“If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.” (Derek Bok)
“Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”
(Martin Luther King, Jr.)
UPDATE: 5/5/2014: DID HOUSE DEMOLITION HELP HEIGHTEN AWARENESS OF CT’S STATE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES, WHICH JUST DECLARED CT “FIRST IN POWERED FLIGHT”?
“The state House of Representatives on Monday night unanimously approved a resolution declaring Connecticut as home to the first powered flight by Gustave Whitehead, whose former home in Fairfield was demolished last week.
The joint resolution was introduced around 8:30 p.m. in honor of 12-term Rep. Lawrence G. Miller, R-Stratford, who has missed recent weeks of legislative business due to illness.” [House declares state first in flight (CT Post, May 5, 2014)]
Gustave Whitehead house demolished on April 28, 1914.
Gustave Whitehead, inventor of the airplane, when building his house at 184 Alvin Street in Fairfield, CT in 1914, could not have imagined that a century later, a battle would rage over its pending demolition. At the time he was constructing this home with his son Charles, he was feeling broken in spirit, having been the brunt of several mean-spirited lawsuits by impatient, wealthy sponsors who were members of the aero clubs in New York. In 1911, failing to produce the world’s first working helicopter in the short period of time demanded by Lee Burridge, President of the Aero Club of America, who would not allow Whitehead more time to make a more powerful engine, he was sued. By 1914, all the contents and equipment in his workshop and the helicopter were taken from him and given to Burridge. Gustave Whitehead, inventor of the airplane in 1901, was nearly through with his life’s passion. Whitehead, buried in a pauper’s grave in October, 1927, dead at the age of 53 of a heart attack suffered in this very driveway of the Alvin Street home, dying in his living room shortly after, had joyfully lived to hear of Charles Lindberg’s flight across the Atlantic a few months earlier. 100 years later, the monied interests in Fairfield finished off the job – they allowed demolition, rather than relocation, of his historic home.
In 1964, Gustave Whitehead was named Connecticut’s “Father of Aviation” by Governor Dempsey, and provided with a large headstone honoring his achievements. By 2013, he had been recognized as first in powered flight by a world authority and the state of CT. But in 2014, rather than save his home as an international destination for aviation history tourists, the Town of Fairfield’s First Selectman Michael Tetreau proclaimed the house to be of no historic significance and of run-down condition, rejecting an offer by the state of CT to move the house for free and restore it. Instead, the town issued a demolition permit on April 28 and the house was razed. Once again, supporters feel that Whitehead was dishonored by those running the now-wealthy town he had lived in, despite having accomplished “the greatest achievement in the history of mankind”, being the first human being to make a successful airplane flight in a plane entirely of his own design – over two years ahead of the Wrights.
Even with 200 petitions by citizens presented at the town hall as a demolition permit was being issued, meetings over a period of six months, and a very well-attended rally to try to save it held on April 15th in front of the home, the Gustave Whitehead home has been demolished. All that was needed was a new location on town property and a plan for its protection and use. A town press release mentioned the possibility of building a replica house for tourists to view, and the potential establishment of a Whitehead Trail, along with extensive verbiage ironically “honoring” the very man whose historic self-built house the town would not provide a new location for. Tourists will never be able to see this artifact, to connect with Whitehead by standing in the home he built, despite extensive efforts by local citizens to rescue it for posterity. The Associated Press and Reuters have carried the story worldwide.
Timeline to Destruction of the Home of the Inventor of the Airplane
March, 2013: Jane’s All the World Aircraft declares Gustave Whitehead of Connecticut “first in flight”, ahead of the Wrights by over two years. The determination is based on the description of foundational field research, including witness interviews by Whitehead researchers William J. O’Dwyer and Stella Randolph and media accounts of the era.
June, 2013: The state of CT recognizes its former resident and aviation inventor and aeronaut Gustave Whitehead as “first in powered flight”, as part of legislation signed by its Governor Malloy.
September, 2013: The Whitehead Advocacy Committee is created, consisting of interested parties concerned about recognition for Gustave Whitehead.
October, 2013: Whitehead advocacy supporters from two coasts begin efforts to interest the state of CT and Town of Fairfield in using the century old, self-built Gustave Whitehead home in Fairfield as a tourist and Whitehead educational center. The house was going into foreclosure in December. The home looks very much like it did, on the exterior, when self-built by Gustave Whitehead and his son, Charles, circa 1914.
