Two Ridgefield landmarks whose histories entwine

Gustafson3Two Ridgefield landmarks are celebrating significant anniversaries this year, and the public is invited to join in the celebrations. The iconic marble fountain at the intersection of Main Street and West Street was installed 100 years ago this year and the Keeler Tavern Museum, a short distance away at 132 Main Street, was founded 50 years ago.

Their common denominator is the renowned architect Cass Gilbert, the most celebrated architect of his generation and best known today for designing the Woolworth Building in New York City and the US Supreme Court Building in Washington, D.C. He purchased the then-10-acre historic tavern property in 1907 as a summer home, retaining the historic tavern that had been established in 1713, and adding a wing for family living. He also built an office, created a sunken garden and garden house, and added a carriage barn. The property belonged to members of his family until 1957.

Gilbert designed the fountain as a gift to the town, and it was installed between April and June 1916. Due to some local politics at the time, however, the fountain was never formally dedicated or accepted by the town. That was rectified during a ceremony last Saturday, with Ridgefield First Selectman Rudy Marconi presiding.

Keeler Tavern Museum board member and historian Charlie Pankenier shared the history of the fountain, noting that some have suggested that it is cursed, pointing to “at least a dozen assaults by automobile,” the first time in 1942. The most devastating accident occurred when it was crushed by a Hummer in 2003, which resulted in an extensive repair of the fountain and rebuilding of its foundation.

The fountain is at the intersection of two state roads (Routes 33 and 35), and the state Department of Transportation had on a number of occasions urged the fountain be moved and its island eliminated.

The push to move the fountain was particularly intense in the late 1980s, so the town conducted a survey that showed eight out of ten residents wanted the fountain to remain, Pankenier said. Barbara Ireland, Ridgefield’s state representative at the time, introduced legislation to protect the fountain’s location, which was passed, requiring that the fountain could never be moved without the approval of Ridgefield’s Board of Selectmen.

In another “alignment of the stars” in its golden anniversary year, the museum this spring purchased an adjacent red brick Georgian-style building; it had been the home of Patricia and the late Dr Robert Mead, as well as his dental office, since 1957. (Dr. Mead was the leader of many fountain repairs over the years, painstakingly reconstructing it with a team of volunteers, sometimes even using dental epoxy.) The building was constructed by Cass Gilbert’s widow after he died in 1937, and was originally designed as a museum and library to house the architect’s vast collection of papers, drawings, blueprints and photographs, but while dedicated as a museum, the property became a residence for members of the Gilbert family until it passed to ownership by the Meads.

It will be renovated to by provide a visitor center and additional exhibit space, archival and collections storage for Keeler Tavern Museum, as well as essential facilities for an expanding education initiative. Its acquisition means that the streetscape of the picturesque historical campus will now extend for some 350 feet along Ridgefield’s Main Street.

The Keeler Tavern Museum. — Photo by Jack Sanders
The Keeler Tavern Museum. — Photo by Jack Sanders

Hildegard Grob, the museum’s executive director, said, “It was a happy coincidence that we were able to reacquire the building in the museum’s 50th anniversary year, and it will be a real asset for the education initiative we launched several years ago. The vision since the museum’s founding 50 years ago has grown tremendously … it has become considerable larger than its founders ever imagined what it would become.

“Most people are aware of the tavern’s Revolutionary War history and the cannon ball from the Battle of Ridgefield — the only inland battle the British fought in Connecticut — that remains embedded in one wall, but there is tremendous historical significance to this site. This is a rare building, having survived more than 300 years in the same location… it never burned, it wasn’t torn down. The nation’s history — not only the Revolutionary War, but the Civil War, the Industrial Revolution, the Gilded Age — can be reflected through the eyes of the people who lived here, which also helps teach us about contemporary history. We are striving to become a more regional historical resource learning center.”

For the past few years, Keeler Tavern Museum has been developing educational tours for school students, some in cooperation with the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum at 258 Main Street.

“The museum foundation has considerably expanded school programs along state and Common Core guidelines, including offer full-day concentrated experiences that are very immersive. We can be a classroom for history and civics lesson, students can learn from the artifacts in the museum’s collection. We have doubled our the number of school visitors over the last year,” Grob added.

Has the museum seen more student interest in history with the immense popularity of Hamilton?

“We are definitely riding the Hamilton wave,” she replied. “One of the presentations has docents re-enacting the local debates about whether to join the Revolution or remain with the crown. Local lawyer Keith Harriton has adapted some of his arguments to the rap style of Hamilton, much to the delight of school-age visitors.”

Grob also pointed out that the museum, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, receives no government funding and is totally supported by memberships, donors, grants, lots of volunteers and rental income from Garden House, a popular spot for weddings, celebrations, luncheons. The former carriage barn is used for art exhibits.

On July 4, the museum will host a watermelon picnic on its grounds from 1 to 3 p.m., replicating its opening July 4, 1966. There will be a ceremonial slicing of a watermelon followed by a reading of the Declaration of Independence. Live music will play on the garden terrace, old-fashioned children’s games and period crafts will be available on the lawn and tours of the museum will be offered, all free of charge. Watermelon will be freely dispensed and visitors can purchase food from onsite vendors.

The Keeler Tavern Museum offers docent-led tours of its period-furnished building February through December (Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday, 1 to 4 pm; adults, $8; children and seniors, $5) and the garden is open to the public all year, except during private events.

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