By Richard Kaufman
On a warm, muggy Wednesday afternoon, elected officials, historic preservationists, Greenwich residents and others gathered for the dedication of the Putnam Hill Historic District Marker near the sidewalk in front of the Tomes-Higgins House on E. Putnam Avenue.
The marker is sponsored by “The Townies,” a small group of Greenwich notables bonded by their love for the town; Charles Hilton Architects, which designed the marker; Cornerstone Contracting, which helped with the installation; and the Greenwich Preservation Network of the Greenwich Historical Society. This is the fifth historic district sign created as part of a preservation initiative by the Network. The district joined the National Register of Historic Places in 1979.
The district is named for General Israel Putnam, who was a Continental military commander in the region after the Revolutionary War broke out and was in Greenwich, formerly known as Horseneck, early in 1779.
At the corner of the Second Congregational Church, Putnam formed a 150-man militia and engaged the British briefly, though they were outnumbered by more than 10 to one. After directing his troops to retreat and regroup on the hill now known as Put’s Hill, the general made a daring escape to evade British soldiers as they closed in by riding down the steep hill to Stamford, where he alerted the militia there. He later returned with reinforcements and took 38 prisoners. Or so goes one version of the story of Putnam’s courageous ride and return.
Putnam was later immortalized in 1876, when Myron L. Mason designed the seal for the town of Greenwich. The seal, which can be seen around town on flags, town trucks and police cars, depicts Putnam on horseback. Three years later, in 1879, the centennial of his famous ride, King’s Highway—where the battle was fought—was renamed Putnam Avenue.
Architecturally significant buildings in the district include the 1858 Second Congregational Church, designed by Leopold Eidlitz; Calvert Vaux’s 1861 Tomes-Higgins House (later the Christ Church parsonage); and the 1909 Christ Church by William S. Domenick, featuring Louis Comfort Tiffany stained glass windows.
“What we have found when buildings are gone, they are forgotten, and with that the history—the history is forgotten,” said Davidde Stackbein, chair of the Board of Trustees of the Greenwich Historical Society. “We have tried desperately to cherish some of these houses. This is the key to the early development of the town of Greenwich. [The purpose is] to recognize the importance of the battle site of the American Revolution, to understand the evolutionary history of this.”
For Diane Fox, chairman of the Preservation Network, the marker is a way to showcase the town’s unique history. She believes it’s important to understand where the town comes from.
“The idea of preserving is an idea of where do we come from and why do we have these buildings here?” said Fox. “I think that’s what’s unique is to be able to point out that we have some very unique structures and history that lays behind what the town of Greenwich is. What we’re trying to do is do something in advance of tearing down [structures] and that’s highlighting what’s important and what this town is about.”
First Selectman Peter Tesei, who spoke briefly at the dedication, said afterwards that the marker is an important teaching tool. “This is really about educating future generations as to the origins of the town that we call Greenwich.”
The marker is meant for both pedestrians on the sidewalk and vehicles on E. Putnam Avenue. Fox noted that she’s seen high school students walk by and stop to read the marker. “It’s heartwarming to watch kids stop here. It makes people more aware of what we have here. That’s really the essence.”
The next historical marker the Historical Society and Preservation Network hope to install is on Strickland Road, the site of the Bush-Holley House.