November – December, 2013: Communications continue concerning the home. The state of CT’s Office of Historic Preservation becomes interested in saving the home, declaring it of significant historic value, but says it needs to have an owner to deal with, once it has gone into foreclosure and sold. First Selectman Mike Tetreau is notified about the home and told about its historic significance. Several meetings occur with a Whitehead Advocacy Committee (WAC) member concerning the possibilities for use of the home in developing regional and town Whitehead-based tourism and education, in addition to phone and email communications by members of the WAC. Mr. Tetreau is doubtful about the historic significance of the home, taking advisement from a foreign source.
March, 2014: The house is bought by a Stratford developer who plans to demolish it to make room for a new structure. The state of CT Office of Historic Preservation is contacted repeatedly for the next three weeks by Whitehead supporters, to let it know that the Whitehead house has been purchased and is at risk. The calls are finally returned in early April, one month later.
Early April, 2014: After discussions with a Whitehead Advocacy Committee member, the state of CT Office of Historic Preservation and the nonprofit CT Trust for Historic Preservation decide to take on the Whitehead house as a joint project to rescue and relocate, fully funded for the move and restoration. They begin searching for a recipient entity for the home, checking with local towns, cities and museums. Their calls are often not returned, and their free offer goes unaccepted. They are looking for a new location with a plan for public use and protection of the building. They are unable to obtain the new owner’s contact information.
April 10th, 2014 (Thurs): The developer applies for a demolition permit. The CT Trust is able to contact the owner, requesting access to the home for evaluation and recording of its architectural design.
April 15, 2014 (Tues): Concerned citizens of the locale participate in a well-attended, well-organized, peaceful “Save Whitehead’s House” rally, held in front of the Alvin Street home from 7am-5:30 pm, despite the rain. It was estimated that at least 50 people participated over the course of the day. A press conference was held, with the media attending in force.
April 17th, 2014 (Thurs): A second, smaller rally occurs in front of the Whitehead house. CT Air and Space Museum members retrieve some artifacts and pieces of the home for future display, with the owner’s permission. Preservationists familiar with the town demolition ordinance say that the salvaging broke demolition stay regulations. The house is inspected and surveyed by CT Trust for Historic Preservation, which finds it of solid construction, in good condition, with no roof leaks – able to be moved if a site is made available.
April 18th, 2014 (Friday): With the homeowner allegedly continuing to ready for demolition, the town of Fairfield agreed with preservationist Melanie Marks’ proof that the demolition permit cannot be issued based on a faulty 1918 build date in town tax assessor records. A brief stay of demolition is granted for the tax assessor to review the faulty build date.
Easter Sunday, April 20: Date the house could have been demolished, without the extension requested by Ms. Marks.
Monday, April 21: Fairfield town records for the Whitehead home began to be reviewed on Monday, April 21, buying a bit of time to save the house. Fairfield’s First Selectman was beginning to change his stance … “The first selectman said he would like to find a way to create something that memorializes Whitehead as being the first to fly and helps bring tourist dollars into the area” (CT Post, April 21).
April 22-24th (Tues – Wed – Thurs) Meetings between town officials, Carol Way, Tunxis Hill Representative Town Meeting elected representative, Fairfield Parks and Recreation Department, First Selectman Tetreau and the home’s owner allegedly take place. There is nothing substantial reported to those making inquiries, except “no change” and the sound of silence. Despite extensive efforts by Melanie Marks, no additional documentation can be located that conclusively proves a building was on the property in 1914, though it certainly may be surmised, as one was there on Jan. 28, 1915, and it has been said that homes were not built in 28 days in the dead of winter in CT, at that time. Town officials choose to require conclusive proof.
Friday, April 25th: First Selectman Tetreau is quoted in the media, saying the house had to come down because there was no money – when in fact, this is not true. Also, that the town had no property to place the house on. What seems to be lacking is the political will to save this house.
The town of Fairfield issued a Press Release claiming it had done all it could and that it would issue a demolition permit. Nowhere did the town mention that the state of CT was offering funding to move and restore the house, with maintenance support. We question what the town DID do to preserve this house.
“Tetreau lamented the fact that nothing could be done to save the house.
“The issue is that we don’t have the money to move the house, update the house, and we don’t have the land to put it on at the moment,” he said.” (CT Post, Historic Whitehead house to be demolished, April 25, 2014)
What is true is that the Town of Fairfield would not support providing a piece of property for the house to be relocated to. Under alleged flawed advisement by a non-American on foreign soil, Mr. Tetreau denied the house had historic value for many months. Now, his administration issued a demolition permit and allowed the home to be lost forever. This author calls for an investigation into all meetings held on this house issue and the basis for the decision of the town, as well as why the First Selectman said something seemingly quite untrue about the funding available.
