How We Got Here

Greenwich’s story reaches back to John Winthrop, the New England statesman who gave America its enduring self-image of “a city upon a hill.” In 1630 Winthrop led a fleet of 800 Puritans across the Atlantic to the Massachusetts Bay, settling on land they would soon call Boston. Among those who crossed in the Winthrop Fleet were two of Greenwich’s three founders: Robert Feake, a London goldsmith, and Daniel Patrick, a soldier of fortune who, with John Underhill, would train the Massachusetts Bay militia and kill scores of Pequots.

Also among this wave of migrants was Winthrop’s feckless son Henry. Henry’s wife and first cousin, Elizabeth Fones Winthrop, was due to give birth in May 1630, but an impatient Henry set off with his father in April. Or meant to. As he was chasing some cattle around the Isle of Wight, John Winthrop’s lead ship, Arbella, left for the New World without him. Henry sailed a few days later aboard the Talbot, arriving on July 1. But everything Henry did seemed to turn out wrong. Next day, while trying to swim across a river to inspect some bark canoes, he drowned.

The widowed Elizabeth–the Winthrop Woman of legend–followed anyway, with her infant daughter, and soon married the respectable but eccentric Robert Feake. The family of three settled in Watertown, on the Charles River just west of Boston. Also living there were Daniel Patrick and his Dutch wife, Anneken. Captain Patrick was a skilled warrior but also a scoundrel. A Watertown maiden named Elizabeth Sturgis complained to Winthrop that Patrick trapped her in a basement “and put his hand into my bosom.” Eventually Patrick was either kicked out of the colony or left under a cloud of disrepute. He sailed to Old Greenwich exactly 375 years ago in April. Shortly thereafter, the Feakes also left Watertown and joined the Patricks here.

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” William Faulkner wrote. Our list of ten events that made our town what it is today–beginning with our unique founders–illustrates what Faulkner had in mind.

1 When We Were Bought, 1640
On July 18, 1640, Daniel Patrick and Robert Feake paid the local Siwanoys, including Chief Mayn Myanos and his son Keofferam, twenty-five English coats for what we now call Old Greenwich–the land between the stream that runs through Binney Park and the stream that runs through Innis Arden Golf Club. Elizabeth Feake bought Greenwich Point with her own money and called it “Elizabeth’s Neck.” (Jeffrey Ferris, a recent arrival in Stamford, appears to have bought a parcel in Old Greenwich first, but did not live there.)

The Patrick and the Feake families probably built their houses on Shore Road near Tomac Cove. Perhaps by Patrick’s design, Greenwich lay just beyond the bounds of the Puritan world; Stamford, bought on July 1, 1640, by Nathaniel Turner for the New Haven Colony, was then its farthest southern outpost. In other words, Greenwich was a no-man’s-land suitable for rebellious souls, nominally under the governance of New Netherland. The Dutch, headquartered at the southern tip of Manhattan (its northern wall is now Wall Street), were less churchy than the English, but gravely problematic in other ways, as we shall see. For twenty years the Dutch and the English bickered over Greenwich–who had control, what was the boundary line between them. If today our orientation remains as much New York as Connecticut, then the tendency can be traced back 375 years, to 1640.

Greenwich was no city upon a hill. Indeed, its first decade was almost unimaginably hellish. Before it ended, Daniel Patrick was murdered, Robert Feake went insane and then left town, and Elizabeth Feake shacked up with William Hallett, hired as Patrick’s replacement to protect the crude little settlement–an affair that so scandalized the Dutch (in an ironic reversal) that the couple had to flee to the New London household of John Winthrop, Jr.

The settlers’ difficulties played out under constant threat of Indian attack. In 1643, the story goes, the chief of the Siwanoys, Mayn Myanos, ambushed three white men, killing one and wounding another; the third, Daniel Patrick, shot Myanos dead. The Dutch then sailed from New Amsterdam to Greenwich, bent on exterminating the Siwanoys here. Patrick gave them directions to the encampment, supposedly in present-day Cos Cob, but the Dutch soldiers turned circles in the woods before retreating to the coast in frustration. They found Patrick at the Stamford abode of John Underhill. One officer, Hans Frederick, argued bitterly with Patrick, feeling he’d been duped; Patrick (being Patrick) let fly a few choice words and spat in Frederick’s face, then turned to leave. As he walked out the door, Frederick fired a round into the back of his skull.

