Fairfield 375: Town green is the historic heart of Fairfield
Published 11:01 am, Friday, September 26, 2014
EDITOR'S NOTE: Fairfield, established in 1639, is one of Connecticut's oldest communities. From its settlement 375 years ago by English colonists on "four squares" of land that Native Americans called Uncoway to the vibrant town of 60,000 residents that it is today, Fairfield's history is a chronicle of compelling events and colorful characters.
The Fairfield Citizen will highlight vignettes from that rich history throughout this 375th anniversary year on a regular basis.
The town green is as much a part of the New England landscape as the town meeting was as a fundamental element of local government in early settlements throughout New England.
Fairfield's Town Hall building sits on a green that for nearly four centuries has been the site of a school, a jail and a tavern, as well as the town's seat of government -- part of one of the original "four squares" that comprised the heart of the settlement in 1639. Today, a quartet of historic structures stand around the green: the "old" Town Hall, the Old Academy, the Sun Tavern and the Victorian cottage.
An early town hall, probably called the town house or meeting house, may have been built in Fairfield as early as 1645, according to historian Thomas Farnham. Parts of the existing Town Hall structure date to 1794, but the building was remodeled many times, finally undergoing a major renovation in 1936 designed to restore its original design. That remodeling project was paid for by Emma Jennings Auchincloss, a wealthy member of the town's elite Jennings family.
Many of the municipal offices were later moved to a new building that sits behind the Burr Homestead, and was renamed John J. Sullivan-Independence Hall in honor of the late first selectman, who served in the office from 1959 to 1983.
Also situated on Town Hall Green, the Old Academy schoolhouse -- built in 1804 -- is now the headquarters of the Eunice Dennie Burr Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. The mission of the DAR chapter, which was started in 1894, is "to preserve our heritage through education, preservation and patriotism." Hundreds of schoolchildren visit the restored Old Academy schoolhouse each year, getting a flavor for was it was like to attend school in Fairfield's early years.
The Victorian Cottage now houses the Fairfield Museum and History Center's collection of antique and modern tools. A "Carpenter Gothic" structure, the cottage was originally a gardener's quarters and tool storage.
The Sun Tavern was built by Samuel Penfield in 1780 after many buildings surrounding the green were burned during the Revolutionary War when British troops attacked the town a year earlier. George Washington really did sleep there on the night of Oct. 16, 1789, which, if history is correct, was the second time the first president of the United States spent a night in Fairfield. Then-General Washington also spent a night in the Burr Homestead in 1775 before he became president.
Today, Town Hall Green is the focal point of the Old Post Road Historic District, and is the site of the town's Honor Roll paying tribute to Fairfield's military veterans and the towering fir tree that during the holiday season is decorated to serve as the town Christmas tree.