April 28th: The historic, self-built home of Gustave Whitehead, located at 184 Alvin Street, Fairfield, CT, in a Tunxis Hill neighborhood, purchased by a developer, Gary Tenk, of Stratford, CT, was demolished, destroying a major aviation history artifact.
May 5, 2014 CT State House of Representatives unanimously passed a resolution to recognize the state of CT as “first in powered flight” based on Whitehead’s accomplishments, to honor State Representative Larry Miller of Stratford, CT, tireless Whitehead advocate. [note: date used for first flight in CT Post article is mistaken, it should be Aug. 14, 1901]
Background: The self-built Gustave Whitehead home had been listed on a local historic resources registry for many years, but not added to any state or federal historic registries. The Alvin Street home was built by Whitehead, according to business directory and tax records, in 1914, as the family was living there in at least late 1914 and taxed in early 1915, according to that year’s tax records and the Bridgeport Directory. But the town had no records for 1914 which would conclusively show that the home was built then, and would be 100 years old, which would have afforded it some protections, amongst these, a 60-day stay of demolition, rather than a 10 day waiting period. Even with a longer stay of demolition, the inexplicably negative attitude of the town toward saving the home might have led to the same outcome.
Articles about the Whitehead home demolition in the CT Post, the Fairfield Sun, CT and national media in past weeks, detailing varying sides of the issue. At no time did any media outlet reveal to the public that there was full funding available from the state of CT to move and restore the Whitehead house, even though they were told this and given the evidence. The state officials were not outspoken either.
House declares state first in flight (CT Post, May 5, 2014)
Connecticut house tied to aviation pioneer meets wrecking ball (Reuters, USA, April 29, 2014)
Also carried in the Chicago Tribune (April 29, 2014)
Connecticut aviator’s house razed over protests (San Francisco Gate, April 28, 2014)
Whitehead home razed as preservationists run out of options (CT Post, April 28, 2014)
Connecticut aviator’s house razed over protests (News 8, WTNH, New Haven, CT, April 28, 2014)
Whitehead House, home to aviator Gustave Whitehead, torn down in Fairfield (Channel 12 News, CT)
Connecticut preservationists lose battle as pioneering aviator’s 100-year-old house torn down (The Republic, Columbus, Indiana, April 28, 2014)
Historic Whitehead house to be demolished (CT Post April 25, 2014)
Demolition of Gustave Whitehead’s House to be Delayed (Fairfield Minuteman, April 23, 2014)
Documents cloudy on age: Effort to save aviator’s house may fail to take off (CT Post, April 22, 2014 – Note: essentially, same article as Apr. 21)
Documents cloudy on age: Effort to save aviator’s house may fail to take off (Fairfield Citizen, April 22, 2014 – Note: essentially, same article as Apr. 21 in CT Post)
Whitehead house: Too young for reprieve? (CT Post, April 21, 2014)
Demolition of Whitehead house delayed as town reviews records (Fairfield Citizen, April 18, 2014)
Demolition Delayed for Historic Aviator’s House (Greenwich Times, April 17, 2014)
Group Fights to Save Fairfield Home of Aviator Gustave Whitehead (Fairfield Voice, April 16, 2014)
Protesters press campaign to save aviation pioneer’s Fairfield home (Fairfield Citizen, April 16, 2014)
Effort to Save Whitehead House (CBS Connecticut, April 16, 2014)
Backers push to save Connecticut aviator’s house (News 8, WTNH, New Haven, April 16, 2014)
Rally to Save Aviation Pioneer’s Home From Wrecking Ball (Fox News CT, April 15, 2014)
Historic Aviator’s House May Get Reprieve (CT Post, April 15, 2014)
Rally Set Today to Save Aviation Pioneer’s Home (Hartford Courant, April 15, 2014)
Aviator’s CT house faces wrecking ball (WTNH.com, New Haven, April 14, 2014)
First Aviator’s House a Teardown (CT Post, April 14, 2014) (see embedded copy below)
Aviator’s Connecticut House Faces Wrecking Ball (San Francisco Gate, April 14, 2014)
Not Wright: Gustave Whitehead’s Fairfield house scheduled for demolition… (Capitol Report, CT, April 14, 2014)
Connecticut house built by aviator Gustave Whitehead could be demolished (New Haven Register, April 14, 2014)
Demolition Permit Issued for Whitehead’s Home (CBS Connecticut)
Supporters rally to try save Whitehead house (Easton Courier, April 14, 2014)
House Built By Whitehead Could Come Down (Fairfield Sun, April 10)
Whitehead House Could Come Crashing Down (CT Post, April 4)
One of the problems seemed to be that the elected officials, including former realtor First Selectman Mike Tetreau, and the leaders of the Bridgeport Regional Business Council seemed to be oblivious to the historical importance of the home and the fact that it could be renovated and used for tourism. They reportedly believed the house was too small, not in historic districts, etc. etc. Their advisement has also allegedly come from misinformed sources outside the country.
