Home of Fairfield's 'First-in-Flight' contender razed despite preservation drive
As glum aviation buffs looked on, the house built by the man who may have been the first to fly was demolished Monday morning to make way for a new home.
The appearance of a power shovel and dump trucks from AA Building Wrecking of Fairfield culminated a frantic three-week effort to save the home. Supporters of this effort maintain that the house was built nearly 100 years ago, and thus should have been given a 60-day reprieve from demolition. This would have given them time to find a place to relocate the bungalow and to raise the funds needed to move and restore it as a historical artifact.
They couldn't prove, however, that it was, in fact, 100 years old -- the age necessary to meet the town's requirement for the 60-day delay. By all accounts, it missed that specification by only a few months.
"They really should have been a little more flexible with the 100-year requirement," said Jim Salace, who was one of several Whitehead supporters on Alvin Street Monday morning as the house was being taken down. "I mean, after all, he was the first man to fly an airplane."
On Friday, Fairfield First Selectman Michael Tetreau issued a lengthy news release in which he said that he had no choice but to let the demolition proceed.
"This home has been thoroughly researched in an attempt to preserve it," Tetreau said. "We know that the Alvin Street property ... was purchased by the Whiteheads on May 27, 1914. The developer filed his permit application on April 10, 2014. Because the difference between these two dates is less than 100 years, the house does not qualify for the additional 60-day delay in demolition."
She said that if the town of Fairfield "didn't have the wherewithal" to save the home, the state of Connecticut should have stepped in.
"Fairfield's leadership has missed the boat on this one and listened to very poor advice," Brinchman said. "I am completely disgusted."
Brinchman was especially irked by Tetreau's statement: "These components (saved from the demolition) can be used when constructing a replica to help in honoring this historic man."
To which Brinchman quipped, "Who would visit a replica house when you could have the real thing? Ridiculous."
Her father's book, "History by Contract," detailed the agreement between the Smithsonian Institution and the survivors of William and Orville Wright in which the Wright Flyer would remain in the possession of the Smithsonian only as long as it's labeled as the first heavier-than-air aircraft to get off the ground. That flight took place near Kitty Hawk, N.C., on Dec. 17, 1903.
Dwyer's book and other research has Whitehead flying in his Condor airship in the early hours of Aug. 14, 1901, nearly two-and-a-half years earlier. And there have been doubts raised in recent years about whether the Wrights actually achieved "controlled flight" in 1903.
The huge Caterpillar 320-L hydraulic excavator taking down the small bungalow daintily removed the more historically significant bits and pieces of the house; these could become part of one or more memorials to Whitehead.
"They're going to store parts of the house at the town garage," said Tom Keiser, who was supervising the demolition crew. Town dump trucks were on the scene to cart away this historic material.
The home is in the Tunxis Hill part of town, just up the hill from Super Stop & Shop on Villa Avenue. At the dawn of the 20th century, Whitehead may have staged flight experiments near what is now the parking lot of that supermarket, which sits at the corner of Tunxis Hill Road.
"He may have flown from the cliff where the Nutmeg bowling alley is today," Salace said.
Earlier Monday, Salace was at Town Hall in a last-ditch attempt to save the home. He wanted to present Tetreau with a petition signed by nearly 200 people asking that the house be saved. But the first selectman was out on official business, Salace said, so he left the petition with his office staff.
Meanwhile, Andy Kosch, of the Connecticut Air & Space Center in Stratford, said that with permission of the developer of the Alvin Street property, Gary Tenk of Stratford, he removed the bungalow's porch railing.
Kosch built a full-size copy of the Whitehead flyer in 1986. The model was towed aloft by a car with Academy Award-winning actor Cliff Robertson at the controls. The craft later flew on its own, too, powered by an ultralight aircraft engine.
"The railing and other parts could be used as an exhibit when we open up the historic Curtiss Hangar at Sikorsky Airport," he said. "There should be enough there to build exhibits in Fairfield, Bridgeport and Stratford."
He said an old wooden tool box was found in the cellar, and he hopes an investigation of the yard might yield some metal bits and pieces of the aircraft.
"If there is anything of value there, I'm sure Mr. Tenk will let us have it." Kosch said.
In March 2013, the bible of flying machines, "Jane's All the World's Aircraft," officially endorsed Whitehead as the first man to build and fly a powered heavier-than-air aircraft, beating the Wright Brothers into the sky by more than two years.