razing of old Moodus
building to be razed for the Moodus renewal project was the former Bernie
Brennan residence. Once the rectory of St. Bridgetís Church, the
70-year-old house was an architectural gem, boasting beautiful Gothic
window and door frames. When local resident Raymond Schmitt salvaged parts
of the house for use in his Johnsonville restoration, a few people had
second thoughts about the wisdom of destroying the old mill town of
Moodus. By then, however, it was too late to stop.
sure, not all the buildings in the renewal area were as delightful as
the Brennan house. For the most part, however, they were typical of the
type of structure now prized by towns like Moodus. Local residents
remember those buildings and the unique small-town flavor of old Moodus
and many cringe at what happened. "It hurts," says one person
who was closely associated with the renewal project. "Especially
when you see what a place like Chester is doing. It takes time and a guy
like Dave Joslow, who puts his dollars on the table, hires experts and
Chester Learned From Moodus
"What happened in Moodus saved towns like Chester
from a similar fate," says David Joslow, a Chester businessman whoís
rehabilitated many buildings in his town. "We learned from your
Joslow remembers that Chester was as
"threadbare" as Moodus. Today town buildings are in mostly
pristine condition, the houses and yards well-kept and the business
conditions relatively bullish. "Lots of people in Chester wanted to do
the same thing as what was tried in Moodus," Joslow says. "I tried
like hell to stop it." Joslowís first project was a dilapidated barn,
which he converted into attractive office space. That was the first of many
renovation projects in town. "People basically donít have lots of
imagination," he says. "You have to fix up a building or two to
make people see what an asset they have. You have to have private
Ironically, while preparations were being made for the
destruction of Moodus, just four miles away in the village of East Haddam
there was a more organic type of "redevelopment" taking place.
After the Goodspeed Opera House was renovated in 1963, saved by a spirited
fundraising and consciousness-raising campaign, the surrounding area started
to undergo a transformation as residents began prettying up their once
shabby houses and grounds and new stores sprang to life. It was an early
expression of the values that could have saved old Moodus center.
Unfortunately it happened too late to have an effect on the renewal project.
Once the town opted for urban renewal funds, fixing up
the town was no longer a viable solution. "With the influx of federal
dollars, you had to play their game," explains Jim Gibbons, an urban
planner with the UConn Extension Service in Haddam. "In order to
accomplish smaller goals, you had to follow federal regulations and
guidelines and at the time of the Moodus project urban renewal was oriented
to demolition. To many critics of the program at the time, the correct title
was Ďurban disruption.í As an outsider, I think this was part of the
problem with the Moodus project: It disrupted the neighborhood."
Around the time of the Moodus project, federal planners
shifted the emphasis to rehabilitation. "If the Moodus project had
happened later," says Gibbons, "it might have kept the merchants
in business and the residents in place. In retrospect, it would have been an
ideal project for rehabilitation."
There are some people, however, who still remember the
town as "ugly and dangerous" and about to "fall into the
river." They maintain that the project was the correct solution, that
it was necessary to eliminate the blight and give the town a fresh start.
Moodusís Sewage Problem
"I think that the people who are doing the crabbing
about redevelopment have forgotten what the place looked like," says
former first selectman Charles Wolf Jr. "If they could go back and
remember what it smelled like on a hot August day Ė It just wasnít good.
The sewage problem was a strong factor in fostering the
passage of the urban renewal plan. The record, however, clearly shows that
the situation would have been correctable without requiring the wholesale
demolition of the town. In 1967, a survey by a state sanitary engineer had
found the Moodus River to be contaminated in 21 areas. According to town
records, only four of these points were within the renewal area. The other
17 were corrected by summer of 1968. If rehabilitation had been opted for,
it would have been possible, those involved with the project now admit, to
have installed a communal septic system to bring the buildings up-to-code.
The newly enacted sanitary code could have been used as
an enforcement tool and low-interest loans or a grant could have financed
the project. Still another alternative at the time was the installation of a
full-blown sewer system. At that time, the federal Economic Development
Administration, the Farmers Home Administration and HUD all gave grants and
loans to establish such systems.
"There should have been more concern with the
individual structures and not so much concern with the sewage,"
concludes Jim Gibbons. "You can engineer anything."
In hindsight, itís clear that project guidelines deeply
affected the perception of the problems and the possible solutions.
"The line between something structurally safe or something needing
demolition was left to the local surveyors," notes Jim Gibbons.
"In many cases, it was not an ironclad form. The goal of the program
then was demolition and the creation of marketable parcels of land, which in
many cases necessitated clearance of structures incompatible with re-use.
One of the guidelines of the program was that a certain percentage of the
structures had to have major structural deficiencies. You put yourself in a
Was Moodus a Slum?
