Friday, January 8, 2016

Olga Zatorsky Hirshhorn, Her Life in Greenwich… and in the Arts

Olga Zatorsky Hirshhorn
If you were to pick up the Greenwich Oral History Project interview conducted July 17, 1975, entitled, “My Life in Greenwich,” you would be fascinated. Here is the story of a woman, born in Greenwich in 1920, the daughter of immigrant parents who lived a good part of her early life on LeGrande Avenue, who went to public schools, who married young, had three children, and who, in order “to make ends meet,” started her own small business in town that would blossom into a successful employment agency called Services Unlimited. An American success story, you would say. The story of an independent woman, who made it on her own, and these assessments would, of course, be true.

But keep reading, because that is just the beginning…

This is the story of Olga Zatorsky Hirshhorn, famous art patron, philanthropist, and art
Olga Hirshhorn posing next to Abel Chretien's sculpture fo her.

collector, who died October 3, 2015. She was the widow of Joseph Hirshhorn, the founder of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Their marriage lasted from 1964 until his death in 1981. He would introduce her to a life she never would have envisioned for herself, and yet all the while, she maintained her down-to-earth attitude, never forgetting her humble roots. Those same qualities that must have attracted him to her from the beginning sustained them, and their story reads like a movie script.

As Mrs. Hirshhorn told the interviewer in 1975, their first interaction, a telephone call to her agency did not hold much promise. She happened to pick up the office phone herself on this particular day when a voice on the other end snapped, “This is Mr. Hirshhorn. I’ve just bought the Sinclair-Robinson house on John Street, and I’m looking for a chauffeur.” One or two sentences more, and he hung up. She then said aloud, within earshot of her office staff, “Imagine, the nerve of this man.”

And yet he kept calling, admitting much later in their relationship, which was to grow over the next few years, that her voice had intrigued him. She too was intrigued, as she tried to find him a driver, as requested.

Eventually, she found herself on his doorstep delivering a message from a would-be chauffeur who had been held up. She was led to the garden where the artist and sculptor Laura Ziegler was creating a bust of her famous client. Until then, Olga had no idea who Joseph Hirshhorn was. As she was about to leave, saying she was on her way to Tod’s Point for a swim, her host invited her instead to take a swim in his pool. And so she did, and that was the beginning of what ostensibly was a professional relationship—she would help with his transition to his Greenwich home—but which instead turned into something much more meaningful.

Olga was divorced from her first husband, John Cunningham, in 1962, and married Joseph Hirshhorn in 1964. It was a small wedding, in the garden of their Greenwich home, under a Henry Moore sculpture, the Glenkiln Cross.

From the beginning, she immersed herself in art, particularly in the art of collecting, and before long, she began to acquire a collection of her own. One of the first art pieces she acquired was a Joseph Albers, and then another, proving from the beginning her own fine

Pablo Picasso, Untitled, 1968. Sketch the artist gave to Olga Hirshhorn

At the time of her death, Olga Hirshhorn had acquired a collection valued at approximately ten million dollars.

When asked by the Greenwich Oral History interviewer to tell about the “most important and influential circumstances” of her life, she replied, “having the great opportunity of having been born in Greenwich, having had three sons born in Greenwich, and raised in Greenwich….I think living in Greenwich with the opportunities that were here for development of a person would be the first.”

(Photos, Smithsonian Libraries Blog, "Remembering Olga Hirshhorn.)

Olga Zatorsky Hirshhorn’s interview, “ My Life in Greenwich,” conducted by volunteer, Penny Bott, July 17 and 25, 1975, is available in book form, A First Generation in Greenwich, 1976, through the Greenwich Oral History Project office located on the lower level of the Greenwich library. The interview transcript is located in the Greenwich Oral History files of the reference area on the first floor of the library. To see Olga Zatorsky Hirshhorn commemorated, drop by the office to see her photo and other information pertaining to her interview on the Greenwich Oral History office “Greenwich Wall of Fame.”

