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The Rest is History

It started in 1931 with and enterprixing woman and an old cemetery

Sarah Bush

In the year 1931, the Historical Society of the Town of Greenwich (HSTG) was officially born, with Greenwich Academy headmaster Dr. Bruce Bigelow and Judge Frederick Hubbard among the charter members. Before World War I, they had made an effort to set up an organization to house Greenwich history (they kept their own collections in one room at the Bruce Museum), but the HSTG had much broader appeal.

Over at the eastern end of Greenwich there lived a woman named Helen Binney Kitchel. She was the first Greenwich woman to become a state legislator; she had seen to it that the community of Sound Beach went back to its historic name of Old Greenwich; she led a charge against billboards; she was president of the Old Greenwich Garden Club when it took to cleaning up the Tomac Cemetery, the oldest graveyard in town, and began tracing the history of the settlers buried there. Powered by a new fascination with local history, she gathered her forces — including her mother Alice Stead Binney (wife of Crayola king Edwin Binney) — and launched the society we know today.

“Mother Binney” would reign as its first president for many years. Among other charter members was nineteen-year-old Billy Finch, who had read in the Greenwich Graphic that the garden club was looking for names of Revolutionary War soldiers buried in Tomac. He went down to Greenwich Library, dug through Spencer Mead’s history of Greenwich and came up with twenty of them. He would succeed Mrs. Binney’s long presidency in 1947, become revered as the town historian and live to see his name on a magnificent archives building in the eighties.

For its first twenty years, the fledgling historical society made its headquarters on the second floor of the Perrot Library. But then the Perrot needed the space. It was a decisive moment. The HSTG would have to relocate or, God forbid, disband.

At that time, the society had begun to lobby to preserve old houses slated for demolition because of I-95 cutting though Greenwich. Bill Finch wrote the state highway commissioner and, with members of his board, persuaded Governor John Lodge to reroute the Thruway around the 1730 Bush-Holley House in Cos Cob; later they would learn that it had been home to American Impressionist painters at the turn of the century, such as Childe Hassam, Elmer MacRae and John Twachtman.

This was the house that the HSTG wanted for its headquarters. First choice. Mrs. Elmer MacRae, the former Emma Constant Holley, had been living there for seventy-five years. Vincent Andres, curator of the American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, knew her because he had been trying to buy her eighteenth-century paneled walls for the museum. So he approached her and, with the help of her good friend Mary Lanier Day, convinced her to sell her house to the HSTG.

Mrs. MacRae loved Bush-Holley House and wanted it preserved, as did Andres. That sealed the deal. Along with it came a nineteenth-century barn, shed and washhouse.

Their real work, however, had just begun. When they took title in 1957, the society had $240 in the bank and sixty members — “sixty members that were breathing,” said then HSTG president Anson Lowitz, a born promoter in the advertising business. They got a bank loan and kicked off a campaign with a dinner at Indian Harbor Yacht Club, where the president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation remarked that Bush-Holley was one of the 300 most important houses in the United States.

Enter Claire Vanderbilt, the diminutive dynamo with “the single-mindedness of a missionary,” as Jane Kendall observed in a 1999 article she wrote for GREENWICH Magazine. Hugh and Claire Vanderbilt were living on Tomac Cove when a neighbor leaned over the fence and said: “You’ve got to come meet Anson and Sadye Beth Lowitz because they have bought this house for the Historical Society.” The neighbor was Winthrop Woman author Anya Seton. The next thing Claire knew, she was ringing doorbells in Old Greenwich, collecting quarters and half-dollars for the cause. In later years, she would be asking for thousands. Hugh called her “the biggest beggar in town.”

The old house needed huge help. “It had one electric light bulb,” noted Claire. “If you can believe that. One!” Bill Finch could. He had visited the MacRaes and sat conversing in front of the fireplace in the Old Kitchen lit with just candles and kerosene lamps.

Restoration was tedious and expensive, but within a year the site would be open to the public with Junior Leaguers serving as guides.

Moving carefully, the workers removed plaster and lathe in the Counting Room to discover wallpaper with the tax stamp of King George II (it was removed, preserved and copied by Katzenback & Warrne for retail). They uncovered original beams and Dutch fireplaces. When a renovation architect suggested removing the porches put in a hundred years after Colonial times, Anya Seton, who stood ready to endow the restoration of the doors, said: “If the porches go, I go!” After all, the Impressionists had painted from these porches. Childe Hassam’s portrait of a woman in a kimono gazing at the Mianus from an upper porch now hangs in the ladies room in the State Department Reception Rooms. Anson Lowitz dubbed Bush-Holley the “House That Never Stopped Living” because he made it a living museum, complete with candlelit dinners for supporters.

