COVENTRY — With the Town Council’s unanimous vote this week to authorize town staff to seek proposals for demolishing the Byron Read Building, a bit of Coventry’s history could soon be just a memory.
Located on Washington Street, the building was constructed around 1882 by local businessman and undertaker Byron Read. It housed a mortuary for many years, as well as various other shops whose weathered signs still hang out front.
The building has a storied past. And because of its poor condition, Interim Town Manager Ed Warzycha said, it “needs to come down.”
“The building’s a wreck,” Warzycha told councilors during their meeting Monday, adding that he sees razing the ramshackle structure as the only viable option for dealing with it.
Town Solicitor Nicholas Gorham echoed that, adding that the building, which sits beside one of the town’s busiest streets, is “on the verge of collapse.”
“If you’ve been down to that area and seen this building, it’s truly frightening,” he said.
The building’s shattered and boarded-up windows are surrounded by peeling siding, missing shingles and creeping vegetation; the floors inside are riddled with holes. A crumbling foundation poses the biggest safety hazard, however.
“It’s eventually going to cause the whole building to come down,” Gorham said.
Around a year and a half ago, Coventry received a court order to demolish the building. To be granted that order, Gorham said, the town had to get a qualified engineer’s opinion on the building’s structural integrity.
“And we obtained such an opinion,” he said. “His opinion was, yeah it’s going to fall down — there’s no question about it — and soon.”
The building’s current owners owe the town around $150,000 in back taxes and sewer assessments. But the town doesn’t actually know who the building belongs to, Warzycha said, adding that “a huge amount of time” has been spent trying to determine its ownership.
Rhode Island’s tax sale law is written in a way that makes it possible for buyers to essentially abandon a a property by using general partnerships and limited liability companies, Gorham said. That can make it difficult to know who exactly owns a building.
“We are trying to identify the actual people who own these companies and get them to chip in,” Gorham said.
Warzycha added that a recent tax sale saw no interested buyers.
Warzycha is unsure exactly how much it’ll cost the town to demolish the building, but he estimated it will cost around $75,000. Gorham added that the town will continue searching for the building’s owners, but it will likely be up to the town to foot the entire bill.
Council Vice President Jennifer Ludwig said she spoke with residents who indicated the building could potentially be salvaged, and asked Warzycha whether or not he thought that would be possible.
“There are some people in town who definitely don’t want to see it come down,” Warzycha said. “Unfortunately, structurally, this building is not sustainable, it’s not repairable at any kind of reasonable cost. It has to be taken down — there’s no other option at this point.”
Council President Ann Dickson said she, too, has heard from residents, including one who expressed concern over the town allowing its historic buildings to fall into such states of disrepair.
“We have four historic commissions and/ or societies in this town,” Dickson said.
There’s the Coventry Historic Preservation Commission, a town board; the Coventry Historical Society, which manages the Read School House and old Summit library; the Western Rhode Island Civic Historical Society, which owns the Paine House Museum; and the Nathanael Greene Homestead Association.
Dickson said she’s encouraged the groups to collaborate “to gain synergy for preserving Coventry’s historic legacy.”
“I put out a call to these groups that are in our town to try to partner together, have discussions,” she continued, “and look at what needs to be preserved and take care of these things before we get to the point where we have to have resolutions to demolish buildings that are an important part of our heritage.”