Monday, November 16, 2015

Revisiting The Flinn Gallery, Greenwich, Sponsored by the Friends of Greenwich Library

[This post was first published in January of this year. In the interim, the Flinn Gallery has continued to demonstrate its commitment to exciting, innovative art and artists.]
Lisa Corrine Davis, Capricious Circuitry, 2014, on view in the current exhibit until December 9.

In the spring and fall of 2013, two interviewers from the Greenwich Oral History Project conducted interviews with two Flinn Gallery volunteers having a wealth of knowledge about this very special non-profit education space. The first was conducted with Betty Burke (Elizabeth Hourigan Burke). As a former library trustee, her involvement with the gallery goes back to the days when it was known as the Hurlbutt. The second interview, with Sandra Herman, is equally insightful. Her involvement with the gallery also goes back to those early days.

The following is a composite summary of the interviews with these two volunteers whose contribution to the gallery’s growth and development has been critical:

What do LEGOS, TIME Magazine covers, cutout artwork and contemporary Japanese antiques have in common?  All have at one time been featured exhibits at the beautiful Flinn Gallery, located on the second floor of the Greenwich Public Library.

The Flinn Gallery is a haven for Greenwich residents to visit and become educated about and exposed to a multitude of different artists, methods and mediums from around the world.  The diversity of the Gallery’s past exhibits ranges from shows featuring flower paintings or Jim Henson’s Sesame Street, to features exhibiting personal portraits or private art collections gathered from Greenwich residents themselves.
The Flinn on the second floor of the library 

While every show varies in terms of theme and structure, one can typically find the featured artist or artists giving talks at the opening reception on a Sunday afternoon to guests eager to learn more about the inspiration, medium and development of their artwork.  Hors D’oeuvres might be passed or one might find a buffet of doughnuts and cider, with the spirit of each exhibition being echoed throughout the six week long show.  For those who are unable to attend the opening day of any given exhibit, there are often placards or even short videos accompanying the featured artwork in the gallery, offering a deeper understanding of what is being presented.

Behind every featured show at the Flinn Gallery is a group of about 60 active and hard working members, whose love of art has brought them together to share in the joy and gratification of educating the Greenwich public about various art forms.  For each of the 6 shows held every year, a Chairman and Vice Chairman are elected to organize and run the show.  Volunteers sign up to cover a variety of tasks such as hanging, painting pedestals, organizing papers and artwork and manning the desk during exhibitions.  While the end-result is rewarding for members, it is the deeply held friendships and connections that most reverberates among them.

For those wondering how artists are selected to be featured at the Flinn, the answer lies with the Selection Committee.  Planning for each show begins at least 1-2 years out.  Artists from around the world apply, and every strong contender is visited by at least one member, who evaluates the artist’s work and makes a recommendation to the committee.  The diversity of the Flinn’s past exhibits reflects its mandate: education of the Greenwich public. 

While the Selection Committee is certainly not against featuring local Greenwich artists, there is a focus on bringing in outside artists who are not as familiar to the Greenwich audience.  Artists have come from as far as Austrailia, Brazil, Norway and Scotland and have used mediums ranging from the traditional paint, clay and photography to the more avant-garde Legos and cutouts.  Each show is unique.  Sometimes the work of a single artist will be featured, and other times artists will be grouped together by theme.

The Hurlbutt Gallery, predecessor to the Flinn, was named after a well-liked, longtime librarian and was originally located in the Franklin Simon Building.  After construction of the Peterson Wing, the Flinn Gallery opened in 2000 and was named after Larry and Stephanie Flinn, whose generosity, in part, made construction of the gallery possible.  The very first show featured at the new Flinn Gallery featured pieces from the private collection of Walter and Molly Bareiss, local Greenwich collectors of over 60 years.

Designed by architect Cesar Pelli, the Flinn Gallery is a beautiful space, constructed specifically for the purpose of featuring art.  Its movable walls have hidden storage bins to hide pedestals not in use, and the fabric-covered walls are perfect for hanging artwork in many different layouts.  No detail goes unnoticed, with special emphasis being placed on the lighting and layout of each exhibition.  The gallery truly strives to make each show the best that it can be.

