By Anne W. Semmes
Come Saturday evening, October 1, a unique dinner-dance event created by the Greenwich Historical Society to celebrate its 90 years of service to the community will take place on the grounds of the neoclassical Beaux Arts-style waterfront estate, Easterly, circa 1902. A giant tent will evoke the glamorous Café Society, so transformed into the famed zebra-striped New York El Morocco nightclub. Inside, guests will be dancing to the tunes of Cole Porter and George Gershwin.
“The theme ties nicely on several levels with the Historical Society’s anniversary,” says Historical Society Executive Director and CEO Debra Mecky, “as El Morocco was founded in 1931, the same year as the Historical Society.” Surely Greenwich folk would gravitate there over the years to mingle with the likes of Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable, and Maurice Chevalier, but Mecky adds Greenwich was also “home to more speakeasies and ‘rum holes’ than any other town in Connecticut.”
A more serious note will be struck by guest keynote speaker, Doris Kearns Goodwin, the Pulitzer-prize winning author-historian, who will address “Leadership in Turbulent Times,” the title of her newest book. “Her ability to put things in perspective will be an important help to all of us,” Mecky notes. “It will be really relevant to where we are October 1.”
But overall Mecky sees this 90th anniversary event as “a wonderful opportunity” she says “to recognize all of the people who have been instrumental in both creating a historical society and forwarding its mission over this 90-year period. We’re in the process of gathering information about all of the people that were presidents, board chairs, and all the people that served as chairs of Antiquarious, our primary fundraiser for over 25 years, who contributed to developing the goals and advancing the organization.”
Mecky has served the Society as executive director for 26 years, nearly a third of its history, and seen it grow into “an amazing asset to our community.” It’s origin in 1931 came from the curiosity of Helen Binney Kitchel, then president of the Old Greenwich Garden Club, wanting to trace the families of the early settlers of Greenwich buried in the Tomac Cemetery located next door to the First Congregational Church. That curiosity inspired the creation of the Historical Society with Kitchel’s mother, Mrs. Edwin Binney serving as first president with meetings held at the Perrot Memorial Library.
By the mid-1950’s the Historical Society had been transplanted to its historic Cos Cob campus site with its Bush-Holley House, a 1730 Historic Landmark, giving witness to slavery, the American Revolution, and the first American Impressionist art colony, a history now stretching across nearly 300 years. “It’s just a wonderful, beautiful place to be,” adds Mecky. “So, I think that message of being thankful is certainly what it means to me.”
Under Mecky’s aegis there’s been a steady growth of the Society’s educational programs, exhibitions, and “Signs of the Times” program to place plaques on houses of architectural and historic merit now numbering 318, including the Easterly estate, one of the last pre-WWII mansions to survive. That steady growth has kept Mecky enthralled, she states, “at just what this institution is becoming. And we recognize that as a community changes, the Historical Society has to change with it. We want to be as inclusive as possible, both in the stories that we tell and the history that we collect – that people see us as a place to preserve or protect that history and share it. So, yes, all those things come together in an evening, when you stop for a moment to celebrate an anniversary as significant as 90 years.”
“The Historical Society serves every school child in our town,” tells Anne Ogilvy, long-serving Historical Society board member and co-chair of the 90th anniversary event. “They all go through the Bush Holley House at some point in their school career.” But it’s important to note she says, that unlike the town-supported Bruce Museum and Greenwich Library, “all the Society funds raised are private, that’s why this fundraiser is so important.”
“There’s so many new people in town,” Ogilvy is seeing, “and I would just love to see them get involved and see how exciting our programming is, and what the Historical Society is doing. There is always something going on there, whether it’s our Tavern Garden Markets, dinners, or exhibits. I can’t keep track of all the different things going on there and I’m on the board!”
Ogilvy describes the October event as a “sort of Cafe Society Gatsbyesque.” She praised the owners of the Easterly estate for opening it up for the event. “It is magnificent. I’ve never seen a property maintained to this level. They just honor everything there is to honor about the home, the site, the gardens – this incredible alley that you drive down, centered on the front of the house. I just can’t get over their level of generosity.”
The idea of creating an El Morocco Club look had come from her cochairs brainstorming.
“We just wanted something fun and festive and relatable and elegant. Since the pandemic we haven’t done anything in so long. To get dressed up in black tie and have a dinner-dance and be with your friends.” With music coming from the Bob Hardwick Sound Orchestra. “He does all the society parties in New York and weddings. He sort of took over from Lester Lanin.”
And yes, Bob Hardwick will be playing that music from the 1930’s and 1940’s including Cole Porter and George Gershwin. Coincidentally, Gershwin was in Greenwich backcountry in the early 1930’s composing “Porgy and Bess.”
For more information visit, https://greenwichhistory.org/90th-anniversary/