AP NEWS

Journey to the past in the archives of the Greenwich Historical Society

February 16, 2019

GREENWICH — When it comes to unlocking mysteries of the town’s past, there’s nothing quite like the archives of the Greenwich Historical Society.

“When people hear the word archives, they get the impression of a dark, dusty old room. But what I’ve found is much of what we have is relevant to today,” said Christopher Shields, curator of the historical society’s library and archives. “The documents may be old, but the stories they tell are just as relevant today as they were and will continue to be so.”

The historical society’s recent $12 million renovation expanded the campus and brought one of the town’s oldest cultural institutions into the 21st century. The grand opening was held in October after the work was completed.

The vast archives contain everything from valuable artwork and significant documents to signs encouraging residents to sign up for civil defense and old grocery lists — but don’t get the wrong idea.

“This is a very modern, up-to-date set-up that positions us for the future,” Shields said of the collection which includes items in the vault and the library. “We’re collecting for the future.”

The archives include nearly 1,300 linear feet of material in the vault, with an additional 500 to 600 linear feet of material in the library. Also stored away are more than 40,000 prints and much more, too, including maps of Greenwich through the centuries that detail every structure and property owner.

“It’s a rich collection, and it covers all aspects of live in town,” Shields said. “And it’s in a very, very welcoming space to come and research.”

A few unique items are on display at the library entrance, including an invitation to the opening of the George Washington Bridge in 1931, a skeleton key for Toby’s Tavern, which is now part of the historical society’s expanded campus, and even some antique bottles found buried during the huge construction project that was completed last year.

The library, which leads to the archives, stores shelves upon shelves of tomes about the town’s history, yearbooks and even old phone books. But the main items are secured safely in the vault, where members of the staff can retrieve items for residents and researchers alike to peruse.

There’s old signs, artwork, scrapbooks and diaries — which can supply seemingly everyday details that can be a huge help in providing an accurate look into Greenwich’s past. There’s also an ephemera collection of ordinary items — such as ticket stubs, fliers and programs from events — that can prove valuable.

“Practically every exhibit we do, we draw from that collection,” Shields said.

One such item is a scrapbook from a girl who went to Greenwich Academy in the 1930s.

“It’s kind of like a Facebook page,” Shields said.

He also pointed to a scrapbook from the 1900s from a Maryland girl who attended Ely Court School, a private school that was located across the street from what is now North Street School.

“That gives us fantastic photographs of student life at that school you would not find anywhere else,” Shields said. “The building’s not there anymore. It burned down. It’s a great resource for anyone doing genealogical research, somebody interested in education in Greenwich and anybody interested in the lives of a teenager in Greenwich during this time.”

Hundreds of thousands of items are stored in the vault. And there is space for the collection to grow by 50 percent over the next 25 years.

Most residents who drop in are seeking information about their home or property, or they are doing genealogical research, he said.

But the requests “really run the gamut and we have a little bit of everything,” Shields said. “Chances are if we can’t completely answer your question, we can get you further along in the process.”

He shared one story of a mystery that was unraveled, showing off a photograph of a statue of a girl next to a swimming pool in Greenwich. A woman had kept it as a family treasure for years without knowing the story behind it. When she came in looking for information, Shields used census records and real estate directories to learn more about the girl, who was a friend of her grandfather’s.

Ultimately, Shields found out that the girl died while a teenage student in Germany, and the statue was a memorial. It was placed on a friend’s property, and the woman’s grandfather had kept the photo. The woman wondered whether the statue still exists, but unfortunately, Shields said it doesn’t seem to.

“It all starts with a few details,” Shields said. “It’s a mystery — and I love that. That this was something they had wondered about in the family for years and within a few hours I was able to give them the information they were looking for was very satisfying.”

With community support, the archives can continue to grow. Executive Director Debra Mecky said residents may have items right in their own homes that could help.

“We want people to come to us and say, ‘I got this from my mother’ or ‘I got this from my grandmother,’” Mecky said. Items can be donated, or the historical society can make a digital image of a document. Residents may have appropriate items for future exhibits, including a planned one about the upcoming 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage.

“We are specific to Greenwich. We’re not trying to be everything to everybody. We’re trying to collect things that are unique, significant and help to tell the story of our town,” she said.

The archives are visible from the new lobby of the Greenwich Historical Society. A large touchscreen is there for visitors to explore such subjects as “Greenwich Goes to War,” “Family History,” “Bygone Businesses,” “Great Estates” and “Mapping Our History.” With just a few clicks, visitors can get a sense of what is in the archives.

The touch screen was installed as a useful tool that puts the historical items into context with some explanation. And Mecky and Shields said they had no idea how popular it would be.

“Judging from the number of fingerprints I have to wipe off it, I’d say it’s getting a lot of use,” Shields said with a laugh. “It’s a good surprise.”

At a recent family event at the historical society, a child started pulling up maps, finding his grandmother’s house and showing Mecky things that even she didn’t know the touchscreen was capable of doing.

“The kids already know how to use these things,” Mecky said. “The kids are showing the adults how to do it, and you can really spend some time here learning. It’s a nice way of showing people what’s behind the wall and in the library.

“It makes us more accessible, she said. “It’s a window into the collections.”

The Greenwich Historical Society’s archives are open to the public from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesdays and by appointment.

kborsuk@greenwichtime.com