Friday, March 13, 2015

The Heart of the Dynamo: Lewis Grant O’Donnell, Chief of the Cos Cob Power Plant

Today, plans are underway to celebrate the opening of the new Cos Cob Park. Near the beginning of the last century, in 1907, a very different opening was in the works on those very grounds. That is the year the Cos Cob Power Plant opened its mighty doors, and one man who had been there since the beginning was destined to become the plant’s chief electrical engineer.
The Cos Cob Power Plant, 1907
Lewis Grant O'Donnell

In an Oral History Project interview conducted in 1989 long-time Cos Cob resident, Gertrude O’Donnell Riska, remembers this man, her father, Lewis Grant O’Donnell, who maintained overall responsibility for the plant from 1923 until his retirement in 1940.
Gertrude O'Donnell Riska

When Ms. Riska quotes her father in her interview, she tends to get her reader’s attention:

“My father would scare me to death. At different times he’d say to me, ‘See that turbine over there? There’s a big wheel inside it. If that wheel ever broke loose—and it has in other power plants—it would cut a path of destruction for ten miles…’”

The turbine she is describing was one of half a dozen or more, each as big as a house, and between them were generators weighing fifty tons each. The turbines made the steam that went into the generators that made the electricity. The turbines and generators were like “soldiers down a huge hall” and they were “bigger than houses,” located in bedrock four stories down with support pillars six feet thick. Her primary impression inside the plant was of heat and noise.

Ms. Riska describes the plant, owned by what was then the New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad Company, as the first to use alternating current electrification to run the trains, a claim confirmed by the Historic American Engineering Record. The plant supplied power for trains “from Long Island, Mount Vernon and the west, to Cedar Hill, which is beyond New Haven.” Additionally, “it supplied power to feeder branches to Danbury, New Canaan, and While Plains.” And as Ms. Riska puts it, running the plant “certainly was not a small undertaking.”

In 1933, the power plant underwent a critical modernization. The fourteen furnaces were replaced with boilers, mammoth in size, and each with a fixture to eliminate the smoke and dust creating such havoc for the community. During all the changes and over the years, O’Donnell was there. In fact, Ms. Riska recalls never going on family vacations, except once to the Grand Canyon and one or two trips to relatives in Ohio. Her father was on call twenty-four hours a day, she says.
The four-story boiler room, 1940

Costly mistakes and accidents always a worry, in 1938, after a series of mishaps left Mr. O’Donnell distressed, he put one of his other talents to work. Not only was he the keeper of the power plant, he was an artist, and so he created a painting with movable parts, of racehorses representing different departments. Each horse advanced or was moved back monthly, depending on the safety record of its department. The painting hung over the clock with its punch cards. For the next seven years, after the painting went up, there were no accidents.
The racehorse painting and clock

Because the plant was not a place for a little girl to be roaming free, Ms. Riska was well aware of her father’s boundaries. One day, to her surprise, he told her to climb up several stairs that had until then been off-limits. At the top was a little slot barely wide enough to fit a pair of eyes, even a little girl’s. Her father told her to look through the opening. There she saw a “fairyland,” an enchanted landscape of shimmering ice and snow crystals. In a place where the heat generated by the furnaces was maintained at 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit, it was impossible to imagine ice!

Her father informed her then that she was looking at white heat and that the glass she was looking through was very special, inches thick, because, as he told her, “if you looked at it with your naked eye, it would burn your eyes right out of your head.”

According to Ms. Riska, her father invented many of the power plant’s regulators and gauges in use until the plant’s last day. As a result of his many inventions, Mr. O’Donnell became a member of the National Institute of Inventors in 1920. One of her father’s most significant inventions was the “piggyback” system.

A little background:

In 1933, when the railroad was losing business to trailer and lumber trucks, Mr. O’Donnell sat down at his large “library table” in the living room of their Victorian home. With his colored pencils and his drafting pads in hand, he set about creating an invention with the potential of regaining crippling lost business. One day he emerged from his work, announcing, “I’ve got it. I think I’ve got it solved.”

He had created a system whereby the trailer of the truck could be detached from the cab and loaded onto a railway flatcar for rapid transport to the destination. The trailer would then be reattached to the truck’s cab. It was ingenious—not a way to take over the trucking business but to “piggyback” on it by using the speed of the rails, rather than the highway system. The “piggyback” of the plan, of course referred to the use of the railway flatbed to hold the truck’s trailer.

The plan then went to the New Haven Railroad. Ms. Riska has a letter, dated March 6, 1933, from New Haven’s president, which says in part, “I have been greatly interested in reviewing the papers you brought in covering an arrangement whereby motor trucks could be transported on freight cars over the railroad.” Ms. Riska’s father was commended for his plan but heard nothing further.

