Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Tod's Point and WW II Veterans

A mansion at Tod’s Point served as a residence for Greenwich WW II veterans and their families from 1946 to 1961

Thousands of people enjoy the beauty and sanctuary of Tod’s Point, yet few are aware of its connection to the veterans of WW II. From 1946 to 1961, the former mansion of Mr. and Mrs. J. Kennedy Tod, the original owners of Tod’s Point (known now as Greenwich Point), served as a residence for WW II veterans and their families. The home was demolished in 1961.

East side of mansion
In 1981, the Oral History Project published Tod’s Point: An Oral History, a complete history of Tod’s Point from its earliest times populated by Indians. Sixty-seven narrators were interviewed for this extensive project and it is from this rich trove that the stories of the WWII veterans are excerpted.

In 1945 the Town of Greenwich purchased the 148-acre property of Tod’s Point from Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital, to whom it had been bequeathed upon Tod’s death, for the sum of $550,000. The mansion on the property had not been used as a residence since Mrs. Tod died in 1939. Concurrently, with the end of WW II, veterans were returning home to a severe housing shortage.  Approval was given by the Town of Greenwich to lease the mansion to thirteen veteran families for one dollar a year. 

"...we were all young, just out of the army. It was fun."

Completing renovation
The thirteen families planned to move into the mansion in 1946. First, however, its thirty-nine rooms had to be converted into thirteen apartments. They formed an independent nonprofit corporation called Vetaptco (Veterans’ Apartment Corporation). Each family floated a $1,000 loan from a local bank (The Greenwich Trust Company). According to resident Nicholas Thiel Ficker, “We paid (monthly) rent to our own corporation. I think forty dollars was the cheapest and seventy dollars was the most expensive. Of that, twenty-nine dollars went to the bank. The balance went into our Vetaptco account, and from that we paid for our oil, our heat, our electric, and so forth.”

To ready the apartments, according to Ficker, “This contractor (Peter Danziger) did the basic work and we did all the finishing work. We did all the painting, and some of the plastering, and a lot of the carpentry.” Ficker continued, “To get thirteen young families living down there, it took some courage. . . . It’s cut off from the public, you know, during the dark and winter months. . . . For that particular time, we were all young, just out of the army. It was fun.”

Mansion after snowstorm
Living at Tod’s Point had its challenges. The Town plowed the snow only to the entrance to Tod’s Point. During a blizzard at Christmastime in 1947 Ficker recalled, “Well, we didn’t have any snow shovels . . . so we took these sheets of aluminum and cut them up and made long wooden handles, and nailed these rectangular pieces of aluminum to the wooden handles and made about thirteen shovels. . . . We shoveled all day long, and at six o’clock at night, we finally broke through to Shore Road where they had plowed it.”

Another emergency, that required a communal response, was the inadequate septic system. As Ficker described, “The septic system filled up. . . . There was an old, poor old septic tank, and it just couldn’t take it any longer. On Thanksgiving Day of 1946, we dug a whole dry field. Thirteen men got out there with shovels, picks, and we dug trenches through that. We honeycombed that whole field, laid tiles, filled in gravel, and connected it in with the septic tank which was across the road. . . . We worked up an appetite for turkey.”

Resident Martha Hankins credits her childhood years living at “the Point” with her lifelong appreciation of the environment. “Just the experience of everything and being able to just have so much around you, so much nature, and nature still really affects me. . . .

Aerial photo of Tod's Point

And the bird sanctuary, around Thanksgiving time all the ducks would flock into the lake. There’d be thousands of ducks in the lake.” Ficker reminisces, “. . . we’d go down to the pond. We had a big net on the end of a long pole, and we’d catch blue crabs. Oh boy! Blue crabs were all over the place.”

By 1961, the last family moved out.  According to Ficker,” I think it ended simply because time had run out on it. . . . The Town had said they wouldn’t renew the lease, and there was good reason. . . . It was really starting to get run down. It would have taken a tremendous amount of money to put it into any shape at all. . . . And then there was the decision to demolish the house. Of course, we were all sad to see it go.” Unfortunately, before it was torn down, the building was vandalized. “It was a mess.”

Demolition of the mansion

Martha Hankins returned to her apartment shortly before the demolishment. “The piano we had was pushed down the stairs. . . . I couldn’t come back to see it torn down. It was just too much for me, because we had good memories there.”  Resident Joseph Callachan agreed, “It was just a simply marvelous experience, and one that we’re awfully glad we have in our background.”