Pelli, an architect known around the world for the design of large scale projects including hospitals, schools and hotels, was convinced to take on designing the Peterson Wing by then-head of the board, Henry Ashforth.  As the story goes, upon Pelli’s visit to the library, the elevator doors opened on the 2nd floor revealing the huge glass walls of the Hurlbutt Gallery standing before him.  Intrigued, Pelli inquired about the gallery, and returned later for a tour when it was open.  In his own words, the idea of a free art gallery inside of the library was “fantastic” and Pelli’s design for the Peterson Wing reflected that sentiment by including plans for a proper art gallery – what would later become the Flinn.

Dan Moser Long piece, on view until January 21, 2015
Shows continue to be held at the Flinn Gallery from September to mid-June.  For those interested in learning more about the Flinn, visit the Greenwich Public Library or go to

The two interviews, “Flinn Gallery at the Greenwich Library,” with Elizabeth “Betty” Hourigan Burke, April 29, 2013 and “Flinn Gallery Participation,” with Sanda “Sandy” Herman, September 18, 2013 are available through the Greenwich Oral History Project office located on the lower level of the library or in the reference area on the first floor.

All proceeds from sales at the Flinn go toward supporting community programming at the library.

Monday, August 17, 2015

A House with History!

There sits a house on Round Hill Road in Greenwich, 30 Round Hill Road to be exact, with a fascinating history, a house that has been home to many interesting and accomplished residents.
John Henry Twachtman, oil on canvas

Our guide into the history of this house is John E. Nelson, who in March 2014 was interviewed by Constance B. Gibb for the Greenwich Oral History Project.

In the early 1960s there was always a Porsche parked in the driveway of this house, which caught the attention of Porsche-lover John Nelson every time he drove by. Nelson, a former maritime lawyer with Burlingham Underwood & Lord, first laid eyes on the home, known by locals as “the Twachtman House,” somewhere around 1964. As he describes it:

I drove down that dirt path… and looked north to see the
full façade of the house. I felt like I was discovering Atlantis.

It was so beautiful. I can see it in my mind’s eye to this day,
the afternoon sun about four o’clock on an October afternoon
coming across the balustrades, all of the grape arbor with the
Stanford White portico…I was simply blown away.

In fact, Nelson was so taken with the house, at the first opportunity, he bought it.

Situated on a manmade pond, which never would have been brought into existence under Greenwich’s current wetlands regulations, the house has undergone renovations and small expansions over the years, and yet still retains its original character and charm. Beyond the house one could find terraces, pastures, an old barn, a portico and Horseneck Brook—a true playground for the children who have grown up there over the years.

Nelson was not the first to fall in love with this home, which has captivated and housed the likes of Jim Henson[1] and local, late-1800s American Impressionist artist John Henry Twachtman. 

The artist, John Henry Twachtman, courtesy of the National Park Service, Weir Farm

One day, a full eight decades before Mr. Nelson’s excursion down that small dirt path, John Henry Twachtman was out on an excursion of his own, fishing with his son in Horseneck Brook, in what was then known as the Hang Root[2] section of Greenwich. After a short walk through the cut and up a small hill, Twachtman first laid eyes upon the house now addressed at 30 Round Hill Road. “This is it,” he exclaimed, “this is the house.”

Twachtman lived in that house with his wife, Martha Scudder Twachtman, and five children from 1888 until his death in 1902. During his time there, he was an active member of the Cos Cob Impressionist Art Community, painting some notable paintings of the shore and of the Bush-Holley House. It is said though, that some of his best paintings were those he did at and of his own home; his unique ability to capture the light, the trees and the fields just as everything was gives viewers a real sense of the essence of life that surrounded him as he worked.

Other painters in the Cos Cob painting community took inspiration from the house and grounds as well, with other works being painted there by notable artists such as Childe Hassam, J. Alden Weir, and Theodore Robinson.

