Get to know ... Tom Nissley
Published 11:01 pm, Sunday, June 19, 2016
NEW CANAAN — For the past several months, the historic home at 8 Ferris Hill has generated headlines and debate around town after its previous owner proposed razing it.
At the center of the conversation, and leading the effort to save the home, has been longtime New Canaan resident Tom Nissley, who recently bought the house with his wife, Emily, to save it from demolition.
Nissley spoke with the New Canaan News this week in front of the fireplace at his newly acquired home. Nissley said the home was once owned by the Hoyts, a founding family of New Canaan who lived here 50 years before the Revolutionary War.
Nissley discussed his plans for the home’s future, his love of history, and the importance and significance of a preservation easement recently granted by the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation.
What is exactly does the preservation easement mean for the future of the house?
It means that the house cannot be torn down and that any adjustments to it have to be approved by the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation, who are monitoring the easement. And that comes with the land records. When you buy the house, you get the easement with it. It’s a real clincher, in a way.
Do you think people take historic homes such as this for granted at times?
Oh yes I do. That’s why the preservation easement is so important. Because if you have a property and you want it to still be there, the only way to guarantee it is to put this easement on it. One reason people don’t do it is it depreciates the value, or makes it harder to sell. So less people are interested, theoretically.
How many similar historic houses are left in New Canaan?
There are at least 12. And in all fairness, there is such a thing as a house wearing out. It might be eaten by bugs, or a piece of the structure might give way and the rest of the house goes with it. And there are times when it’s really hard to reconstruct. But this house is fairly solid.
What is the historical significance of the house?
It was built in either 1731 or 1735. Or somewhere between the two.
That’s one of the ways we got the state register nomination ... because of the culture and history of the house. The people who lived here were members of the Hoyt family, who were one of the first families who came to New Canaan.
The families who ultimately settled New Canaan mostly came here to farm. They were either members of the parish in Norwalk or the parish in Stamford. From either one, it’s a long trek from New Canaan and in those days you had to go to church. So Canaan Parish was founded by people who said, ‘We can’t keep doing that.’ That was happening around 1720, around the same time that this house was built. Different members of the Hoyt family lived in this house and they were signers of the original Canaan Parish covenant.
There’s another historical connection mentioned in the state registration. There was a man who was named either Onesimus Brown or Onesimus Comstock and he is supposed to be the last slave born in Connecticut. He was freed at some point, but didn’t know what to do about that, so he did not leave the family that he’d been with. At least some people believe that he lived, for a time, in this house and that his grave is over the hill in Canoe Hill Cemetery.
Where did the interest in New Canaan history come from?
Well, I personally own another house from 1738 down on Buttery Road. But I’m not sure that that started my interest — I just like history, particularly about old houses, wherever they are. I don’t think they belong just to the people who own them. I think they belong also to the people that lived there before and the stories that exist around them. And that’s a very tricky business because if you have your name on the deed, you own the house and that’s fair to say. And you can plant what kind of flowers you want in the front yard and do whatever. But there’s still a sense that particularly these really old houses represent the history of this town.
What are your plans for the house?
We’re going to rent it as soon as we can. Our intention is ultimately to sell it to someone who wants to live in a historic house.