Years later, according to Ms. Riska, when in newspapers and books, others were credited with the invention, her father was crestfallen. He wrote a letter asking for his drawings and his plan to be returned to him. The reply came back that no drawings or other materials could be found. In support of her father, Ms. Riska has held onto the letters and proudly maintains the written proof of his invention.
The power plant, midcentury

Lewis Grant O’Donnell retired in 1940 at the age of sixty-eight, three years beyond the usual retirement age, but even after his retirement, he was called on to set things right during times of trouble at the plant. He died in 1963 at the age of ninety-one.

As a final tribute to her father, Ms. Riska says, “…the day we toured the silent, sad power plant [a tour conducted in 1988 after its closing], and I looked up at those huge turbines and miles and miles of electric cables and all kinds of massive equipment, I just said in awe, ‘How did he do it?’ That day’s gone forever. For a person with a sixth grade education would not even get his foot in the door unless he had a degree to throw in first.”
Lewis Grant O'Donnell, on his last day of work, June, 1940

Quite an achievement, indeed.

The Cos Cob Power Plant was designated a Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark in 1982 by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, and it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1990. In spite of its listing, the plant was demolished in 2001.
Ms. Riska, born November 16, 1919, still resides in her home in Cos Cob.

Gertrude O’Donnell’s interview, “Chief of the Power Plant,” 1992, 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.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

An Art Lover’s Haven in the Midst of the Greenwich Library: The Flinn Gallery

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.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Hidden Among the Hemlocks

In a wood off Valley Road, on Lia Fail Way, to be exact, is a wondrous place, well known once but now hidden. It may be the most well known yet now obscure place in all of Greenwich. It is listed in the Connecticut State Register of Historic Places and was part of this year’s Connecticut Open House Day.

The once lauded now hidden place is the O’Neil Outdoor Theater, and it is the subject of a Greenwich Oral History Project interview published in 1977. The interview, conducted by Nancy Wolcott, was with Horton and Madelyn O’Neil, each with an interesting story to tell.
Madelynn O'Neil

Horton O'Neil
Horton O’Neil, an architect and son of David O’Neil, recounts the story of how his father and he came to build the theater. David O’Neil was a lumberman by trade but an actor by avocation, having played in productions of Shakespeare, Shaw, Galsworthy, and others. During his years as an actor, he performed in several outdoor theaters, an experience Horton O’Neil believes may have provided the inspiration for the outdoor theater they would build together in Greenwich from 1934 to 1937.
The marble stage

His father’s dream, according to his son, was to act in his own theater, for the love of it and not for financial gain. Additionally, he hoped to give readings of his own poetry, known as he was in the community for his poems, having published a book of poetry in 1918, A Cabinet of Jade.

The design of the theater, which was Horton O’Neil’s doing, was unique, a marble outdoor amphitheater designed to hold an audience of seven hundred, surrounded by junipers, yews, and hemlocks. Rose-colored Tennessee marble was used for the pit and in the pattern in the stage. The concept was of a pool in a forest, the concentric tiers of steps serving as a series of echoes. Horton describes it:

The swirl pattern of the stage is Celtic…a design that generated movement about a still center. The other Celtic motif was in the Druid stones around the stage, consisting of five-ton marble monoliths, and in the upright shafts in back of the auditorium.

The construction, a massive undertaking, was done without bulldozers, any heavy machinery, or blasting. The construction team consisted of one mason, one laborer, and two stonecutters with credentials including work on the Lincoln Memorial and the Supreme Court building in Washington D.C. Horton O’Neil helped with the manual labor as well as being the designer and superintendent, along with his father, of the project. While the theater was designed originally for dramatic productions and poetry readings, the first event held in the completed space was with Quinto Maganini and his orchestra before an audience of invited guests.

According to Madelyn O’Neil, After World War II, the theater was used most effectively for
Young dancers on the marble stage
dance recitals. Trained as a dancer, she had taught for many years and had become involved with the Greenwich Academy where she was in close contact with jean Pethick, a teacher there. As a result of their association, from 1949 to 1959, the theater saw numerous well-attended (with as many as 550 audience members) dance performances. The first of these was a lavish Midsummer Night’s Dream production with none other than a young Jane Fonda performing as one of the fairies, according to Ms. O’Neil. Another well-attended dance performance was created from Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” accompanying the dancers in what must have been a stunning performance.

In 1959 The Pied Piper of Hamelin was presented. Ms. O’Neil describes the way in which the Piper very dramatically led the children off among the hemlocks and into the surrounding woods until they were out of sight. An appropriate ending to a ten-year period of creative, expressive dance performances, it appears. The Pied Piper was the last production mounted by the Greenwich Academy. In fact, the piper might just as well have led the audience out, too, as he led the children away, and turned off the sparkling outdoor lights that illuminated the theater while he was at it.

In 1960 the neighbors, in effect, put an end to further use of the theater for any type of performance. With the help of an attorney, the theater was closed on a technicality. It lost its “nonconforming use,” which it had enjoyed since it had been in existence before zoning barring such use had gone into effect. The loss of this status was owed to the theater having been out of use for a period of one year, which it was during the war. Alas—no more O’Neil Outdoor Theater productions, no poetry, or readings of Shakespeare, no music or dance or any kind. But the Theater is still there, at least.