Beware of false knowledge; it is more dangerous than ignorance. (George Bernard Shaw)
Would this have been said about Lincoln’s log cabin, I ask you? Must we only revere wealth and mansions? After all, Whitehead, though poor all his life, accomplished more than any human on earth before him, when it came to designing and flying a plane. And he shared his knowledge freely with other inventors. If you have ever flown in an airplane, you have Gustave Whitehead to thank. Though poor, Gustave Whitehead was able to accomplish far more than any of those who denied his flights, tormented him as impatient, spoiled, wealthy sponsors, or those who made sure his house was demolished. This, no one can take from him.
A recent call reported to have been made to First Selectman Mike Tetreau from the state of CT should have cleared up any misconceptions, as should an email from the State of CT’s Office of Historic Preservation to this author, and then to the First Selectman, confirming that full funding was available.
The self-built home of the first person to invent and fly an airplane was a historic gem. Why, then, did Mr. Tetreau persist in denying this? Why claim there was no money when there was? No land, when the town owned extensive holdings of land, including Tunxis Hill Park, right near Whitehead’s home?
When the house was demolished, Mr. Tenk, the owner graciously agreed to allow the Connecticut Air and Space Center (CASC) of Stratford and Fairfield Dept of Public Works to obtain any artifacts they wished. The stone columns and pillars were salvaged by the town, the railings and balustrades by CASC. CASC was quite interested in obtaining the artifacts for its museum, and had not spoken up in support of saving the house from demolition. However, their mission statement says this: “The Connecticut Air & Space Center is a 501(c)(3) charitable corporation dedicated to honoring the pioneers of early aviation …” In the recent past, a number of members of CASC, such as board member Andy Kosch (Whitehead replica pilot) are on record, being outspoken about wanting to save the Whitehead home. From the Fairfield Citizen, Mar. 2013: “The Alvin Street home in Fairfield, where Whitehead lived at one time, could be converted into a museum paying tribute to the aviator’s local exploits, according to Andrew Kosch, of Fairfield, a teacher at Platt Technical High School in Milford…” We wonder if the CASC board took a vote to support the demolition of Whitehead’s house and informed its supporters? Some who appeared at the rally appeared surprised to learn that CASC was not speaking out against the razing of this historic aviator’s home.
It appears that most interested parties felt that saving the ENTIRE house INTACT would have preserved a priceless major historic artifact to preserve our heritage, and help stimulate tourism – and thus the economy of CT. Saving the entire home for posterity would have been far more helpful, in the opinion of this writer and many others we have heard from.
Fairfield’s First Selectman Tetreau may only be remembered as the man who helped lose a national treasure. CASC, founded to promote CT’s air and space history and honor its aviation pioneers remained silent on the destruction of the inventor of the airplane’s home, obtaining just a few PIECES of rubble for museum display. CASC was one of the entities which could have received the home, free of charge, all restored. Their motto is honor-preserve-educate. We are amazed.
Did the state of CT do all it could? We think not, because there were long periods of silence and lack of action, with poor communications. The state also lost this house by not moving it to become protected on state property.
We invite the public to contact First Selectman Tetreau at the Fairfield Town Hall and CASC, to share your opinions on the destruction of the Gustave Whitehead’s home. We invite the public to attend their meetings to bring forward questions about their position on Whitehead and preservation efforts.
A full investigation is called for, to find out what went wrong and prevent it from reoccurring in the future.
“The highest form of ignorance is when you reject something you don’t know anything about.” (Wayne Dyer)
An email from the state of CT to this author, proving their strong interest and that funding was available for the move and restoration:
To: SBRINCHMAN@aol.com, xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx
CC: xxxxxxxxxxxxxx (CT Trust)
Sent: 4/9/2014 7:36:03 A.M. Pacific Daylight Time
Subj: RE: [Whitehead home]
SHPO funding for moving the house must be contingent on a long-term plan, including a permanent location for the relocated building. We cannot fund a move to a temporary site without knowing how the building would be protected and where it will be permanently situated. We will continue working with the CT Trust to identify such a site.
Daniel T. Forrest
Director of Arts and Historic Preservation
State Historic Preservation Officer
Department of Economic and Community Development
One Constitution Plaza, 2nd Flr.
Hartford, CT 06103
(860) 256-2761 – Office
(860) 503-5720 – Mobile