The book, “Tod’s Point, An Oral History,” may be read in its entirety at Greenwich Library and is available for purchase at the Oral History Project office. The OHP is sponsored by Friends of Greenwich Library. Visit the website at glohistory.org.

Mary A. Jacobson, OHP blog editor

Saturday, May 8, 2021

 Village Life in Old Greenwich

The roots of Old Greenwich run deep from a tiny and close community at the turn of the twentieth century to the vibrant town center that exists today. In 1989, OHP volunteer Marian Phillips interviewed Daniel Catanzaro, a longtime resident of Old Greenwich who currently resides in Riverside. Our thanks to Elizaveta McCauley, a sophomore at Greenwich High School, for her contributions to this blog.

Daniel Catanzaro was born on October 8, 1926, in Old Greenwich. His parents were Mary Catanzaro, a nurse, and Nicholas Catanzaro, Old Greenwich’s shoemaker and a central figure in the community. Daniel’s recollections take us back to earlier days.

 “My family settled here around 1910. But Dad was commuting here, walking from Stamford to Old Greenwich. At that time the trolley ride was five cents, and it was too expensive. That was a luxury. So, we go back to right around the 1900s, when Old Greenwich was really a great town to live in. Old Greenwich was a crowded little town from, say, June 1 to September 1. Then on September 1 all the summer people moved out.”

 Life in Old Greenwich was nothing short of carefree and merry. The close, friendly bond between neighbors and families was perfect for young Catanzaro, who enjoyed being able to go out and about with his friends at just about any time. “I remember playing basketball any hour of the night down at the Old Greenwich School and then walking home ten, eleven o’clock at night. You’d never meet a soul, and you never had a fear of anyone doing anything to you, because you’d just run into somebody’s house and they’d walk you home. Old Greenwich was the safest place I could ever think of for a youngster to grow up in.”

 Taking care of Binney Park, Catanzaro notes, was a great part of his summer. “That’s where we all got our spending money. We’d go down there and pull weeds out, and that’s why Binney Park always looked so beautiful . . . Ed Sullivan used to ride by when he was a columnist with the New York Daily News, and he’d always write about the beauty of Binney Park.”

 As an older child, Catanzaro picked up and delivered shoes to and from his father. “The Shorehame Club had a lot of prominent people there, show people…I was one of the few that would actually go down there; I used to deliver repaired shoes or pick them up and bring them to my dad. I couldn’t remember many other people going down there. There were a few homes, but not many.”

 Daniel Catanzaro also delivered some items other than shoes. “One of the bad things that happened was during World War II. Lake’s Drug Store handled all the Western Union. Anyone that was killed in the service, the telegram would come into Lake’s and we would have to deliver them. If no one was home, the majority of times we’d bring them back and try and find someone who was associated with the family.”

 Catanzaro shared his memories of certain other deliveries from Lake’s Drug Store after Prohibition ended in 1933. “We had liquor down in the cellar. Sunday was our big day. In those days you packed ice cream in a quart container. Everybody used to fight to work for Lake’s on Sunday because you went to deliver a quart of liquor in a quart ice cream container. Whose ever house you delivered it to, you were always good for a nickel or dime tip, so there was always a waiting line to work in Lake’s on Sunday. You were not allowed, like you’re not now allowed, to sell liquor on Sundays. But our commuters would forget on Saturday. They’d call on Sunday, and we’d deliver it in a quart ice cream container.”

 The closeness of the Old Greenwich community extended to the canine portion of the neighborhood—that is, Sound Beach Fire Department’s beloved firehouse dog, Spot. A proud, dignified-looking Dalmatian, he was a common sight to see around the firehouse. Spot accompanied his fellow firefighters as they responded to fires and he would wear his collar—decorated with the emblem of the Fire Department. Unfortunately, Spot passed away in 1949.

 “When that dog died, it was like the most important person in Old Greenwich passed away.  He was buried in a casket and a full funeral ceremony, right in front of the Old Greenwich firehouse. That’s where Spot was buried. I’ve never forgotten that. There was an awful lot of broken hearts when Spot finally left us. They had a formal funeral for him, and everyone in Old Greenwich had tears coming down their eyes.”

 The Oral History Project interview of Daniel Catanzaro, and the book by the same name, Village Life in Old Greenwich, are available for purchase through the OHP office at the Greenwich Library. The OHP is sponsored by the Friends of the Greenwich Library. Visit the OHP website at glohistory.org. Mary A. Jacobson serves as the OHP blog editor.

