Last time, I wrote about the controversy involving the building of a World Headquarters for Xerox on King Street. This occured back in the 1970s. However, there was another, bigger controversy that went back to 1946. That was the controversy involving the creation of a site for the relatively new United Nations headquarters.
During December 1945 and January 1946, several newspapers announced that a United Nations Site Committee was looking at land in northwest Greenwich for a permanent home. More specifically, the Greenwich-Stamford-North Castle area was being targeted. Chairman Dr. Stoyan Gavrilovic of Yugoslavia was going to fly to London to report that the committee was recommending this general area as a preferred building site.
PROPOSED SITE OF UN IN GREENWICH
SOURCE: ORAL HISTORY PROJECT
This revelation stunned the community, which had no idea that these plans were in the works. One of the people, who lived in northwest Greenwich and would be affected by this project, was John L. Gray. He was a lawyer and partner in a law firm with Wilkie Bushby. Gray immediately contacted Bushby, and they organized a protest meeting to be held at the Country Day School. The group originally adopted the name the "Committee for Preservation of the Community of Greenwich", but eventually changed its name to the Greenwich People's Committee. The meeting held on January 31 attracted 250 people. Bushby was elected chairman. He and Gray wrote a letter to Dr. Gavrilovic explaining that building the site would seriously disturb the rural nature of Greenwich. The meeting voted to approve the letter. A petiton was also circulated. By February 2, 930 people had signed the petition. Another 400 would later add their signatures.
A committee was formed to lead the opposition which included Wilkie Bushby, John Gray, Amedee Cole, Jack Paton and Henry Kilburn. They worked 7-nights a week in addition to working their regular day jobs. By calling, writing and talking to individuals, the committee was able to raise $29,000 for operating (legal) fees. Greenwich Library's Marie Cole and others volunteered to handle the clerical work.
As luck would have it, a Town Meeting was scheduled for February 5 in the Greenwich High School auditorium. The committee asked the group to take up the UN issue. Although the room could hold up to 1,000 people, the venue was overcrowded! The meeting agreed to discuss the UN problem. A resolution was proposed to oppose any site in or adjacent to Greenwich. The bill was amended to provide for a referendum. The bill passed easily. Even the three Town Selectman were unanmimously opposed to a Greenwich site. The results were cabled to the President of the UN in London, the Secretary General, the UN Site Committee, American representatives to the UN, the Connecticut Secretary of State, the Governor of Connecticut and our Congressmen. Believe it or not, none of these parties replied!
On February 7th, an engineering report on Banksville, North Greenwich, Long Ridge and North Castle was completed. This area was determined to have a favorable climate, was easily accessible to New York City for cultural events, and offered fine beaches along Long Island Sound. It was also close to Westchester Airport. This area was the favorite choice. The site would be called the "Free City of the United Nations". A new railroad spur line would be built to run along Lake Avenue to Banksville. A four-lane highway was proposed, and a large sewage facility would have to be built . The effluent would be discharged into the Mianus and Byram Rivers, as well as Horseneck Creek. A residential and business section was planned, and an auditorium would be built for 5,000 people. Other facilities included a hotel for 3,000 people, central heating and power plants, parking lots, churches, schools, hospital, sanitation and health departments, fire and police facilities and some residences! A plan was put forth that suggested local residences could lease their homes to UN personnel. The jewel of the project would be a 12-story administration building which would be designed like the Pentagon. It would house some 50,000 people. The site would mimic a moderate-sized city!
CURRENT LOCATION OF UN ON EAST SIDE OF NYC
The original date for the referendum turned out to be George Washington's Birthday. Since the committee leaders were afraid a lot of people would be out of town due to the holiday, the vote was rescheduled for Saturday, March 2. Three polling places were open for 6 hours (as opposed to the usual 12). It was a rainy day, which sometimes limits the turn out. Nonetheless, about 7,500 voters turned out. Seventy-three percent (or 5,505) voted against the site selection. The general consensus was that people felt the site would change the character of the town. A statement was issued shortly after the vote which indicated that the people didn't want the site in Greenwich, but that the people did support world peace and believed in the purpose of the organization.
There were a few people, however, who were in favor of the UN locating its site in Greenwich. One was the First Selectman of Stamford, who no doubt saw a business advantage for his city. Some real estate people saw increased sales as a plus. Surprisingly, the church community was rather mute on the subject.
On March 6th and 7th, members of the Greenwich and Stamford committees met with Dr. Gavrilovic to report on the referendum. They clarified their position, stressed their support for the UN and refuted the claim that they opposed peace. The success of the UN was not dependent on location, they stated. Furthermore, the site should be located so as not to disturb any sizable community of homeowners.
On July 10, 1946, it was announced that the UN Site Committee was looking at alternate sites in Monroe, Ridgefield, Amawalk and Peekskill. Greenwich residents heaved a collectivesigh of relief! They thought they had dodged a bullet. Then in October of that year, a Stamford group tried to get the UN to reconsider and build in the Greenwich; but the UN must have made up its mind because shortly after they voted to locate in Manhattan. John D. Rockefeller donated land on the East Side - the site of its present location.
AERIAL PHOTO OF UNITED NATIONS COMPLEX IN MANHATTAN
On December 24th, the Greenwich People's Committee refunded 30% of the $29,000 it had raised to fight the plan. This was a very pleasant Christmas present for many Greenwich residents! With its work being completed, the committee disbanded. It had achieved its goal of preserving Greenwich's rural character.
Some people played Devil's Advocate after the dust settled. What would have happened if concerned citizens hadn't taken an interest and formed a committee? Would the UN now be located in northwest Greenwich? Would there be railroad lines and major highways passing through Greenwich? Would Greenwich become part of a great metropolis? Or would the UN not have moved here due to the great expense? We'll never know. One thing's for sure: the action of concerned citizens in town played an important role in the outcome.
The United Nations Site Controversy: Gray, J.L.; Greenwich Library Oral History Project, 1976.