By CHRISTINE STUART
LITCHFIELD, Conn. — In the center of this quaint New England town, where the green is surrounded by antique shops, boutiques and restaurants, not much changes without the blessing of the Historic District Commission.
In the past, the commission has gone so far as to order the removal of flower boxes from the front of homes. And it is entangled in a lawsuit initiated by a homeowner who replaced a 19th-century door with a window.
But little has rattled this community like plans by Chabad Lubavitch of Litchfield County, an Orthodox Jewish organization, to turn a Victorian house into the town’s first synagogue.
Rabbi Joseph Eisenbach, the spiritual leader of the Chabad, presented his plans — which include replacing the slate foundation with stone and building a steeple to display the Star of David — to the commission last month, and was met with stiff opposition.
According to minutes of the meeting, the commission’s chairwoman, Wendy Kuhne, “noted her own objections to the stone, which is not indigenous to the district, feels the clock tower is not appropriate, and the Star of David may not comply with the district.” She also said the proposed stained glass was “an inaccurate feature based on the history of the building.”
Rabbi Eisenbach said he was surprised by the objections. “Every synagogue in the world has Jerusalem stone in it,” he said. He also said that a Methodist church two doors down has a steeple and a cross as well as stained glass windows featuring the Star of David from an old synagogue in New Haven.
Rabbi Eisenbach’s lawyer, Peter Herbst Sr., said he hoped there would be more understanding about Chabad Lubavitch’s position regarding the religious elements, “which are protected under the Constitution.”
Mrs. Kuhne declined to comment on Thursday, saying that she was restrained legally from commenting on matters before the commission and that all questions should be referred to its lawyer, H. James Stedronsky.
Mr. Stedronsky said it was the commission’s job to decide what architectural changes were appropriate for the buildings in the historic district, which encompasses about one square mile in the center of town. He said the commission was not allowed to consider the use of the property.
But based on Mrs. Kuhne’s statements and the commission’s reaction, Rabbi Eisenbach said he was concerned that “some of the basic elements of our Jewish architecture and traditions are being denied.”
Mr. Herbst said on Thursday that he was confident that Rabbi Eisenbach and the commission would find a place for “architectural elements essential to the religion.”
According to town records, Chabad Lubavitch bought the property, built in 1872, for $375,000 in 2005. The organization already has a community center here.
Despite the dispute, Rabbi Eisenbach said, the town had been “very welcoming” and that “you can’t always abide by what the media makes the town look like.” On Wednesday, as he talked to a reporter outside the Victorian house at 85 West Street, Diane McAlpin, one of six burgesses that help govern the borough, approached him to complain that he was giving the town a bad image by publicizing the struggle.
Mrs. McAlpin then said Chabad Lubavitch, a tax-exempt organization, could not get the commission to approve its renovation plan because of liens on the property.
“Nobody has an issue with what’s going to happen here,” Mrs. McAlpin said. “This town embraces everything.”
After speaking with Mrs. McAlpin, Rabbi Eisenbach went to Town Hall, where he learned that there was an outstanding tax bill. Nancy Southard, the town tax collector, said the taxes were from the previous owner of the property. Instead of pursuing the matter legally, Rabbi Eisenbach wrote a check to the town for more than $10,000.
As he left Town Hall, he described Mrs. McAlpin’s visit as a blessing because he wanted to make sure everything was in order before the next commission meeting on Oct. 18.
This was not Rabbi Eisenbach’s first tangle with the town’s arbiters of community taste. In 1996 he asked the commission to allow him to place a nine-foot-tall menorah on the town green for Hanukkah, but according to published reports, several local officials complained it would destroy the purity of the green, and others questioned why outsiders had chosen Litchfield for the display.
The town ultimately approved the placement of the menorah. But Rabbi Eisenbach said he ended up taking it down because he felt it had been vandalized when borough officials extinguished the flames. The officials said they extinguished the menorah because it had been left unattended.
In the latest dust-up, not everyone is concerned about the plans for a synagogue. “It doesn’t bother me,” said Mark Murphy, the owner of Murphy’s Pharmacy on West Street. “It’s a free world.”