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4/25/2014 - Gustave Whitehead Update

First Selectman Mike Tetreau is providing an update on the status of Gustave Whitehead and his former Fairfield home.

Let’s take a look at why he is so important to aviation history and to Fairfield. It was just about a year ago that Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft issued their statement confirming that Gustave Whitehead was the first to fly an airplane. His first flight took place on August 14, 1901 in Fairfield. This is a full two years before the Wright Brothers made their flight in Kitty Hawk. This puts Fairfield in the spotlight with the most important milestone in aviation history.

Mr. Whitehead was living in Bridgeport at the time he designed and built his plane. He literally drove his plane to Fairfield to make his first flight. He went on to perform similar flights in Bridgeport and Stratford—all before the Wright Brothers made their flight in North Carolina. Based on historian John Brown’s research, the first flight successfully landed in the area of what is now Jennings Beach.

While Mr. Whitehead did live in Bridgeport at the time of the flight, he later moved to Fairfield. He lived in at least two different homes in our Town, but it appears finally resided in a home he built on Alvin Street some years after the first flight. This is the home that was in foreclosure and purchased by a developer. This home has been thoroughly researched in an attempt to preserve it. Melanie Marks has been a phenomenal resource in delving through historical records and documents. It is the result of her work that we know that the Alvin Street property, which was comprised of four lots and no buildings, was purchased by the Whiteheads on May 27, 1914. The developer filed his permit application on April 10, 2014. Because the difference between these two dates is less than 100 years the house does not qualify for the additional 60 day delay in demolition. The town has no choice but to follow building regulations and issue the permit. Additionally, the Grand List dated October 1, 1914 does not list a home as built on the lots. The first confirmation of a home on the property is the September 1, 1915 Grand List.

The developer did cooperate with the town and provided us additional time beyond the required ten day demolition delay. This time afforded the opportunity for the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation to inspect the house and perform a complete photographic and laser imaging survey. This inspection showed that the house had been significantly modified from the original construction and raised the question of is it worth saving in its present form. Any attempt to preserve the home would also have required funding to move the house and a permanent location. Neither of which is available presently. Consequently, the next best alternative is to use the CT Trust measurements and laser imaging to build a replica as part of a well thought out plan for proper recognition of Mr. Whitehead and his historic accomplishments.

The Connecticut Air and Space Center representatives have already salvaged some of the architectural details from the house. The developer is also helping by looking to save some lumber and building components from the house. These components can be used when constructing a replica to help in honoring this historic man. The CT Trust has offered to help with funding once a plan and permanent location are in place. In addition, the developer has offered to allow a permanent marker to be installed at the Alvin Street site.

Gustave Whitehead is a historic figure and we need to continue to promote and honor his unique place in history. Fairfield is working with Bridgeport and Stratford along with the Fairfield Museum and History Center and the Discovery Museum to develop the concept of a “Whitehead Trail”. This would be a tourist attraction that would be promoted by our region to encourage visitors and help our local economy. We would also have the possibility of obtaining state aid to help build and promote this attraction.

The permanent location for the Fairfield component might eventually be in the Tunxis Hill area or perhaps closer to the landing site in the beach area. Carol Way, one of our local RTM Representatives, has been helpful in brainstorming and beginning to research some location options. We want something that is tourist friendly and a site that will generate interest for people visiting our town.

I want to thank the developer for giving us extra time for further research. Thanks also goes to Ms. Marks for her exhaustive efforts on researching dates and documents from one hundred years ago. Helen Higgins from the CT Trust and Mike Jehle from the Fairfield Museum and History Center have been very supportive of our efforts. Ms. Way has jumped in to lend a hand. A number of concerned citizens have voiced their concerns about both preserving the Gustave Whitehead legacy for our Town and demonstrating their support for a lasting memorial to honor his achievements. Andy Kosch who built and flew a replica of Whitehead’s Condor 21 and other representatives of the Connecticut Air and Space Center are playing a key role in preserving some of the architectural components. Our Town’s Chief Building Official Tom Conley, Tax Assessor Don Ross and Parks and Recreation Director Gerry Lombardo have all contributed to these efforts.

We will need many more volunteers as we move forward and work towards getting Gustave Whitehead recognized everywhere for being the First in Flight!