One of the most interesting neighborhoods in town is Havemeyer Park in Old Greenwich. It lies just to the west of the town line with Stamford, and offers a contrast to the housing projects and new condos just across the town line. Although the houses are basically the same style (Cape Cod houses), each one has its own unique character. The houses were originally built to provide housing for the many Veterans returning from World War II.
Originally, the land where Havemeyer Park was built belonged to H.O. Havemeyer. Henry (or Harry) was an industrialist and sugar maker. He was born in New York City on October 18, 1847. He studied at Bellport Academy on Long Island, then transferred to Bett's School in Stamford. It's reported that he had a run in with the Principal, and left school permanently at the age of eight. This was the extent of his formal education. Since his family was well established, he became the President and owner of the American Sugar and Refining Company. Havemeyer's nickname was "Sugar King". H.O. owned a sugar plantation in Cuba, and shipped his sugar cane by boat to New York. He cornered the market in sugar all over the country.
In 1888, Havemeyer bought 85 acres about 2 blocks up from the Boston Post Road. He decided to build his "Hilltop" estate. The view of Long Island Sound was magnificent in those days. It took 3-years for men to clear the land and construct the buildings. This included a mansion, barn, 3 greenhouses, a gardener's cottage and an artesian well. There was no bathroom - residents had to use an outhouse. Havemeyer raised cows, chickens and pigs. He grew apples, grapes, figs, strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, tomatoes and vegetables. His pride and joy, however, was his orchids, roses and gardenias. These varieties won him many prizes at New York flower shows.
Like many other Greenwich residents, the Havemeyer family lived a very rustic life There was no electricity or running water. Kerosene lamps were used for lighting. The roads were still dirt, and Mr. Havemeyer had to take a horse and buggy to the train station, post office and grocery store. Actually, they were pretty self-sufficient when it came to food since they grew a lot of fruits and vegetables. Havemeyer had cottages built on the estate so he could invite guests for the weekend.
It's a well-known fact that the Havemeyer family was very generous to the Town of Greenwich. They bought and gave the Town the triangular park in front of the Post Office where the obelisk now resides. They also donated $250,000 for the Havemeyer School. Old Greenwich School and the First Presbyterian Church were also recepients of their generosity. Mrs. Havemeyer was a volunteer who supported Women's Suffrage, and she belonged to the National Women's Party.
They were the first to buy Impressionist paintings by Degas and Monet and have them imported to the United States. (They were close friends of artist Mary Cassatt, by the way.) A large part of their art collection was given to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. H.O. Havemeyer passed away on December 4, 1907.
It was after World War II (1946) that Gene Tunney became interested in the Havemeyer property. Tunney was a professional boxer, and was the world heavyweight champion from 1926 to 1928. He married Polly Lauder from an influential Greenwich family. She was related to Andrew Carnegie. Tunney had had an interesting life, serving as a Marine, working as a lumberman in Canada, and even lecturing at Yale University! He was committed to providing housing for returning veterans. So in 1946 he purchased 149 acres for $173,600 from the Havemeyer estate. There were several stipulations, however:
1. Each lot must have a 60-foot front,
2. the cost couldn't be more than $10,000, and
3. the first units had to be finished by 1947
Tunney employed the Stamford Building Company to handle the construction, while Fairfield Realty handled the sales. Arthur Starck, a friend of Tunney, helped organize a Havemeyer Park Builders corporation, and a sales trailer was set up at the corner of Havemeyer Lane and the Boston Post Road. Starck was named Secretary / Treasurer.
Initial plans called for the inclusion of a California-style (strip mall) shopping center at the corner of Florence and MacArthur Drive. This would include a Bradlee's department store, food stores, drugstores, etc. This never came about because the Town and residents were worried about traffic and the "unsavory" element it might attract. This property was rocky, and not suitable for any kind of housing construction. The Havemeyer Park Builders wanted to donate the property to the town, but officials were suspicious. They considered the land unbuildable; but the Town finally relented, and accepted the gift. Surprisingly, part of the land was eventually used to build Dundee School!
The average house in Havemeyer Park was built on a quarter-of-an-acre. It was a Cape Cod style with 2 bedrooms, 1 bathroom, a livingroom, an attic crawlspace or unfinished attic, built on a slab and later full cellars. Standardization helped keep the costs down. They weren't well graded - owners had to plant their own grass. Roads weren't paved at first. The construction company didn't want to incur the cost of putting in roads, so the Town took them over. The Town also offered to plant cherry or dogwood trees for $15 each. This was a good deal. Some residents dug up bushes and trees from the old Havemeyer mansion. Eventually, the mansion was razed to make room for more housing.
In 1948, residents decided to organize a Havemeyer Park Owners Association. This grew out of concerns for roads and traffic. Owners were concerned about additional traffic spilling out onto Havemeyer Lane from Stamford. Representatives met with Stamford officials, who agreed to abandon plans for additional roads to add traffic to Havemeyer Lane. Since the association had no money or legal representation, it had to rely on the good will of people to preserve its neighborhood character. Most people complied with requests from the neighbors and the owners' association.
Once the houses were built, they sold out very quickly. Buyers were mostly veterans, who could get FHA mortgages through the GI Bill. Only $1,000 was required as a downpayment on a $10,000 house. Today, those houses would sell for between $375,000 and $450,000. The Veterans were usually married with young children. Since they didn't have a lot of money, most of the families would socialize with each other. They organized Christmas decoration contests, Valentine's Dances, picnics, bowling leagues, tennis groups, barbeques, garden clubs, Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts.
Over time, the families would save money and move to bigger houses in town. Havemeyer Park became known as a "starter community". Older people looking to downsize, and other ethnic groups moved into the Park. The population started to become more diversified. Of course, some residents remained since they like the community.
Meanwhile, development just over the Stamford line threatens to change traffic patterns in the area. . A newly-constructed condo complex (including an access road) includes a rotary that may change the flow of traffic on Havemeyer Lane. Plans for a big box Home Depot structure near the old Cyanamid building were abandoned due to public protests. A shopping mall adjacent to Laddin's Rock Road could spill over the Town line. There is plenty of land near Havemeyer Park that could still be developed.
The Park, which stretches roughly from Havemeyer Lane to Florence Road and Palmer Hill Road to the Boston Post Road, remains a thriving and vibrant community. Residents take pride in their homes and property. The Homeowners Association still watches over developments in the area. Everyone is committed to maintaining the rural nature of the Town. Havemeyer Park will always remain a unique part of Greenwich.
Havemeyer Park : Oral History Interview
Oral History Project. Friends of the Greenwich Library
Greenwich, CT : Greenwich Library, 2002