The Dutch tried again in February 1644–this time under the ruthless command of Englishman John Underhill, who in 1637 had burned hundreds of Pequots alive at their fort in Mystic. What truly happened in Cos Cob is unknown; our earliest historian, Daniel Merritt Mead, wrote in 1857 that Underhill and his men surrounded the Siwanoy village of Petaquapen (near the present, misspelled, “Sinawoy” Road) and roasted the Indians in their little bark huts–a horrific Mystic redux. According to legend, hundreds of men, women and children perished in the attack, though no reliable account survives. While historians agree that some sort of massacre took place, the location is anything but certain: Bedford, Cross River, and the Kensico Reservoir area have all been proposed.

Whatever the case, the vanquishing of the Indians left Greenwich to become the (mostly) peaceable farming town that would characterize its next 250 years. Curiously, however, Indian place names–Mianus, Keofferam, Owenoke–to this day honor the ghosts of that lost civilization.

Israel Putnam was already a folk hero when the Revolutionary War commenced. As a young farmer in Pomfret, Connecticut, he crawled into the lair of a she-wolf that had been killing farmers’ livestock. Raising a torch to the wolf’s snarling face, Putnam shot her dead. In 1758, during the French and Indian War, he was captured by Indians and lashed to a tree, where he suffered “torments exquisite beyond endurance,” according to a historian of the day. The Indians then set fire to the tree, but a French commander swooped in and saved him, Errol Flynn-like, at the last second.

General Putnam’s storied exploits made him a favorite among the Continental soldiers of 1775. He was one of three main commanders at the Battle of Bunker Hill–which really took place on neighboring Breed’s Hill–but historians are divided both on Putnam’s performance and on whether it was he who uttered the immortal words, “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes.” According to Nathaniel Philbrick, Putnam and his men were, well, milling around on Bunker Hill while battle raged over on Breed’s Hill and Colonel William Prescott waited angrily for Putnam’s support. Undisputed is Putnam’s bumbling record after Bunker Hill–his hazy tactical judgment helped the British take control of New York in 1776. George Washington finally posted “Old Put” in Connecticut (Redding was his base) on the periphery of the war.

Greenwich gave Putnam a last hurrah. His escape from the British on horseback–down what we call Put’s Hill, on February 26, 1779–is the single greatest piece of Greenwich folklore. It’s why we have Putnam Avenue, Putnam Cemetery, why we long had Putnam Trust. His ride is even commemorated on the town flag.

But what really happened? We can’t be sure, for the story is swaddled in fancy. The most pleasing version has Putnam–staying at Knapp Tavern, the little house we now call Putnam Cottage–in mid-shave when he spied the redcoats in his mirror, advancing up the Post Road past Second Congregational Church. Without wiping the lather from his face, he burst out the back door, leapt on his horse, and, though fat and gimpy at age sixty, made the perilous descent down a rock-strewn path next to what is now the Greenwich High School football stadium. Legend has him turning to shake his fist at the British, who, evidently less courageous, pulled up short at the top of the hill (but shot a hole through his hat). Putnam rode all the way to Stamford for reinforcements.

It’s a little hard to see why the story carries such resonance here. The escape had no strategic importance, and Putnam was not a Greenwichite. Perhaps the story just satisfies our need for a mythology to call our own.

The change wrought by the arrival of the train here–on December 27, 1848–was nothing less than profound. Into this agrarian community accustomed to the pace of a horse-and-wagon came a mechanical beast that made our world smaller, faster, dirtier and richer (while many towns off the iron path withered away).

The train–at first a single track–prompted us to abandon the beloved but provincial-sounding name of “Horseneck” for the worldly “Greenwich.” It also brought teeming New York within close reach. Our first millionaire, Henry M. Benedict, a Wall Street gold broker, arrived in 1850, taking for his country getaway a large frame house on East Putnam Avenue where Whole Foods Market now stands. Other titans followed: Elias C. Benedict (banking), William A. Rockefeller (oil), “Boss” Tweed (graft), Robert M. Bruce (cotton), Jeremiah Milbank (railroads, condensed milk), Henry O. Havemeyer (sugar) and Nathaniel Witherell (metals). Still, daily commuting did not start until the 1880s. The train then became so croweded that, by one news account, Belle Haven’s James McCutcheon, the country’s leading linen merchant, dreamed up the idea of a “private club car” for the wealthy. It’s said that many a deal was struck within the club car’s plush environs.

The natural beauty and accessibility made Greenwich an ideal destination for “the tired mortals of the busy metropolis,” as one sales brochure put it. The most popular resort inn was Kent House, founded in 1876 at the foot of the then-unpopulated Belle Haven peninsula. (Kent House was razed in 1955 to make way for I-95.) Others included Mansion House, the Homestead and the Indian Harbor Hotel; the spectacular Edgewood Inn arrived in 1902. But the train was also a harbinger of Big Industry. When the massive Cos Cob power plant opened in 1907 to serve the New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad, its smokestacks scattered “Cos Cob snow” upon the picturesque landscape for decades.

