Treasures Revealed! and Inside Story

Betty and Ralph Sheffer Gallery: Treasures Revealed!
Mollie Donovan Gallery: Inside Story

Until now, the Westport Historical Society’s Archives and Collections—parts of which date to the 1700s— have been a mystery for most members and visitors. So has the “inside story” of the WHS’s landmark Bradley-Wheeler House–which began as a 1795 saltbox, but became a renovated Italiante in the 1800s–and its companion cobblestone barn.  
WHY? Due to security, preservation climate control requirements and crowded storage conditions, only a handful of staff and trained volunteers have access to the WHS’s underground Archive and Collection closets.  There, they reverently catalog, preserve and protect precious, often fragile, vintage documents, photos, maps, market boat journals, house histories, oral histories, ancient family bibles, vintage costumes (garments and textiles), artwork, objects, tools, music boxes and toys  and other priceless links to Westport’s past.

Now, thanks to a special collaboration between our Exhibits, Oral History, Archives and Collections Committees, two new Exhibits, Treasures Revealed: The WHS Archives & Collections and Inside Story: Westport’s Bradley-Wheeler House & Cobblestone Barn will end the mystery by turning a spotlight—and a video camera–onto these precious assets and artifacts. The Exhibits open on Jan. 27 and run through April 27, 2013.

Notes Executive Director, Susan Gold: “That’s why these Exhibits are so important. Our Historical Society is a small non-profit, with no taxpayer funding, but we do have treasures. Our landmark Bradley-Wheeler House and Cobblestone Barn and the artifacts in our Victorian period rooms, Exhibits and Museum of Westport History are only the tip of the iceberg.

Once Westport realizes what our Archives, Collections and Buildings contain, the more they will be visited and used.”

Treasures Revealed, in the main Sheffer Gallery, summarizes the size and scope of Archival vault and Collections holdings and displays selected artifacts. To share what cannot be exposed to sunlight, the Oral History Committee’s video tour of Wheeler House’s period rooms and “off limits” storage spaces, narrated by Archives and Collections volunteers, will provide unprecedented public access.

Featured artifacts include: early Westport documents, correspondence and photos; vintage garments; U.S. Coastal surveys and aerial maps showing Westport from 1838 to 1931; Mary Sherwood’s early 19th c. wedding quilt; an 1874 inkwell carved from a Bedford Estate chestnut tree;  a Rose O’Neill-designed Kewpie doll (one of 5 million sold by 1913).

Treasures also explains how these primary sources are used for Westport and Connecticut historical research, genealogical study, house history, fashion history, culinary and social history, art history, cartographic history, political history and even garden history. For example, for some of his lenticular photos of Westport “then and now”, artist Miggs Burroughs overlays a vintage photo from the Archive with a photo of the same place today.  Archivist Katie Chase responds to genealogical inquiries almost weekly. Historic House Plaques Director, Bob Weingarten, compares maps, deeds and tax records to verify house ages and owners. Costumes Director Kathleen Malloy sources garments for vintage fashion shows or to help bring 19th century novels to life. To facilitate online research and aid preservation, the Oral History Committee has been migrating interviews of prominent Westporters to digital cloud storage.

As the Inside Story Exhibit in the Mollie Donovan Gallery affirms, the WHS’s best known treasures are Bradley-Wheeler House, which dates to 1795, and its rare octagonal cobblestone barn.  In 1979-81, after a high-profile fundraising campaign, spearheaded by Joan & Roy Dickinson, Eve & Bob Potts, Ann Sheffer, Mollie & Jack Donovan, Jo Fuchs, Connie Anstett, Peggy Henkel and Bobbie Elmer–behind the starpower of Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman and food for the first fundraiser provided by Martha Stewart–the WHS successfully acquired this property on Feb. 22, 1981. The Sheffer Gallery, Gault Vault, Newman Room, Raymond Room and the restoration/renovation of the cobblestone barn all followed.  Bob Weingarten is curating this adjunct Exhibit, Inside Story: Westport’s Bradley-Wheeler House & Cobblestone Barn, which coincides with the WHS initiative by Bob, Susan Wynkoop, Ed Gerber, Maggie Feczko and Westport’s Historic District Commission to achieve local historic landmark status for these structures.

Exhibits underwriting comes from lead sponsor, BNY Mellon Wealth Management; annual sponsors: Betty R. & Ralph Sheffer Foundation, Janet & Fred Plotkin/Adolph and Ruth Schnurmacher Foundation, Berchem Moses Devlin PC, Sachs Walsh Insurance, Weichert Capital Properties & Estates and Fountainhead Wines; and from exhibit sponsors: Thomas and Jeanne Elmezzi Private Foundation and The Bank of Fairfield.

As WHS president Susan Wynkoop remarks: “We hope that these Exhibits inspire new uses of our resources for research and education, and fresh support for our work through membership, donations or sponsorship. Or, you may realize that volunteers are our greatest treasure, and be inspired to join them!”