In 1971, John Nelson and his then wife, Emily, had made plans to move from their home in New York City to Greenwich.  After seeing 50 or 60 homes with their real estate agent, they were finally ready to put in an offer on a nice Colonial in Cos Cob.  But, as fate would have it, something gave John a pause, and after viewing nearly 60 houses, John opened up to his agent and expressed his desire for more unique and artsy, one-of-a-kind type home.

In what can only be described as fate, John and Emily Nelson soon found themselves face to face with Jim and Jane Henson, the then owners of the Twachtman House—or “the Porsche House” as it had always lovingly been referred to by the Nelsons since John’s days of cruising by in the early 60s. After a hilarious mix-up, which involved John Nelson unknowingly trying to kidnap Heather Henson, a six-month old baby whom he believed to be his own six-month old daughter, Heather Nelson, a handshake deal for the home was made and fate was sealed. The Nelsons closed on the house and moved in that October.

As Nelson recounts, when he took over the Twachtman house from Jim Henson, the eccentricities and playful humor of the man (Henson) were reflected in the home which had housed him, his wife and his five children from 1963-1971.   There was a puppet theater in the living room, a swirled mirrored decoration in the bathroom and an above ground pool out back. The upstairs shower leaked water that came through the kitchen ceiling, so one could always find a bucket to catch the water doubling as the centerpiece for the kitchen table as the family of seven gathered around to eat. But even after moving from Round Hill Road, Jim Henson remained connected to the home through his ongoing friendship with the Nelsons.

Connection is a theme that runs throughout the history of this house.  Twachtman felt it that day fishing with his son. John Nelson felt it that perfect autumn afternoon back in October of ’64. Even ten years later at a dinner party in the city, Nelson found himself next to Cora Weir Burlingham, daughter of J. Alden Weir, who vividly recounted her connection to the house through her vivid memories as a young girl playing with the Twachtman children at their home.

Whether it be called the Twachtman House, the Porsche House or simply the house at 30 Round Hill Road, this home has provided shelter, inspiration, and has given its owners a real sense of pride. 

As John Nelson puts it: “I consider that I’m a trustee of this house. It’s just [on] my watch right now.”

[1] Jim Henson  (James Maury Henson, 1936-1990) had a varied career, but possibly is best-known as the creator of the “Muppets”—large puppet characters used in the PBS children’s show “Sesame Street,” which was launched in 1970, and later, the popular TV series for adults, “The Muppet Show.” His best-known Muppets are Kermit the Frog, Big Bird, and Miss Piggy.

[2] Hang Root—Nils Kerschus, a researcher at the Greenwich Historical Society, identifies Hang Root as a small community located between Round Hill Road and Lake Avenue, where Round Hill Road crosses Horseneck Brook. The inhabitants were African-American; most were unskilled day laborers; one operated a small farm. Twachtman (who was white) purchased one of the small houses late in the 19th century, and subsequently rented it to another white man, who, like Twachtman, was an artist. The African-American residents gradually sold their properties, and the black community disappeared.

Prepared by Erin E. Adams, Greenwich Oral History Project volunteer

Constance B. Gibb's interview of John E. Nelson, "The Twachtman House," March 2014, is available through the Greenwich Oral History Project office located on the lower level of the Greenwich library or in the reference area on the first floor.

For additional information pertaining to the early Black settlement in Greenwich known as Hang Root, please contact Nils Kerschus, researcher at the Greenwich Historical Society:

Friday, June 5, 2015

The Community Gardens of Greenwich

“Know the story of your food.”  That is one mantra of Greenwich Community Gardens, a local non-profit that is responsible for Greenwich’s two community gardens. As explained by Founder and Assistant Garden Director Patricia Degelmann Sechi, “if you’re growing your own food, you not only know your own story but you’re writing your story, and what’s really fun to think about is that we’re writing this story together.”
Growing gardens

Greenwich’s first community garden was started by Sechi and volunteers in 2009, on a 15,000 square foot plot of property off of Hamilton Avenue and across a footbridge behind Armstrong Court.  With the strong support and help of the community, Sechi led the way in clearing the small jungle that had grown on a once thriving piece of land, formerly used as a garden for residents in the 60s, 70s and 80s.  Though they had no funding, the team of local volunteers and organizations were able to repair the existing irrigation and fencing and to obtain donations to start what is now known as the Armstrong Court Community Garden.

