Demolition of Whitehead house delayed as town reviews records

First Selectman Michael Tetreau has granted historical preservationists a brief delay on the planned demolition of a Fairfield house built and owned by aviation pioneer Gustave Whitehead, who some believe should be credited with the first manned flight instead of the Wright brothers.

"I was hoping they'd save the house and not let another piece of history from this area go," said Dolly Curtis, who organized a protest at the Alvin Street house Tuesday. "People are calling me up, offering money. But we don't know where to move (the house)."

The stay on demolition was instigated by new information that may prove the house is 100 years old -- the age set by a local ordinance that requires a 60-day delay on plans to raze a structure.

The documents in question were discovered by Melanie Marks, founder and president of Connecticut House Histories, who did a title search on the property this week.

She found a property tax record that shows that Gustave Whitehead's wife, Louise Whitehead, purchased four lots on Alvin Street in 1914. She got a mortgage on that property on Jan. 28, 1915. Tax records from that year also show a house existed on the property.

Marks gave town officials the information Thursday.

"Hopefully at least we'll have an extra day. I just hope (the owner) understands the significance of this house," she said.

Curtis said she received calls Thursday from neighbors who said workers were taking measurements at the property and removing electrical components. "I think it's shameful," she said.

Tetreau said the town's assessor will review the documents Monday to determine whether the town's records, which indicate the house was built in 1918, are incorrect.

"We've asked the owner to delay for a few days so we can clarify the information Ms. Marks provided," he said.

Jane's All The World's Aircraft, the technical bible for aeronautical engineers and pilots, last year credited Whitehead as the first to build an operational heavier-than-air flying machine. Newspapers in Whitehead's day published stories about his flight a full two years before the Wright brothers -- but no known photo of the event exists, hampering official documentation.

Opponents of the demolition held a protest Tuesday in front of the bungalow at 184 Alvin St. Another was planned for Friday morning.

"Things have been really rolling along," said Stephen Link, who has asserted that his grandmother was the last living eyewitness of Whitehead's flights. "It's Good Friday, a bad time. But the point is the signs and the people have to be there as long as there's still a backdrop."

Curtis said she hopes a 60-day stay would provide enough time to find funds to move the house to another location.