For further information about the O’Neil Outdoor Theater, contact Randy Fiveash, Director of Tourism, 860-256-2769 ( or go to the Connecticut State Register of Historic Places,

The O’Neil Outdoor Theater, transcript with Horton and Madelyn O’Neil, by Nancy Wolcott, interviewer, 1977, is available through the Greenwich Library’s Greenwich Oral History Project. The interviews are located on the first floor of the library and through the project office on the lower level. (Photos from the Greenwich Oral History Project collection and courtesy of the Greenwich Historical Society.)

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Another Environmental Leader in Greenwich: Lucy Man Jinishian

In the summer residents of Greenwich enjoy any number of parks and conservancies offering a variety of leisure activities. In addition there are beaches and water sports to enjoy. These well-preserved outdoor spaces and clean waterways did not come without the tireless efforts of the town’s environmental leaders.

One community leader who over the years protected the town’s shoreline and waters is Lucy Jinishian. Her work in establishing the Greenwich Environmental Action Group and her efforts to reestablish shellfishing in Greenwich after years of dormancy have had lasting impact.

There are two interviews in the Oral History Project collection with Ms. Jinishian, both helping to tell the story of her stewardship of the town’s environment. The first is “The Greenwich Environmental Action Group,” conducted in 1975, and the second is “Shellfishing in Greenwich,” conducted in 2006.

Ms. Jinishian’s environmental activism goes back to late 1970 with a letter to HELCO (Hartford Electric Light Company, later absorbed by Connecticut Light and Power) executives about plans to build an 800-megawatt power plant that because of large amounts of heated water flowing back into the Sound would create a potentially tremendous threat. The plan also included an oil-unloading platform near Tod’s Point, which, according to Ms. Jinishian, was “not to be borne without a struggle.”

Out of this struggle came GEAG, the Greenwich Environmental Action Group.

She and other volunteers spent nearly six months researching and attending meetings, gathering reports and informing the public about the proposed plant. Approximately five thousand fact sheets spelling out the air and water pollution effects on Greenwich were widely distributed throughout the town.
Photo from Friends of Greenwich Point

After repeated correspondence and meetings with company executives, plans for the plant were finally dropped. Ms. Jinishian and the volunteers did not take full credit for the change in plans, but they certainly played a major role in reversing them.

The GEAG played a significant role in many other environmental decisions in town. They were so influential that in January of 1975 the group decided to suspend activity. That may sound counterintuitive, but the reasoning behind the decision was sound. The organization was so well organized that all environmental issues found their way to the group’s doorstep, meaning that other volunteer groups supposedly active in environmental concerns were taking a back seat to GEAG. Since their aim was and had been from the start to involve the community, they believed the best way to get others involved was to take a step back themselves. Their plan was to become active again when the issues were large enough that the town would benefit from their background and extensive experience in successfully fighting battles worthy of the struggle.

Another Good Fight:

In the early 1980s, after the town’s shellfish beds had been closed to recreational shellfishing since 1960, oystermen began coming into Greenwich Cove, taking oysters out to a “mother ship” and whisking their haul away for commercial gain. According to Ms. Jinishian, “They sort of cleaned the Cove out of a lot of oysters.” This practice did not sit well with her. As a result, she and other concerned citizens, including Dan Barrett, took steps to remediate the situation. Out of this, the town of Greenwich Shellfish Commission was formed in 1986.

Photo from Shellfish Commission, Town of Greenwich

After repeated water sampling conducted in approximately thirty-five sampling stations over a period of years, the Commission was able to reopen the beds to the public in the fall of 1991. Since that time the commission has been active in overseeing the status of the beds, replenishing them as necessary after population-threatening disease and after catastrophic storms, such as Hurricane Sandy.

At the time of her interview on the Shellfish Commission in 2006, Ms. Jinishian had retired but promised to stay active in an advisory capacity, and so she has.

It is because of the commitment and involvement of community leaders like Lucy Jinisian, the residents of Greenwich can enjoy a multitude of summer activities, including visiting the Seaside Environmental Education Center at Tod’s Point to learn about the shellfish beds of the area. Then, from mid-October to mid-May, when the beds are open, for a modest fee to purchase a permit, Greenwich residents can enjoy the pleasures of recreational shellfishing.

The Greenwich Environmental Action Group, transcript with Lucy Man Jinishian, by Marian L. Phillips, July 30, 1975, and, Shellfishing in Greenwich, transcript of Interview with Lucy Man Jinishian, by Annette Baker Fox, March 21, 2006, are available through the Greenwich Library, Oral History Project, sponsored by the Friends of the Greenwich Library. The interviews are located on the first floor of the library and through the project office on the lower level.