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.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Daniel V. Barrett, Teacher and Conservationist

In keeping with the growing season, we at the Oral History Project continue our focus this month on community leaders who have contributed to the protection of our environment:
Daniel V. Barrett
To paraphrase an old adage about teaching a man to fish, “If you want community members to preserve and protect their natural resources, teach them about the environment, and they will be stewards of the land and sea for a lifetime.” If teaching is the key, then Daniel V. Barrett unlocked the door to environmental stewardship for the thirty-eight years during which he taught and led the science department at Greenwich High School.
The results of his efforts continue to this day. Many of the students who passed through his classes went on to careers of their own in the sciences. Many of the properties today preserved in the Land Trust of Greenwich were acquired during his tenure as both executive director and environmental director of that organization. Much of the background work that went into making the Innis Arden Cottage Research Center at Greenwich Point was completed with his help and insight. These are but a few of the ways in which Mr. Barrett has made a lasting contribution to the environmental health of our town.
Dan Barrett was interviewed for the Oral History Project in December 2007. That interview was published as a book, Teacher and Conservationist in 2009, and in it Mr. Barrett makes clear his lifelong commitment to both the sciences, particularly marine biology, and to teaching.
In addition to teaching, Mr. Barrett headed up the Conservation Commission for a time and, with Lucy Jinishian and others, he formed the Shellfish Commission, which was officially underway by 1986. The purpose of the Shellfish Commission was to prove to the state that the waters were clean and that the shellfish were save to eat. After a period of at least five years, the beds were once again open, after having been closed since 1960.
How does a teacher impart to his students the importance of clean waterways? He appeals to their stomachs, of course. And that is just what Mr. Barrett did in his classes. Along with the customary lessons in bivalve anatomy, he taught his students the wonders of mussel stew, steamers, and oysters on the half-shell.
Dan Barrett with students
Additionally, he often took them to the Fulton Street market, to see all the stalls, to haggle over price, to buy the fish, and to fillet them. And then back at school, in the two ovens in his classroom, they would bake the fish. According to Mr. Barrett, “It was a whole experience of knowing about fish, and their requirements in the ocean.” In other words, once the students knew and appreciated this vital food source, they would be more aware of the need to protect their habitat.
Of all the inventive and innovative teaching techniques Mr. Barrett brought to his students over the years, he is probably most remembered for the development of the oceanography program at the high school. Built with his vision and the support of town benefactors, he was able to accumulate the equipment and supplies necessary to develop a program through the Educational Oceanographic Foundation, Inc. that would enable students to obtain a rich background in marine science—at the high school level. The program was so successful there were four teachers required to accommodate the demand.
Mr. Barrett’s hand can be seen to this day in many of the innovations he first envisioned. Before the Innis Arden Cottage at Greenwich Point, there was the Queen Anne Building, in the same location. It was, at the time Dan Barrett first saw its usefulness, in a general state of disrepair. He remedied that by appealing to the First Selectman, allowing the building to be outfitted with sinks and heat in the winter. As our interviewer astutely observed at the time, it was Mr. Barrett who got the Queen Anne Building “out of mothballs.”
In recent years that old building has been beautifully transformed, becoming the new home of the Seaside Environmental Education Center, spearheaded by the Greenwich Point Conservancy, in collaboration with the Conservation and Shellfish Commissions and the Bruce Museum.
In addition to oceanic conservation and education efforts, Mr. Barrett’s work by no means slighted the land. In 1986 he was recruited to join the Greenwich Land Trust, becoming the Executive Director shortly thereafter. At the time of the interview, the trust had a hundred and nineteen properties under its care, over six hundred acres of property. It owned Shell Island, had eighteen meadows, and five apple orchards.
Greenwich Land Trust apple orchard
Over the years, this much and more is still true. The Land Trust has continued to grow. Mr. Barrett was honored for his work and contribution in 2012, and shortly before that event, he told the reporter covering it of the importance of cherishing the land for the benefit of future generations. He then quoted Ansel Adams:
"Let us leave a splendid legacy for our children. Let us turn to them and say: ‘This you inherit; guard it well, for it is far more precious than money, and once destroyed, nature's beauty cannot be repurchased at any price.’"
Therein lies the legacy of Daniel V. Barrett, teacher and conservationist.
The Oral History Project book, Daniel V. Barrett: Teacher and Conservationist, is available through the Greenwich Library’s circulating collection and is for sale through the Oral History Project office, lower level of the library.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Conservation in Greenwich

We are in full spring finally in Greenwich, and since Earth Day is in April, we at the Oral History Project find our thoughts turning to the environment and to conservation. We have many interviews in our collection on these subjects by narrators who have worked tirelessly to preserve and protect the natural heritage of our town.

