Greenwich Historical Society: Preserving and Reimagining Bush-Holley Historic Site

By Special Contributor posted 02-05-2021 18:25

  

By Debra Mecky

 In 2020, Greenwich Historical Society was awarded the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Trustees Emeritus Award for Historic Site Stewardship. We are now accepting award nominations for 2021 through February 15

In 2018 Greenwich Historical Society completed a five-year plan to advance its mission and make a greater contribution to the community. At the heart of our $13.5 million dollar capital project was the reimagining of our suburban campus to restore and integrate historic Toby’s Tavern into the National Historic Landmark Bush-Holley House site, while also welcoming the entire community through strong, engaging interpretation and programming. The state and national award-winning project benefitted from thoughtful planning, thorough documentation, and sensitive design. It also attracted unprecedented public and private support with expanded revenue-producing events that provide a sustainable model for historic sites who seek to strengthen engagement with, and in service to, their constituents. 

View of the Greenwich Historical Society Complex
View of the Historical Society Museum  & Library Building. | Credit: Durston Saylor

Historical Background and Context

At the core of Greenwich Historical Society is the Bush-Holley House, a circa 1730 National Historic Landmark in the Cos Cob section of Greenwich. The house’s origin extends back to the early 18th century. The residence survived the war on the frontier between loyalist New York and patriot Connecticut and was home to people enslaved by the Bush family, who were among the last to experience emancipation in Connecticut. In the late-19th century, the house became a “cradle of American Impressionism,” hosting prominent artists such as John Twachtman and Childe Hassam. However, by the mid-20th century, changing demographics, suburban development and modern roadways threatened and eroded this important historical precinct surrounding the Bush-Holley House. 

Recognizing the house’s incredibly diverse past and important untold narratives, Greenwich Historical Society saved and restored the landmark Bush-Holley House as their headquarters in 1957—a heroic community feat overcoming the formidable path of Interstate-95 construction. Now the building serves an integral role for the Historical Society’s broader mission “to preserve and interpret Greenwich history to strengthen the community’s connection to our past, to each other and to our future.” 

Exterior of the Bush-Holley House
Exterior of the Bush-Holley House | Credit: Greenwich HIstorical Society

Growing Pains and a Preservation Opportunity

Over the next three decades, the rapid growth of the Historical Society’s museum and archival collections, coupled with an increase in staff, strained the physical limits of the Bush-Holley House and barn. In 1987 the Historical Society began a steady program of expansion, construction and acquisition— as the organization required more and more space for administrative and program needs. 

However, by 2010, it was painfully apparent that its mission and operation had outgrown the additional spaces, hitting a formidable barrier that hindered our future. With inadequate room for collections and interpretative programs, and limited  physical accessibility due to physical constraints of a steep hillside, it was vital for the Society to reevaluate its entire site and existing structures to create a more functional and cohesive historic campus, while maintaining the historic integrity of the National Landmark. 

An etching made by Childe Hassam called Toby’s Cos Cob, 1915.

Childe Hassam, Toby’s Cos Cob, 1915. Etching on paper. Greenwich Historical Society. | Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Hugh B. Vanderbilt

Essential to our future expansion was the acquisition and restoration of Toby’s Tavern in 2012. Located between the Storehouse and the museum’s leased parking area under Interstate-95, the building was the missing puzzle piece that allowed for the transformation and unification of the entire site. Its adaptive-use restoration returned the building to its original three-story Italianate appearance during the art colony era and was based on a Historic Structure Report with extensive analytical studies including documentary, physical and photographic research done by David Scott Parker Architects. The firm’s schematic drawings demonstrated to donors and stakeholders the feasibility of its restoration, which would allow for a unified, restored streetscape providing visual context for the Bush-Holley House, with the Storehouse and Toby’s Tavern restored to their historic appearance, as documented in photographs and paintings during the Cos Cob art colony era. 

The design of the expanded campus demanded a highly-sophisticated approach to preservation, and required patience, commitment and leadership from the board and staff. The site topography and location near the Mianus River I-95 overpass posed unique challenges: Bush-Holley House is sited 30 feet above street level and Toby’s Tavern’s basement is in a flood plain. All the improvements required consideration of the integral relationship between Bush-Holley House and its historic landscape, ADA-compliant accessibility, and its outdoor site use, including heirloom gardens, family programs and rentals to private and community partners. 

To accomplish this the project involved unravelling many layers, and studies undertaken included detailed calculations of current and future collections storage needs, zoning and flood plain analyses, and financial plans for programmatic priorities for collections, exhibitions and visitor services. The visual power of David Scott Parker’s many beautifully-illustrated schematics enabled the Master Planning Committee and board to make important but difficult decisions, such as seeing the benefit of removing the non-historic (c. 1987) former archives building to restore the original gardens and relocating all new construction behind Toby’s Tavern, where a single elevator would provide physical access to the entire site. 

An Unexpected Challenge Gift

The board engaged consulting firm Koszyn & Company to craft a compelling case statement and conduct a feasibility study. At this point in the process, the unexpected occurred when anonymous donors offered to match contributions dollar for dollar until the required $13.5 million had been raised for the project, which inspired pledges from 100% of the board members. Jayme Koszyn and her team skillfully coached our staff and Capital Campaign Committee, chaired by Peter L. Malkin—a committed preservationist whose wife Isabel Malkin continues as the longest-serving member of the Historical Society’s board—through a highly successful three-year campaign. 

Strategic alliances formed by Malkin included enlisting as Honorary Co-chairs the Town’s First Selectman, State Senator and U.S. Senator—along with their spouses, all Greenwich residents and Historical Society members. Our “Reimagine the Campus” capital campaign attracted wide public support from the Town’s Community Development Block Program (to improve site accessibility by adding an elevator to the new Museum building), the State Historic Restoration Fund (to convert the Storehouse to staff offices), and the Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development (to double the parking area and create ADA-compliant walkways); and The Institute of Museum and Library Services awarded a grant for the archives storage equipment and collections move, and local garden clubs underwrote the restoration of historic gardens. 

With initial success from public funds and private donors to meet the financial challenge, the project was completed on budget and one year ahead of schedule. Since its opening in 2018, the award-winning 10,000 square-foot Museum and Library Building and reimagined spaces have provided new opportunities to engage the community through exhibitions, historic gardens and education programs, while also providing new revenue streams from increased admissions, museum store and site rentals. 

When COVID-19 restricted indoor access, and the community was starved for safe places to gather while social distancing, staff harnessed the additional green space to offer lawn concerts and intimate farmer’s markets. The renewed and expanded Greenwich Historical Society was reaccredited by the American Alliance of Museums in 2020 and is today at the forefront of the nation’s important local historical institutions and sites. The successful restoration and integration of the historic Toby’s Tavern into the Bush-Holley site provides a platform for strong and engaging interpretation and programming that is essential to organizational sustainability. 

Debra Mecky, PhD, is The Debra L. Mecky Executive Director & CEO at Greenwich Historical Society. For 24 years she has led the organization through reinterpretation, restoration, accreditation and programmatic expansion of the Bush-Holley historic site on the Cos Cob harbor in Greenwich, Connecticut. Bush-Holley House is a National Historic Landmark, and the site is a member of the Connecticut Art Trail and the Historic Artists Homes and Studios program of the National Trust.

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