Monday, March 1, 2021

As we know, the Olympic Games Tokoyo 2020 were postponed for the first time in history, for a reason other than war, due to the COVID-19 outbreak. The Opening Ceremony of Tokoyo 2020 is scheduled for July 23, 2021.

Greenwich laid claim to its own Olympian, Helen Meany Gravis, who gold-medaled in diving almost a century ago, at the Olympic Games Amsterdam 1928. Over the course of two Oral History Project interviews by Esther H. Smith in 1982 and 1983, the journey of Helen Meany Gravis was revealed.

Josephine Meany with Helen
The Meanys lived in a house on Steamboat Road, with its own little beach. Helen’s recollections of Greenwich are more of water than of land. “I learned to swim before I could walk,” she recalls. Across the road was the Indian Harbor Yacht Club, where young Helen also swam. Neither of these provided a true learning environment for the future Olympian, but they would suffice. She remembers winning her first meet when she was thirteen. By then, her father, recognizing her potential, had begun taking her to A.A.U. (Amateur Athletic Union) meets.

William Meany, Helen's father

Helen competed in swimming because she had no place to develop technique in diving, her true interest. She learned, however, by practicing off the dock, on top of a coalhouse, at Commodore Benedict’s home, across the inlet from their beach. Her father, more coaxing than coaching, would encourage her to take the plunge from his place in the waters below. She apparently would dive from anything he could find, high diving platforms being in short supply in the area.

Eventually, her father rigged a platform for her on the side of the yacht club. It was a makeshift float with a ten-foot board from which she could dive. Swimming in those waters was later stopped, being deemed too dangerous. Her practice sessions, as she describes them, were nothing short of perilous, with her climbing up to the board at the top, while below the float wobbled unpredictably as boats passed, coming and going out of the harbor, very near her landing mark.

“I guess if he told me to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge,” she says of her father, “I would have done it.” This is how this future Olympic gold medalist in the women’s three-meter springboard diving competition got her start.

Brothers and Sisters (minus one sister). Helen
is sixth from left.

All the Meany children were swimmers. And there were a lot of them, eleven to be exact, counting Helen, the eldest. Ms. Gravis explains that because her father liked to swim so much, it was natural for the children to become swimmers, too. She remembers “having to pick up the little ones as soon as they could walk or they’d just run right to the water and right up to practically over their heads.” She also remembers that if, in the summer, her siblings missed the boat to Island Beach, they would simply dive off the dock at Indian Harbor and swim to the island.

It was all just fun and games until, at a meet in Rye, New York, Helen Meany saw Alice Lord Landon (who later became an Olympic diver) dive from the ten-meter platform. That is when young Helen knew she wanted to be a platform diver. But the path from her childhood water exploits in Greenwich to the Olympics was not an easy one, since there were few or no diving facilities nearby. She remembers commuting from Greenwich to Manhattan Beach, on the far end of Brooklyn, to practice.

Helen Meany with Martha Norelius,
Amsterdam, 1928
Helen Meany
at Manhattan Beach

Later, as a college student at Wellesley, where there was no swimming pool, she had to decide whether to continue her studies or to make the 1924 Olympic team. After having been eliminated in the 1920 games in the first round, Helen chose to try again and left college before graduating. She placed fifth in the ten-meter platform competition in Paris, 1924, and went on to win the gold in Amsterdam in the three-meter event in 1928.

One wonders how she did it, given the amount of training and coaching that goes into competing in today’s games. “I learned most of my dives from a thirty-four-foot platform, and if you don’t hit the water just right, you can get hurt. . . . So, you just have to try it and try to correct it yourself,” she explains. And here’s the amazing thing: “I didn’t have a diving coach,” she adds.

Now there’s a champion for the record books.

Helen Meany Gravis died at her home in Old Greenwich, Connecticut, July 21, 1991, at the age of eighty-six.

Helen Meany Gravis in front of the
former Meany home on Old Church Road,
photographed by Karl Gleeson for the
1982–1983 Oral History Project interview 

This blog, written by OHP volunteer Jean Moore, was derived from the Oral History Project book, “From Greenwich to the Olympics: Helen Meany Gravis.” It is available for purchase at the Greenwich Library Oral History Project office. Visit the OHP web site at glohistory.org.