Sturges cottage: a lesson in preservation planning, an exhibition of community
Published 1:44 pm, Thursday, October 28, 2010
In the historic preservation cause here in Fairfield, Casey Stengel's old baseball axiom certainly could apply: "Ya win some; Ya lose some, and some get rained out!" The exhaustive effort to save the Sturges Atkinson Gardener's Cottage falls somewhere between team loss and game rained out.
The search for a new location and use for this rare, Gothic Revival, 170-year-old structure has gone on for four years, thanks to the persistent efforts of we members of the Gardener's Cottage Committee; the laudable patience of its owner, Carmen Tortora, the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation, Governor Rell's Office and the attempts by our First Selectman, Ken Flatto, to find a way the Town could be a catalyst help. Administrative scrutiny of it, however, was muddled by politics and the financial underwriting was justifiably rendered unrealistic by the "Great Recession" effects on our community over the past two years.
All along, there were no complete stars or full fumblers in the game. We tended to vent our frustration with the rebuffs which didn't help the climate but the heritage stakes were high and the passion generated therein should be completely understandable.
From the beginning, the cottage project was conceived by the family and carried along by the supporting team with three goals: to preserve its architectural specie, to keep its heritage visibility within the Mill Plain corridor and to commit it to public use, as Jonathan and Frederick Sturges Jr. each would have expected as the loyal Town benefactors they were in their generation and times. One only has to cast a new eye over Sturges Park and the former Mt. David Farm property, now the high and middle school campus, to realize the enduring impact of their gifts, forgotten over the past sixty years.
Had this cottage project succeeded, it would have accomplished an additional goal as another landmark exponent providing a badly-needed illumination of the 19th and early 20th century period of Fairfield's history when our family, together with the Jennings, Lashars, Warners and many others paid for and provided the educational and cultural resources for Fairfield when it was a smaller agricultural municipality with next to no taxpayer dollars for these purposes.
Despite its now not-to-be role as the Town Chamber of Commerce Office and Visitors Center on the site earlier approved on Mill Plain Road, 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 long standing 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.
For preservation projects to come, the learning curve emerging with this loss is plain. In tough economic times, these endeavors must be combined public and private coalitions to be viable. Both ends have to firmly commit to a positive outcome. The privately-sought contributions, however, have to be collected to the maximum and fronted first if earnest money is to talk in obtaining grants and taxpayer appropriations. Secondly, the cost estimations and professional contracting approach must be solid and feasible beyond doubt to survive agency scrutiny. In the case of this cottage, its ancient balloon construction and advancing deterioration could not, code wise, have been more than a replication in the restoration and preservation scope.
Meanwhile, nobody can say that we did not try! My thanks are owed to many, first to cousin Mary Rousseau for her family senior counsel and motherly concern; to Carmen Tortora, who went above and beyond to help facilitate the relocation; to Melanie Beale Marks who tirelessly organized the needs and contacts to keep things moving; to all Town officials who gave of their evaluation time. Finally, to fellow GCC Co-chairman Jeanne Harrison and all committee supporters who constantly turned out at the meetings and advocated for approvals. This collective devotion represented the best of Fairfield's spirit and involvement.
Our town's full history and its extant buildings, sites and artifacts require the stewardship of ALL residents and are worthy of proportional investment and allocation along with recreational and service needs dominating the assignment of taxpayer and civic dollars. This popular realization will help, beyond anything else, other projects to succeed.