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Moving Forward, Looking Back / Genesis of Fairfield U. campus a minor miracle

Updated 3:48 pm, Tuesday, May 21, 2013
  • Bellarmine Hall, one of Fairfield University's signature structures, was built in 1920 as "Hearthstone Hall," the main house on the Lashar estate. The Jesuits got a heavenly deal on the entire estate when they bought it from the town in 1942. Photo: Contributed Photo / Fairfield Citizen contributed
    Bellarmine Hall, one of Fairfield University's signature structures, was built in 1920 as "Hearthstone Hall," the main house on the Lashar estate. The Jesuits got a heavenly deal on the entire estate when they bought it from the town in 1942. Photo: Contributed Photo

 

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Fairfield University and Fairfield Prep are so tightly bound into Fairfield's fabric that it seems like they've been here forever. In fact, having arrived in the early 1940s, they're relative newcomers to our colonial town. How did Fairfield end up with a centrally-located, 200-acre Jesuit campus? It's an intriguing story of the dispersal of a prominent Fairfield family, fortunes made and lost, and uncannily-timed, extraordinarily favorable transfers of real estate.

The Society of Jesus has a centuries-long tradition of teaching. By the fall of 1941, there were two dozen Jesuit colleges and universities in the United States. But amid Fordham, Holy Cross and Boston College, the Jesuit New England Province envisioned a preparatory school and college in the greater Bridgeport area.

The initial search for a suitable campus came up empty. But just then, word came that the heirs of Oliver Gould Jennings were selling Mailands, his 40-room mansion on 76 of the finest acres in Fairfield.

The venerable Jennings family has deep Fairfield roots; it's no coincidence that there's a Jennings School, a Jennings Beach and a Jennings Road. Oliver Gould Jennings is best understood through his father, Oliver Burr Jennings. Oliver B., only 24 years old in 1849, sensed there was money to be made in the California Gold Rush, but not by panhandling. With a partner, he established a San Francisco business outfitting the hoards of neophyte Forty-Niners.

Unlike most of his customers, Oliver B. bypassed the hardships of the wilderness and got rather rich, rather quickly. He returned east intending to retire. But meanwhile, his wife's sister married a guy named William Rockefeller, who convinced Oliver to take a flyer on a little startup called Standard Oil. Oliver B. Jennings catapulted from the ranks of the merely rich into the very highest echelons of Gilded Age wealth. Yes, that kind of rich.

His fifth child, Oliver Gould Jennings, obviously had a good start in life, but had a distinguished public and business career in his own right. In 1905, he built the aforementioned Mailands on North Benson Road with sweeping views of the Long Island Sound. Jennings died in 1936, and by 1941, nostalgia was not enough for his scattered heirs to justify holding on to a 40-room, 76-acre hunk of pure overhead. The Jesuits purchased it in December 1941 for $43,879, effectively ending the Jennings glory days. In 2013 dollars, that's about $700,000, more or less what we might pay these days for a 3-bedroom colonial on a half acre.

The ink was hardly dry on the Mailands deed when providence again smiled on the Society of Jesus -- at the expense of Walter B. Lashar, a founder of American Chain and Cable.

In 1920, on the strength of an estimated $80 million fortune, Lashar built Hearthstone Hall, a lavish, 44-room English manor house on 105 acres right next door to Mailands. But Lashar's fortune went up in smoke in the 1929 stock market crash, and the few million dollars that remained was hardly enough to support a Hearthstone Hall lifestyle. After the real-estate taxes went unpaid for several years, the town seized the property -- almost to the day of the Jesuits' Mailands purchase.

In early 1942, First Selectman John Ferguson approached the Jesuits with an offer they couldn't refuse.

As reported in the April 1, 1942, Bridgeport Post, the Jesuits snapped up the Hearthstone Hall estate for back taxes and some fees, or $68,500.

What could Ferguson have been thinking? Perhaps he didn't want the town to be saddled with maintaining the deserted estate; perhaps he foresaw the benefits of Fairfield becoming a college town. Whatever his reasoning, the sale was widely considered a giveaway, and contributed to Ferguson's failure to be re-nominated for another term.

So, faster than you could say "Saint Ignatius of Loyola," the Jesuits owned a splendid 180-acre campus and what would become McAuliffe and Bellarmine halls. A few years later, for a stiff $28,500, the college added the 18-acre Morehouse property on the corner of Barlow and Round Hill roads.

In 1989, an expanding Fairfield University acquired the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur convent, conveniently adjacent to the old Mailands property. In creating the Dolan Campus, it became the indirect beneficiary of the catastrophic decline of John Fox. In the early 1950s, Mr. Fox, who once owned a controlling interest in Western Union, bought a 47-acre estate, complete with a 21-room mansion, which had been built for Oliver G.'s son, Lawrence. A costly adventure in the Boston newspaper business brought Fox to total ruin, and the Sisters took possession in 1959. Fox, a Harvard Law graduate and once-powerful tycoon, eked out a living playing piano in Boston waterfront bars until he died penniless and alone in 1985.

The alternate fate of the grand estates from a past age that make up today's Fairfield University complex cannot be known. What would Fairfield be like if we had a corporate headquarters on North Benson Road or a hillside full of McMansions instead? Who knows. But the Jesuits, perhaps with some divine assistance, have delivered unto us a cultural and educational asset and a driver of the town's economy. With dissenting opinions duly noted from those of us enduring student misbehavior in the beach neighborhood, I think we're the richer for it.

Go Stags!

Ron Blumenfeld is a Fairfield writer and retired pediatrician. His "Moving Forward, Looking Back" appears every other Wednesday. He can be reached at rblumen2@gmail.com.