Our greatest cultural legacy–too little-known today–is the cluster of American Impressionist painters based at Edward and Josephine Holley’s boarding house (now the Bush-Holley House, home of the Greenwich Historical Society) on Strickland Road from 1882 to 1920. Led by John H. Twachtman, J. Alden Weir, Childe Hassam and Theodore Robinson (a close friend of Monet), the colony “proved a crucible of artistic innovation,” according to Susan G. Larkin, author of the definitive Cos Cob Art Colony: Impressionists on the Connecticut Shore.

Though Impressionism was well underway in Europe, the style was still freakish in culturally immature America. Twachtman and Weir–to give an idea of their avant-ness–first painted in Greenwich in 1879, well before van Gogh painted The Starry Night or Cézanne painted Mont Sainte-Victoire. Weir acquired a farm in Wilton in 1882 and Twachtman bought one on Round Hill Road in 1889, where he painted the nearly abstract masterworks Winter Harmony and Snowbound. Twachtman and Weir also painted and taught in Cos Cob, which offered views of an America in transition: unspoiled marshland; the rugged harbor with its antiquated tide mill and sheds; the last packet boats and the first pleasure boats; and the iron trusswork of the railroad bridge crossing the horizon.

Childe Hassam, the second-most-famous American Impressionist (behind Mary Cassatt), created one of his best paintings, Bowl of Goldfish, inside the Holley house (his model was Helen Burke, daughter of a Cos Cob tavern keeper); other Hassam paintings feature the Holley porches, views of the harbor and Putnam Cottage. By the 1890s Cos Cob was an artists’ and writers’ nexus. (Writers associated with the colony included Willa Cather and Lincoln Steffens.) One painter, Elmer MacRae, married the Holleys’ daughter, Constant, and lived in the Holley house for the rest of his life. MacRae was among several Cos Cob artists to exhibit at the historic New York Armory Show of 1913, which he helped organize.

The Cos Cob painters helped the new Bruce Museum get going with a bang when their Greenwich Society of Artists held its first annual exhibition there in 1912. Louisine Havemeyer, Henry’s wife, perhaps the greatest early collector of Impressionist art, was an associate member of the GSA. Another renowned Greenwich collector, Joseph Hirshhorn, would later buy MacRae’s Armory Show papers and artworks. Greenwich may have turned out to be more of a collector town than an artist town, but its sense of culture began with Cos Cob.

Around 1880 Greenwich had a slightly feudal air: A few big houses looming over a rolling landscape of farms and fields. Before long, four leading citizens–Robert Bruce, Nathaniel Witherell, A. Foster Higgins and Thomas Mayo–turned 200 acres (to begin with) of waterfront pastureland into a “residence park” so spectacular that journalists compared it favorably to Newport, the summer seat of America’s aristocracy. In 1896 the New York Times called Belle Haven “the flower garden of Greenwich, and, indeed, of the whole Connecticut shore.” The paper noted, “The park was a farm and wood twelve years ago.”

Belle Haven Park was the result of the post-Civil War industrial boom that created the Gilded Age and a consequent desire to escape the dirty, noisy city. The firm of Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed Central Park with Calvert Vaux, laid out Belle Haven’s curving, lantern-lit streets. Soon the greatest Victorian architects–McKim, Mead and White, Peabody & Stearns, Lamb & Rich, C.P.H. Gilbert, Bruce Price–were designing “cottages” there for captains of industry. Among early residents were Edmund C. Converse, a founder of U.S. Steel; Horace Hutchins, a Rockefeller associate at Standard Oil who witnessed Lincoln’s murder; and Caleb S. Maltby, America’s oyster king.

Belle Haven provided the template for how prosperous Greenwich should develop. Nathaniel Witherell soon copied the Belle Haven plan in creating Field Point Park and Rock Ridge. Deer Park, Khakum Wood and the more modest Milbrook would follow suit; as would, 100 years later, E. C. Converse’s old backcountry estate–Conyer’s Farm.

“Sugar King” Henry O. Havemeyer, who had amassed a 200-acre estate in Old Greenwich, died in 1907. Eventually his mansion fell into disrepair and its grounds returned to wilderness. It was this land that Gene Tunney, the boxing champion who married Greenwich steel heiress Polly Lauder, envisioned as moderate-cost housing for returning war veterans. (Some 5,500 Greenwichites served.) Tunney purchased the land for $173,600 and immediately drew up a plan with streets named for war leaders: Halsey, Arnold, Lejeune, Marshall, Nimitz, MacArthur.

