Calling Greenwich Point one of the “jewels in the crown of Greenwich,” First Selectman Peter Tesei was one of many on hand to celebrate the beginning of the restoration of one of the most notable buildings there.
At a special ceremony on Sunday afternoon, the ceremonial shovels hit the ground for the formal restoration of the Old Barn, a piece of the Greenwich Point area that was once part of the J. Kennedy Tod estate. The building, which had been used as the north concession stand at the beach, has fallen into great disrepair due to age and weather, particularly from Hurricane Sandy in 2012, and now will be restored as part of a public/private partnership between the town and the Greenwich Point Conservancy.
The groundbreaking came on the successful restoration of the Innis Arden Cottage by the Greenwich Point Conservancy, and the event was a packed affair as close to 75 people braved the winter chill on the beach to join Mr. Tesei, U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), state Sen. L. Scott Frantz (R-36th), and state Reps. Stephen Walko (R-150th) and Fred Camillo (R-151st) as the first shovels went into the ground. The conservancy said it’s hoping for the same success for the Old Barn that it had at the cottage, and is naming a new building after one of the driving forces behind restoration and preservation at Greenwich Point.
Once the building is restored, it will be the home of the Sue H. Baker Pavilion at the Old Barn, and Chris Franco, president of the conservancy, took great pride in noting that where everyone was standing for the groundbreaking would eventually be the site of outdoor dining that would provide views of Long Island Sound.
“I’m confident that the Baker Pavilion will become a favorite community resource, much like the Innis Arden Cottage,” Mr. Franco said.
While the decision to name the building after Ms. Baker, a longtime teacher at Greenwich High School and other town schools as well as a conservancy co-founder and environmentalist, had been public for some time, the official announcement from Mr. Franco at the groundbreaking was greeted by enthusiastic cheers from the many in attendance. This has been a project Ms. Baker has been involved with for years, and she recalled bringing students to Greenwich Point and seeing chunks of the roof from the Old Barn flying off because of the wind.
“For decades Susan has been a shining star here in Greenwich, especially at Greenwich Point, as a teacher, a conservationist, an environmentalist, and a preservationist,” Mr. Franco said. “She really is fabulous, and Susan’s name will forever be associated with Greenwich Point.”
Mr. Tesei, a former student of Ms. Baker, also gave his enthusiastic support.
“I think when people look back many, many years from now on this day, they will appreciate that this was another milestone in preserving what is truly special about the Point, but most important, recognizing an individual who has given of herself throughout many decades,” Mr. Tesei said. “Sue is a special person. All of you know that. All of you who worked with her and spent time with her know that she cares not just about the environment, but cares about people, too. She’s a true people person who has a big heart and puts herself into everything that she does, and her enthusiasm is contagious. When we look back at this, we’re going to say, ‘What a wonderful day to recognize someone who has given so much to so many and made such a lasting contribution to so many people’s lives and the environment here at Greenwich Point.’”
The work on the Old Barn will be the main project for the conservancy, and fund-raising efforts remain ongoing. After the five years it took to complete the Innis Arden Cottage restoration, the Old Barn became the next focus for the group, but there have been complicating factors, including the long process needed for Planning and Zoning Commission approvals and Hurricane Sandy, which had a big impact on Greenwich Point.
Mr. Frantz called the conservancy the “ultimate public/private partnership” and said that the “spectacular work” done at the site was an example of how to do things right. He said that while many just see the end results of the work, it was the conservancy members who went through the long Planning and Zoning meetings to get there.
“It takes a tremendous amount of work and requires a tremendous amount of resources, and these guys, as well as the entire group and the board of directors, bring it all together and get it focused,” Mr. Frantz said. “They say in 1946, Greenwich Point was bought by the town, thanks to some good thinkers back then, as a gift for the returning troops. But this is a gift that will always be a gift to all of you and future generations.”
Mr. Walko, who noted that he has been regularly chided for years by Ms. Baker for not taking her class while he was at GHS, added, “If there’s any force that can combat hurricanes and forces of nature that helped bring this building down to some degree, it’s the spirit that’s here today. It’s amazing to see so many of you out here on a cold January afternoon, and it’s not about the building, it’s about Susie Baker, and for that, I can’t help but imagine that with the planning and thought that went into this building, it will sustain future storms.”
The crowd for the event also included former state Rep. Lile Gibbons and former First Selectman Richard Bergstresser, who was credited by Ms. Baker as having seen the need for the restoration when she went to him more than 10 years ago and supporting her. She said that since then, through the administrations of Mr. Bergstresser, James Lash and now Mr. Tesei, they have had the first selectman’s office giving them the help they’ve needed.
Mr. Franco served as the master of ceremonies for the groundbreaking, and referred to the building as a “diamond in the rough” that he predicted would soon be “restored to its former glory” right alongside the Innis Arden Cottage next door, creating an “exceptional gateway to Greenwich Point.” He thanked everyone who had helped for their support and their commitment to historic preservation throughout the town, particularly Chuck and Deborah Royce, longtime residents who have given to many other preservation causes in town.
The decision to name the pavilion after Ms. Baker came from the Royces, who have been big donors to the project. Ms. Royce said Ms. Baker had originally approached them with the offer to name the building after themselves, but that it was clear who deserved the honor when they toured the building and people came up to them to say hi to Ms. Baker.
“Every person knew Susie, loved Susie and wanted to talk to Susie,” Ms. Royce said. “She is one of the most generous people I have ever met. She will help you with anything. There’s not a project I have embarked on that she hasn’t helped me on.”
In an interview with the Post, Ms. Baker said she was totally surprised by the Royces’ gesture and that she was honored by it. After decades of working at Greenwich Point with students and campaigning for restoration of the historic buildings, she said, the gesture meant a lot to her.
“I was very touched by what the Royces did,” Ms. Baker said. “We’ve been fighting to keep this place from being developed and in a historic realization of what was here. We’re taking one more step toward that by restoring the barn.”
Mr. Blumenthal, a Greenwich resident, said he was proud to be part of the ceremony and praised all the effort that had gone into the project, while admiring the view of the Sound that would soon be available to people eating on the Sue Baker Pavilion.
“It’s a testament, not just to Sue and to Deborah and Chuck and Chris for all your great work and everyone who is here today, but the entire Greenwich community,” Mr. Blumenthal said. “There are very few communities that value and treasure so consistently and dearly the environmental values that we celebrate today. To be good stewards, to know the value of this kind of spectacular place, is really a gift.”