Today, the garden boasts 125 4’x8’ gardening beds, 2 storage sheds, a sensory garden, and native gardens to welcome migratory birds and local butterfly species.  Participants at the garden enjoy a real sense of community when congregating at the community center, found at the middle of the garden, which boasts a pergola, gardening classes and even a wood burning pizza oven built by the Junior League of Greenwich.

With the help of Wheels in the Woods, an organization dedicated to universal access nature trails, gardening and housing, Greenwich Community Gardens was able to open Greenwich’s second community garden on Bible Street in Cos Cob.  The plot selected had originally been deeded to the town by Colonel Montgomery (a former Greenwich resident and co-founder of what is today the world’s largest accounting firm, PWC), for horticultural purposes, but had turned into a dumping-station for leaves.  Once again with the help and support of the community, the mountains of leaves were transformed into a beautiful community garden, which opened in May of 2014.
Cropped Garden

The 12,000 square foot Bible Street garden boasts 99 beds, 12 of which are universal access beds, meaning that they have features that make gardening possible for those with restricted mobility.  Although the garden is already fully subscribed, the vision for Greenwich’s second community garden has not yet been fulfilled, and future plans include the construction of a pergola, beehives and an apiary.  There is also hope that the garden will one day feature a composting site and large-scale rainwater harvesting.

At the heart of these projects is the idea that gardening should be available to all residents of Greenwich, and special efforts have been made to remove any barriers to participation that may exist, whether physical or financial.  To that end, tools, seeds and other gardening equipment have been generously donated by local organizations, so that people wanting to garden just need to register in the beginning of the year, then just show up and have fun. In efforts to include those with physical ailments, the universal access beds at the Bible Street garden were built with higher benches and narrower beds.

For kids (and certainly some adults!) “fun” is the focus, especially at the Armstrong Court Community Garden where children can crawl through the bean tunnel, enjoy the occasional lady-bug dance or kid-friendly gardening class.  Beyond the fun, participating in gardening allows children to learn firsthand the importance of sharing, cooperation and responsibility.

But gardening is not just beneficial for kids, as adult members have reported that participating in the community gardens has not only given them a real sense of community, but has also given them the opportunity to grow their very own fresh, organic, local food.  Members also enjoy exercise, stress relief, solace and an appreciation of nature from participating in the gardens.
Yummy greens!

Perhaps the most noteworthy feature of Greenwich’s community gardens is its endeavor not only to make gardening available to all residents of Greenwich, but also to undertake the project in a morally and socially responsible way.  The latter becomes apparent when one takes note of the several garden beds that are reserved for growing food to donate to Neighbor to Neighbor, a local nonprofit. Several independent gardeners also donate portions of their personal crops to the organization as part of their “Neighborly Harvest Program.”  Special consideration has also been made for migratory birds traveling along the Atlantic flyway, and a native garden has been planted so that traveling birds may have a natural environment to stop in along their way.

What began as the vision of a local Greenwich resident to have a community garden has now turned into a local Greenwich non-profit with an advisory board, a steering committee at Armstrong Court, and a building team at Bible Street.  All members are volunteers who dedicate their own free time toward making this project a success.  Due to the support and funding from local individuals, businesses, grants, garden clubs and foundations, we are very fortunate to have two wonderful community gardens in our town, and we can only hope that the future holds continued expansion of this wonderful project.

Prepared by Erin E. Adams, Greenwich Oral History Project volunteer

Patricia Degelmann Sechi’s interview, “Greenwich Community Gardens,” conducted by volunteer, Suzanne M. Seton, July 16, 2014, is available through the Greenwich Oral History Project office located on the lower level of the Greenwich library or in the reference area on the first floor.