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Standing stones

December 5, 2018

GREENWICH — Sixty thousand pounds of hidden Greenwich history have been resurrected in Cos Cob, not far from where they once helped to stage plays and musical performances on the property of a uniquely theatrical Greenwich family.

Six marble monoliths have been delivered to the Montgomery Pinetum property, where they will become a permanent installation — saved from the gravel pits by a widespread effort to preserve them.

For much of the 20th century, the 10,000-pound blocks stood stoically, less than a half-mile away, on the grounds of Lia Fail — the estate of the O’Neil family of Greenwich, where they had been part of an amphitheater used to present plays and musical performances.

A new owner in 2016 submitted new plans for the property, which called for the quick removal or destruction of the amphitheater.

Bea Crumbine, the town’s ambassador at large, and David DiVincenzo of the Board of Parks and Recreation quickly spearheaded an effort to save it.

Townspeople rallied, and a new home was found for most of the structure at Sarah Lawrence College. But the school could not accommodate the monoliths on its Bronxville, N.Y., campus. They’ve been stored for the past year in Bruce Park while supporters searched for a permanent home.

“It makes me incredibly happy to have saved a piece of Greenwich’s history,” Crumbine said. “They were going to be crushed into gravel for driveways and I can’t think of a worse thing to happen to such beautiful New Hampshire marble. That would not have been a fitting end to something which in 1934 had been such an important part of the center of the Cos Cob community.”

An alumna of Sarah Lawrence College from Greenwich, Josie Merck, provided the funding for the theater to be relocated to the school. Greenwich resident Natalie Pray underwrote the cost of removing the monoliths from the O’Neil estate and bringing them to Bruce Park.

Crumbine estimated that, in total, close to $40,000 was raised to get the stones from their original home to their current one.

The O’Neil family lived at the Greenwich estate for many years. Barbara O’Neil, who played the mother of Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone With the Wind,” died at Lia Fail in 1980. The names of family members and the dates of their births and deaths are inscribed on one of the columns.

The stone amphitheater was created by the family to indulge their love of the dramatic arts. David O’Neil made a fortune in lumber and moved to Greenwich in 1926, where he pursued a love of Shakespeare, drama and Irish poetry.

His son Horton O’Neil, an architect and stage designer, developed the 500-seat amphitheater in a classical Greek mode, but added Celtic touches like the monoliths to pay tribute to their Irish ancestry. The site was used as performance space for the Norwalk Symphony Orchestra, dancers from Greenwich Academy and other amateur players. Jane Fonda once danced on its stage. The performances stopped in the 1960s, when neighbors grew disgruntled with traffic.

The monoliths will be power washed and their new grounds at the Pinetum will be freshly landscaped in the spring. They stand three aside, framing a birdbath directly across from the Greenwich Botanical Center.

Crumbine said there also will be a formal dedication ceremony in the spring. More marble and other touches will be added, including signage to explain the stones’ history.

“This is going to be a wonderful place for people to come for weddings and ceremonies and even private, quiet meditation,” Crumbine said. “This will be a perfect place for people to come for whatever solitude or joy they want to share with everyone else.”

DiVincenzo, who handled engineering work for the project, said he expects the monoliths will become a destination in Greenwich.

“I’m elated,” DiVincenzo said. “I’m ecstatic we got to this point. It’s hard to get the contractors for this but they’ve been great. … We wanted it to look similar to how it was when the monoliths were up on the O’Neill property.”

Cos Cob resident Anthony Marzullo will oversee landscaping work, scheduled for April.

“Between the columns, I’m going to put in Delaware white azaleas,” Marzullo said. “And then in front we will put in a ground cover that will grow no more than two feet. Everything will be white and it will be the lowest maintenance possible. I believe less is more and that will work very well here.”

One of the people present on Friday as the columns were being delivered was James Santaguida, whose grandparents’ property was near the O’Neils, and whose parents posed for pictures by the monoliths after their wedding.

“I was really sad when they took the monoliths out, so this is great,” Santaguida said. “This is going to be beautiful. I was in tears when Bea told me what her plans were for this. … Two of my grandfather’s goats were in the plays they did at the O’Neill property. I was so fortunate to be able to see it on a weekly basis and what’s so funny is I grew up on Valley Road and I would walk down the street toward the deli and cut through Lia Fail past the amphitheater to help my grandmother feed the animals. It was like ‘Over the river and through the woods’ for real.”

He called the opportunity for the general public to experience the columns “heaven sent,” as relatively few got to witness them on the private estate.

The effort to save the monoliths went down to the wire. Once preservationists learned the college could not take the stones, Crumbine said the new owner of the property gave them one week to remove them or they would become driveway gravel. First Selectman Peter Tesei recommended Anthony Vitti Excavators, she said, which had the particular equipment and capabilities needed to get the difficult job done.

“I was very lucky,” Crumbine said. “We need to not only get these on flatbed trucks but have the massive crane to lift them up. Fortunately everything came together. … People saw the vision and they knew if we didn’t act fast, it wouldn’t be saved.”

kborsuk@greenwichtime.com

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