Although the survey taken to judge the condition of the
buildings within the renewal area is missing from project records, a careful
reading of the real estate appraisals done for each piece of property in the
project shows that for the most part the structures were far from the slum
buildings that were described on the renewal application. The appraisers
rated most of the primary structures in "fair" to "good"
condition. Additionally, the photographs attached to each appraisal picture
buildings that in most cases would today be good candidates for
"The buildings in Moodus were very similar to those
in Chester -- some built on stilt foundations, some close together,"
says David Joslow. "If you stringently interpret the stateís building
and fire codes, you can justify ripping down any building that was built
more than five years ago. People can use that to justify anything. They use
administrative regulations to get their own way."
Local resident Sam Rogow, an early opponent of the
project, put it this way: "You donít rip down your house if it needs
repairs. You repair it."
"We lived here day-in and day-out," says Joe
Pear, who with his brother Sam owned the general store in old Moodus.
"We didnít realize what we had. People from out of the area always
thought we had a quaint town. "You only realize what you have when you
see what others have. What we have now is nothing."
Might Have Been
"I thought at the time that we should have taken
what we had and made it into a nice community," says Pear. "Each
merchant would have had more pride and competition would increase." Ray
McMullen, who was the townís druggist for 37 years, agrees. "I donít
think the town quite realized what was taking place. I think that given a
chance, Charlie Bernstein, Sam Pear and the others might have fixed up the
town rather than what happened. It was a homey town."
Most people agree with Pear and McMullen. Given enough
time and whatís happened in surrounding communities, itís likely that
the area would have eventually improved by private initiative, either by the
then-present or future homeowners and businesspeople, "as the merchants
get older, they sell their businesses and buildings one by one. You just go
from one generation to the next."
"In hindsight, rehabilitation and selective
demolition to provide for off-street parking was the way to go," says
Gibbons. "More selective demolition might have saved the area. It might
have kept the merchants in business a little longer and they would have had
a chance to pass their businesses on to new blood. A lot would have been
accomplished through the use of painting, landscaping, coordinated signing
and necessary road improvements. It would have been more in keeping with
what has since happened in the town. This would have been preferable to
praying that those people once tossed out of their stores and homes would
remain. What you basically did was to say, Ďweíre going to get rid of
"I just wish that the project had taken place a few
years later," says Gibbons. "When the philosophy of preservation
was prominent and when the feeling that every town was going to boom wasnít
so strong. Maybe in retrospect, we could have seen what private enterprise
would have done. Maybe urban renewal wasnít the way to go in Moodus. Maybe
the state could have been persuaded to make some road improvements and so
Itís debatable whether the extensive road improvements
that were made were necessary or whether more modest improvements would have
worked. "If you provided some off-street parking and relieved some
congestion, perhaps the road system wasnít so bad," says Gibbons.
"What you ended up with was a highway. There are some planners who feel
that congestion helps to make an area successful. Look at the Goodspeed
area. That certainly isnít an ideal traffic pattern, but it works."
"We have lots of people in Chester that say Chester
isnít viable," notes David Joslow, "that thereís no enough
parking. Well, Iím a city boy and this parking situation doesnít seem
bad to me. I donít mind walking a block or two. You donít need a thruway
Other Options for Moodus
There clearly were other options besides urban renewal
available to the town around that time. It was a time of lavish spending at
the federal level. A guidebook published by the Independent Bankers
Association of America in the early seventies listed nearly 1,000 programs
at the federal level for rural developments. In addition, Connecticut had
its own, more modest urban renewal program where the state and the town
split the cost fifty-fifty. There were still other alternatives to wholesale
destruction: Special zoning regulations combined with low-interest loans
could have spurred the fixing up of the area under a less ambitious renewal
program. Also, the town could have opted for special tax assessments or
bonding to finance off-street parking or road improvements.
The renewal of Moodus was a case of unfortunate timing, a
result of the myopic view of "progress" that was popular at the
time but later fell out of favor. Many townspeople now agree with Walter
Bielot, who once owned a small grocery store adjacent to the renewal area.
"In hindsight, it would have been beneficial to fix up old Moodus
Center and redevelop across the street. We would have had both the old and
"A rehabilitated Moodus Center that retained
neighborhood characteristics and preserved unique structures would have been
very compatible with the Goodspeed area," Gibbons says. "People
attending the Goodspeed would be drawn to the area. But it was too early to
predict this." The old town on the hill is gone forever. What took its
place is, in the view of many residents, a poor substitute. "Whatís
valuable to people are things that add to the quality of life," says
Joslow. "A sense of community, human scale, sidewalks, trees, these are
whatís attractive to people. Anyone can have a strip shopping plaza. What
you did in Moodus was to disperse the town. Thatís very sad."
"Itís a shame," says town resident Peg
Sievers, "that the children of today donít even know what we had Ė
that this town existed."