliant on the agreement of whoever becomes the property’s new owner.

“We’ve got a lot of support,” Moyer said, “but nothing that could save [the house].”

Fung said administration has been working with Moyer since the start of the process, and reached out to the U.S. Marshals Service and the U.S. attorney’s office to “express the interest of the historical society.” He, too, noted the difficulties involved in identifying resources and potential avenues within such a short timeframe.

“Unfortunately, it looks like it will be sold to a private person and not the historical society … Hopefully, whoever’s going to purchase it wants to keep it in the historical context,” he said.

Fung said once the property’s ownership is settled, he will “try to see if we can facilitate a discussion where maybe that home can be moved onto the Joy Homestead ground.”

“I’m here to help in whatever aspect,” he added.

Stycos praised Moyer’s efforts to preserve the Westcott House.

“I’ve tried to be supportive. I hope that the building can be saved and not torn down … It seems unfortunate that there isn’t some federal law that gives the municipality or the state the right of first refusal,” he said.

Moyer said the potential fate of the Westcott House is particularly disheartening given the loss of other historic buildings in the city in recent years, including the Knightsville Meetinghouse.

Regardless of the outcome, however, she said she and the society remain committed to their mission – to “protect, preserve and promote Cranston’s history.”

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