The first of our histories tracing efforts to safeguard the land and water of Greenwich is to be found in one of our published anthologies with interviews spanning the 1980s, entitled appropriately enough, Conservation in Greenwich. It is comprised of oral history interviews with citizen-conservationists, Eugene Curry, Anne Hubbell French, Barbara Kitchel Girdler, Howard Hennington, and Phoebe Milliken.

In the first interview, narrator Barbara Girdler describes the origins of conservation efforts in Greenwich. Going back to the 1940s, she cites the establishment of the Audubon Center, crediting it with the start of conservation education in town. “They started with birds,” she says, but soon discovered, “it’s all of a piece and they’d have to just look at the whole picture.”

In the 1950s the center became a liaison group with the garden clubs, soon beginning conservation work on Greenwich Point. At the time of the interview, 1982, members of the Greenwich Point committee were working on a master plan for which they had secured the blessings of the Parks Department.
Eagle Statue, Greenwich Point
Today the eagle has a nest on its top. The bronze eagle was originally placed in 1979

Other instrumental conservation efforts she cites include the opening in 1968 of the Greenwich Point Advisory Committee’s exhibition center, the state Coastal Wetlands Act of 1970, the Greenwich Environmental Action Group whose work began in 1970. (More on that to come.) These efforts and more formed the basis for laws and ordinances that guide the care and handling of our natural resources in Greenwich today.

The second interview in this collection is with Phoebe M. Milliken, conducted in 1986, about the Byram River Gorge Preserve.  Ms. Milliken begins with expressions of deep appreciation for the land, noting the native American Indians and the Quakers who long ago had stewardship of the land. Of the Quakers, who settled the lands of the Byram River in the 1700s, she says, “They knew very well where to place their houses, not down close to the river. They took the best advantage of where the sun rose and set and where the prevailing winds were coming from. They were not going to be caught in floods.”
Scene from the Gimbel Sanctuary

The intentions of those involved in the Byram River Gorge Preserve were to keep the land as preserved and protected as it had been under the care of its previous settlers. The key was to secure private lands into the hands of the Land Trust overseen at the time by the Greenwich Audubon Society. These early planners also included the Nature Conservancy in their efforts. One of the first land donations came from Mrs. Alva B. Gimbel. The Gimbel Foundation gave thirty-seven acres to the Audubon Society Greenwich Chapter in 1972.  John Fereri gave another forty-three acres in 1995. Today eighty acres of this land is called the Gimbel Sanctuary, connected to the Nature Conservancy’s Byram River Gorge Preserve to the north.

Another of the interviews is by a narrator with a similar love of the land, Anne Hubbell French, whose family had lived near the Mianus River Gorge for many years. Her interview on the Mianus River Gorge Preserve is co-narrated with R. Eugene Curry, who came to the project after its inception. As Ms. French tells it, the purpose of the preserve was “to set aside this land surrounded by the steep hills to be protected in perpetuity, forever wild.” She goes on to call the preserve a “wilderness island in a suburban sea.” While the land was to remain forever wild, it was not to be unavailable to the public. Instead, it was designed to provide hiking trails open to the public, the only restrictions at the time, “no picnics or dogs.” The narrators credit Gloria Anable, among other interested citizens, for having created the preserve, with work on the project going back to the early 1950s. The Mianus River Gorge was the first of the land projects of the Nature Conservancy.

In another interview, Howard H. Hennington (interview conducted in 1987) describes how the Greenwich Audubon Society of Greenwich went from being about birds only to contributing to the preservation of lands, such as the Byram River Gorge Preserve. Similarly, in an interview in 1982, Barbara Girdler describes how the Land Trust went from being under the auspicious of the Greenwich Audubon in the early 70s to later being set up as a separate entity, its purpose, too, to acquire private lands, mostly by gift. Today the Greenwich Land Trust has more than 737 acres of diverse woodlands under its care.
Greene Preserve, Greenwich Land Trust

In the final interview of the collection, Barbara Girdler focuses on what were in the 1980s ongoing efforts to ensure regulations protective of air, land, and water quality. She comments on the Audubon chapter and its educational programs, the garden clubs, the members of the Greenwich Point committee, all active and committed to the preservation of our natural resources. At one point she makes a distinction between those she calls “aesthetic conservationists,” who save things because they are beautiful and those who have come to appreciate “the oneness of nature.” She explains the concept thus: “It’s just all of a piece, and you mustn’t rend the fabric anywhere. You pull one thread, and the whole thing comes apart.”

Lucky for us, these early committed citizen-conservationists were of the second kind.

photo credits:
Greenwich Roundup
Greenwich Audubon
Greenwich Land Trust