But the biggest surprise awaited them in the dilapidated barn where there had been a summer art school in the 1880s — a MacRae treasure trove. Paintings were rolled up and stowed under floorboards, in closets, in every corner. In one cupboard, they found all the records of the 1913 Armory Show, which led to an explosion of interest in the work of the American Impressionists who had boarded at Bush-Holley. When volunteer Susan Larkin began writing about what she called the Cos Cob Clapboard School of Art in 1980, she would draw national attention to the site.

A quickly formed Bush-Holley Art Group put up the money to buy the paintings from the MacRae estate and have them restored. The proceeds of any sales went toward the restoration of the house. Meanwhile, the HSTG stored some of the Holley antiques at Drinkwaters, auctioned off Victoriana for the benefit of Mrs. MacRae and kept twenty or so pieces of furniture, like a pair of 1790 Bertine Windsor chairs used by the artists. (Childe Hassam seated his wife in one for his painting Morning Light.) A number of Bush descendants became interested and donated silver and portraits, such as the 1742 oil of Sarah Scudder Bush, the amazing woman who had managed to raise sixteen children to maturity. Dr. Whitman Mead Reynolds offered the oldest item: an Indian deed going back to 1686 for all the land between the Mianus and Byram rivers. Herbert Ferris gave his pewter collection; Judge Hubbard, a Queen Anne table that had once been in Knapp Tavern, and Hugh Vanderbilt, a block-front chest of drawers and other magnificent pieces. As vice president of furnishings and the biggest contributor to that fund, Hugh was the right man to be in charge of scouting out the finest American furniture for the Bush-Holley House. “Somebody else might be interested in improving the library,” noted Bill Finch in an Oral History interview. “Hugh couldn’t care less about a library, but furniture is his passion.”

As with everything in life, there were bumps along the way. And when Peter Conze was president in the eighties, he saw his share of them — a fire in the HSTG library and the collapse of the Mianus River bridge. For months, I-95 traffic was rerouted to the Post Road via Strickland, right past Bush-Holley’s front door. Ironically, this came soon after the Strickland Road Historic District was designated the first local historic district in Connecticut.

But the dedicated volunteers and staff have been well rewarded. Started by the Vanderbilts, the annual antiques show we know as Antiquarius was moved from the old armory on Mason Street to the Greenwich Civic Center in 1967, became a five-day event complete with house tour and continues to be a popular fundraiser.

“Signs of the Times,” an ongoing program to plaque the oldest houses in Greenwich, was initiated with the help of Realtor William Raveis. There is a Summer History Camp for Children, and more and more educational programs have been added to the curriculum. Dressed as Sarah Bush, Claire Vanderbilt, Lou Morris and others would visit schools to make history come alive to third-graders; and during Sarah Bush Week, the students still come to the Bush-Holley House to learn to read early maps of Greenwich, draw a family tree and see what life might have been like during our War for Independence.

There are now seven buildings on the site. One is the William E. Finch Jr. Archives Building that houses a huge collection of letters, maps, photographs, deeds and other documents pertinent to our town history. Frustrated with the inadequacy of a “nasty little vault” to hold his treasures, archivist Bill Finch had dreamed of a fireproof building to house an historical library and an auditorium to seat 200 people. In 1987 he saw a large part of his dream come true. When the building first opened, Claire recalls the excitement when Davidde Strachbein of the archives committee spread sheets on the floor and opened the first of many boxes that had been in storage. It was filled with all kinds of Holley family letters, letters home from Emma on her honeymoon, wedding invitations, calling cards. “It was just fantastic,” she said.

The HSTG has bought the 1805 Justus Luke Bush Storehouse and turned it into a visitors’ center. It bought the neighboring 1850 Joseph Brush House, currently the executive director’s residence, and a 1934 Tudor-style house on Strickland Road for education offices. It has transformed the old barn into the Hugh and Claire Vanderbilt Education Center.

Seventy-five years after its birth, the HSTG boasts 2,800 members. Many are part of the army of visionaries who have brought the organization to where it is today — accredited by the American Association of Museums. Only some of these people could be pictured here, but all have been crusaders in the battle to preserve our town history for all of us, our children, our children’s children and those beyond our ken.