The little Capes and ranches began sprouting up in 1946–the dawn of modern suburbia–predating (barely) the Capes and ranches of that quintessential suburbia, Levittown, New York. Veterans flocked, but were soon followed by (or themselves became) junior executives–gray flannel suiters–who commuted to New York. Young families grew so quickly that Havemeyer Park acquired the nickname “Have-a-baby Park.” Certainly, when one thinks of the Leave It to Beaver fifties or the Bewitched sixties, one thinks of places like Havemeyer Park. It’s true that our town already had moderate-cost housing in traditionally blue-collar Cos Cob, Glenville and Byram, but those houses long predated World War II. Havemeyer Park was a new kind of experiment, embodying a future of optimism and prosperity.

The razing of the quaint old train station on Railroad Avenue and the rise of the glass, steel and concrete blocks known as Greenwich Plaza were shocking in their day. We had become a city at last. Old landmarks were rapidly falling away–The Maples Hotel (demolished in 1967, and replaced by Chesebrough-Pond’s), the Pickwick Arms (1972, replaced by Pickwick Plaza), the neoclassical library on Greenwich Avenue (1964, replaced by Woolworth)–as were the ancient frame houses that gave downtown its warmth (a block of them existed  where UST now stands).

Greenwich Plaza–and the rise of corporate Greenwich–symbolized our economic health, to be sure, but it also made us acutely conscious of our vanishing physical past. It’s no coincidence that the town acquired the Babcock Property in 1973 and established its first historic district (Strickland Road) in 1975, or that concerned citizens ramped up land trust efforts in the late sixties (the Greenwich Land Trust was incorporated in 1976). Progress or preservation? It’s a balance we’re still working on today.

A parallel development–signaled by the closing of the Greenwich Drug Store in 1987, after 126 years–was the decline of the mom-and-pop establishment. Rising rents would soon force the closure of almost every old standby, including Mead’s, Putnam Barber Shop, Favorite Shoe and Marks Brothers Stationery. Our once-folksy town was getting glitzy.

Greenwich might have vaulted onto the international stage after World War II, when the United Nations folks sought to build their world headquarters on a broad swath of the backcountry. We rightly sent them packing. But when the United States elected its only Greenwich-bred (if Texas-styled) president in 1988, George H. W. Bush, a bit of the glow landed on us. Arguably, the Bushes’ Adams-like political dynasty began when George’s father, Senator Prescott Bush, was elected moderator of Greenwich’s RTM in 1935.

The arc of the Bush family–locally esteemed to internationally famous–neatly parallels that of the town during the same period. For much of the twentieth century, Greenwich was a quiet place, if quietly powerful, evoking a sense of old-school WASP privilege. Beginning in the opulent, newly globalist eighties, we saw a steady influx of internationals: Japanese businessmen and their families (the Greenwich Japanese School arrived in 1992); Scandinavian shippers; European bankers (and tennis stars); jet-setting polo fans (who received the Duke and Duchess of York in 1987); even the former Empress of Iran, for crying out loud. In recent years, Chinese and Russian businessmen have taken residence here. The latest sign of our global scope is cultural: the Greenwich International Film Festival debuts in June.

Consider two book titles: More Money Than God, (2010, by Sebastian Mallaby) and The Gods of Greenwich (2011, by Norb Vonnegut). The suggested deities are worlds away from John Winthrop’s God: They are hedge-fund billionaires. Mallaby writes of the staggering riches involved, “At his death in 1913, J. Pierpont Morgan had accumulated a fortune of $1.4 billion in today’s dollars, earning the nickname “Jupiter” because of his Godlike power over Wall Street. But in the bubbly first years of this century, the top hedge-fund managers amassed more money than God in a couple of years of trading.”

The hedge fund is very much a Connecticut phenomenon. Alfred Winslow Jones, a journalist who lived in Redding, invented the “hedged fund,” as he called it, in 1949. His chief protégé, Wall Street legend Barton Biggs, was a Greenwich man. Today lower Fairfield County is to hedge funds what Silicon Valley is to computers. “If the hedge-fund boom has a capital,” the Wall Street Journal reported in 2005, “it is Greenwich. More than 100 hedge funds–private investment pools that cater to wealthy investors and institutions–have set up shop here.” Norb Vonnegut used the term “Hedgistan” to describe this new mecca, though some revised it to “Upper Hedgistan” to differentiate Greenwich from Manhattan.

The Greenwich gold rush began in the early nineties, when Paul Tudor Jones moved his business to the old Luce estate on King Street and his residence to Belle Haven. Other hedge-fund titans followed: Steven Cohen, Edward Lampert (since gone to Florida), Cliff Asness and Ray Dalio, who, at an estimated net worth of $15.4 billion, is the richest person in Connecticut. Again the money poured in, again the mansions rose. And the past lived anew.



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