Hines sight / Learning a history lesson the hard way
Published 1:42 pm, Thursday, October 28, 2010
I am so disappointed in the final outcome of the effort to preserve the historic Sturges-Atkinson Gardener's Cottage.
Despite the tireless efforts of a handful of people, the cottage, built in 1840 and an example of Gothic Revival, will be dismantled and discarded. The structure was commissioned by Fairfielder Jonathan Sturges, who had it built for his gardener. It was added to the State Register of Historic Places in 2009.
Efforts to preserve the cottage began several years ago when Carmen Tortora Jr., who owns and operates the Carolton Chronic Convalescent Hospital on Mill Plain Road, offered it to anyone who would take it from his property. He wants to expand his hospital and the cottage needs to be moved.
The plan was to disassemble the cottage, move it to the site of the Eunice Postol Recreation Center, also on Mill Plain Road, then reconstruct and refurbish it for use by the Fairfield Chamber of Commerce as offices and as a visitors' center. As anyone who has ever been to the chamber office in Fairfield center knows, it could use a more convenient location. And a town the size of Fairfield with its rich history and vast amenities desperately needs a visitors' center.
It was a perfect plan -- and one that the Gardener's Cottage Committee believed was doable with fundraising and grants.
But then it ran smack into the dreaded politics that sometimes rears its ugly head in this town. First, it didn't help the cause that the Board of Selectmen was not unified in its vote when Selectman James Walsh abstained. Second, the request for $20,000 in town money (which was to match an offer from Tortora) and the authorization of a Small Town Economic Assistance Program grant of $100,000 faced an unhappy Board of Finance at a poorly run meeting. The plan possibly could have been saved and further discussion conducted if the Board of Finance had postponed action on the requests instead of taking a vote and outright rejecting it.
This is one of those times when I ask myself, what's wrong with this town?
We think nothing of approving money for other projects like $3.28 million for the reconstruction of Penfield Pavilion (which I support) and $350,000 for the building of a girls' softball field (which I do not) but balk when asked to preserve our precious history.
An effort was made to revamp the proposed lease for the chamber (after members of the Board of Finance raised questions about it, even though the lease was not their jurisdiction), but the business organization's board rejected two versions. Patricia Ritchie, the chief executive officer of the chamber, told the Fairfield Citizen that the leases put too much financial burden on the chamber. Understandably so as the chamber only has so much money to pay expenses.
Equally as distressing as the failed attempt at preservation is the obvious apathy of the general population of Fairfield residents. Now I know there are more important issues on people's minds -- their kids' education and safety, potential unemployment, financial worries -- but at some point Fairfielders have to become vocal and lend their support to good causes like the preservation and protection of our town's history.
On a personal note, I would like to thank the committee members -- Melanie Marks, Jeanne Harrison and David Sturges -- for their dedication and hard work; Carmen Tortora Jr. for his patience over these many years; and to Patricia Ritchie and the chamber for their contributions in trying to make this work.
While the structure itself will not be reassembled for another use, it appears that its history will live on in a small way. In an opinion piece submitted to the Fairfield Citizen, David Sturges, a descendent of the Sturges family, wrote, that "all will not be lost in the Cottage demolition. Its salvaged Gothic Revival components will now appropriately go to the upkeep of the main house at 449 Mill Plain Road. A longstanding commitment by Carmen Tortora to Mary Rousseau will be gratefully honored. Furthermore, the period history educational syllabus development will continue between the family and the Fairfield Museum and History Center."
That is welcomed news.