Architect works to save history

Mar. 11--SEYMOUR -- Joe Migani, a 55-year-old MIT-educated architect, walked up to the construction site dressed in leather shoes, gray flannel pants, an oxford shirt and a bow tie.

"We are participating in a living historical tradition," he said, looking and sounding like a jovial professor as he stepped over a mud puddle. "We have a treasure that we want to enhance in the present so people can participate in the past." The treasure to which Migani referred is the 1917 Belkin Building, but no one ever calls it that. For three generations, it was the Eckhart Furniture store. When Migani bought it three years ago from the Irving and Ethel Eckhart estate, the building was almost too far gone to salvage. The roof leaked badly and the structure was, in architecture jargon, "over load." In other words, the building would eventually collapse under its own weight. Migani set out to save it. By August, according to Migani's plan, the old Eckhart Furniture store will be reborn.

The upper floors will have 12 apartments for senior citizens on low incomes. On the street level will be three storefronts and a space for a small bistro. To make his vision work, Migani has had to reengineer the entire building. Original beams, joists, and framing have been reinforced. Fire stairways had to be created, and an elevator shaft added. The project total budget is $2.6 million.

"It would have been much easier to tear down," Migani said while leading recent tour.

He started in back, through the door of what appears to be the building's rear entrance. In fact, it is an 1870, two-story house that originally sat where the Belkin building now exists. The house was moved at some point, Migani said, and later rotated and attached to the Belkin building. Stepping into the back room, Migani felt the historical weight of the space. "Picture this is as a bistro," he said, standing on planks covering the dirt floor. "You're sitting in a place built (a few) years after Lincoln died. "Is that richer than sitting in a Starbucks -- Yes. Every day, I'd say yes."

"I think what he's doing is wonderful," said Jon Szuch, chairman of the Seymour Economic Development Commission. "There should be more people like him."

Szuch said Migani has a "true entrepreneurial spirit."

"It's nice to see that he wants to restore a part of Seymour to its original heritage," he said.

In his business, a partnership with his wife, Joan O'Riordan, Migani takes on projects that have a mission other than making money.

They work for cities, towns and housing authorities, not single-family home or shopping center developers. They are drafting the plans for the new Spooner House homeless shelter in Shelton. They also worked on restoring the oldest residence in Stratford, the 1670 Perry house. New London hired them for restoration of a mill owned by John Winthrop, Connecticut's first governor. So when they took on their own development project, Migani and O'Riordan looked to restore their downtown. Their first development transformed a blighted block into the 16,000-square-foot Seymour Antiques Co. run by their daughter, Pia Migani. It started on an impulse in 1995, after Migani heard a developer announce at a public meeting that he wanted to tear down the block. The next day, Migani raised the offer for the building to $100,000 and walked away with the title.

"I came home to my wife and said 'Guess what I did -- I just bought a building.' "

The restoration took eight years of sweat equity, about 20 loan rejections from area banks, countless hours of applying for grants and all the patience Migani's family could spare. "The most successful thing about that project is that I'm still married," Migani said. One measure of his commitment to reusing old materials is the wood he used for trim in the top floor suite, where he and his wife put their offices.

The southern yellow pine was salvaged from his high school, Notre Dame in West Haven, where he had worked on a job that involved replacing gymnasium bleachers. After plucking the wood from the garbage, he and a few interns milled it into baseboards, door trim, and countertops.

"I even found my initials where I had put them in school," Migani said. Migani said the projects would have gone nowhere without flexibility from the town, which allowed him to run his business above the Seymour Antiques building before it was upgraded. The son of a carpenter, who was born in Derby, Migani speaks with regret when he compares Seymour's willingness to work toward preserving its old buildings with the demolition underway in his native city.

"My buildings are a shadow of what they are taking down," Migani said. "Saying you have to tear them down, it's a frame of mind."

While Derby is betting on a single developer to recreate its downtown with a massive project, Migani is taking relatively smaller approach -- building by building. The end goal, he said, is making Seymour a destination for antique shoppers.

"We have an attitude toward history," he said. "We hope it is contagious."

Matthew Higbee, who covers the Naugatuck Valley, can be reached at 736-5440.

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