The Greenwich Historical Society, the only true official authority on the 370 years that comprise this town’s past, is a serious, disciplined and scholarly organization. Of that I have no doubt. And yet, it stretches the very limits of conceivability when I notice that it devotes a scant five paragraphs on its website to the history of this town. That’s right, just five paragraphs (approximately 450 words) on a community whose origins go back nearly to the dawn of northern European colonization in North America. Five paragraphs, of which one is devoted to giving a general overview of Greenwich as it is now. So, that makes it four.
There is something to be said for brevity, I will admit, the old adage “less is more” certainly holds true in many circles, but this was inexcusable; especially when I found out in the Greenwich Time that $150,000 of the town’s annual budget went to this association. Yes, indeed, I do believe they could make the effort to come up with something slightly more substantial on their website. I have a volume on Spanish History called “An Introduction to the History of Spain” and this abridged version is 1060 pages long. I fret to think where I would have to go if I wanted to research the subject more thoroughly. The same is not required of the Greenwich Historical Society, but I feel something more in depth than 450 words is in order.
People who go to these pages don’t normally do so in search of a video game; I can assure you we can handle more.
I had been nosing around there because I hoped to do a little research homework before stopping over to see the place myself. It had been so long since the last time I was there that I could hardly recall where it was, which, now that you ask, is in the Bush-Holley House, probably the town’s most historic building. Fitting. I was also trying to find out if the name of the place had anything to do with the Bush family, since they have been associated with this town for several generations. George senior went to school here, and his father, Senator Prescott Bush, not only lived inGreenwich, he was buried here. But I could find no connection between the two, which doesn’t necessarily mean anything. Anyway, after further investigating from different sources, this is what I did find:
The first sections of the Bush-Holley House were built around 1730 making it one of the oldest standing structures in town. In the 1870s it opened as a boarding house and by the 1890s, the scenic land around Cos Cob harbor served as a perfect backdrop for a handful of impressionist artists and painters who would form one of Connecticut’s first art colonies, known rather uninspiringly as the Cos Cob Art Colony. Founded in 1889 by the artist John Henry Twachtman, this school of creative individuals was formed by some ofAmerica’s finest impressionist painters who would spend extended stays at the Holley Boarding House and let their artistic juices flow freely. They even started the local Greenwich Art Society for which my mother would volunteer for several years.
I had hoped to get to the Bush-Holley House earlier during my trip, but the holidays are a time when making progress of any kind is a near impossibility, so I kept putting off the visit until the final few days finally came upon us, which is an extremely questionable strategy, because I tend to do that with a lot of plans and before I know it, I have dozens of to-do lists which slowly turn into undoable lists.
But that was only part of the problem. The museum’s thrifty timetable didn’t help either. Apparently in the wintertime, according to the website, the place was only open to the public from Wednesday to Sunday, because, I’m surmising here, no one wants to go early in the week. I knew stopping by at this point in the game, just 48 hours before take-off, would further strain the tension of the closing days of vacation crunch, but there was little I could do to avoid this. We were, as they say, running out of time. To keep time issues to a minimum, I chose early Wednesday as the moment to go for it and see what was there.
As it turned out, the information on the website was erroneous. Had this come from a different source, I might have been a touch perplexed, but somehow that was not my impression. I should have guessed as much as we went up the wooden steps of the porch to knock on the door and sensed the place was deserted. A young woman, who reminded me of someone I knew when I was growing up but couldn’t exactly remember who, politely informed us that the Bush-Holley House only served the public on the weekends during the winter. If that didn’t give you an idea of the numbers of tourists we were talking about, I can’t say what would.
“But the webpage says you would be open…” I stammered. I really don’t know why I brought up this inane point; after all, if she said it was closed, well then it must have been closed; it wasn’t like she was going to turn around and announce, “Well, if that what the website says, then by all means, we’re just gonna have to let you in.” Maybe it was my sense of indignation that what was stated on the internet did not correspond to reality and that the truth was somehow in need of being brought to their attention…or some kind of bullshit like that. Objectively, I could completely understand, but it all came as a great disappointment all the same. Maybe I could sneak in a visit early Friday.
I turned around and looked out from the porch and I thought for a second about the art colony. Here on this very spot, painters moved by the impressionist movement that was upending artistic convention in Europe passed their time immortalizing this gentleConnecticutharbor. Those idyllic views that once inspired so many imaginative minds over a century before had been substantially altered since then. Interstate 95 and the infamousMianusRiverBridgewhich spans the marina forever obliterated the beauty that once graced this area.
This is part of progress, I know, and I accept it…but it hurts.
So with great forlornness, I led my family back to the car where we warmed our bodies in the interior and pulled out of the parking lot substantially defeated by disillusionment. But the effects were only short term. There was plenty to do that day so not all was lost, and I for one was not going to let the extremely limited opening hours of the Bush-Holley House douse my drive to take in a little culture for that day.
We got back on the Post Road, passed the Greenwich High Schooland drove up Putnam Hill. At this point, I spotted the gray rock on the right hand side where the Put supposedly launched his heroic retreat. Screw it, I said to myself. This time I was not going to hold back. I was not going to give in to family pressure. I was not going to go by that goddamn stone monument again without taking a closer look, because, this being the epicenter of the town’s most heart-pounding seconds in history, the least I could do is find out how the event was honored and maybe in passing relive those exhilarating seconds of the past.
I pulled in Old Church Road and decided to park the car, a magnificent plan until I realized that there was no where to leave the car. That’s just what happens here in town. I really can’t say it’s something peculiar to Greenwich; much ofConnecticutsuffers from this disease. As a good American-law-fearing citizen, I was wary of leaving it just anywhere so as not to stir any suspicion in the local authorities. People who park their cars where they shouldn’t, are often suspect to just about anything.
You have to work hard to get into a law-enforcer’s mind to understand their train of thought. As a result, there was always the latent possibility that the minute you get out Johnny Law was going to roar up and ask you what the nature of your business was, like “What in Sam’s Hill you doing here, boy?”
“Just going to read what it says on the monument over there.”
“Why? What’s it to you?”
“Just out of curiosity.”
“Got a permit?”
“Uh, didn’t know I needed one. I was born and raised here.”
“Don’t matter. Even Greenwich residents have to have one. Like the beaches. That’s historical praperdy thar and we don’t want no vaindals marring the good name of Genral Israyel Putn’m, here? Maybe you’re a terrorist.” To be honest, I don’t really envision theGreenwichpolice talking like, especially with that spanking new Beverly Hills Cop like station they have just off the Avenue, but it is fun to pretend.
I got out, pulled up my belt and asked who wanted to come. My daughters were entrenched in some kind of bickering that prevented them from wanting to join; no one found any amusement in going to a small stone monument on the side of the road, so I let them have it their way and made the brief journey on my own to the corner of the street and over the grassy terrain to where the granite block, at least it looked like granite, stood. There I started to read the inscription:
This marks the spot where on February 26, 1779, General Israel Putnam, cut off from his soldiers and pursued by the British cavalry, galloped down this rocky steep and escaped, daring to lead where not one of many hundred foes dared to follow.
Daughters of the American Revolution, 1900
Now, presented that way, we are certainly treated to a version that warrants a scene in a movie script. But after transcribing onto my notepad what was engraved on the slab in front of me, one thought came to mind: the local delegation of the daughters of the American Revolution clearly had a thing for this man. You almost sensed he was their spiritual leader.