By Gretchen Althoff Snyder
“In the spirit of the three remarkable scientists of the Bird family, we particularly wanted to encourage scientific curiosity in young people.”
This is a noteworthy year in Rye’s history: 2017 marks the 150th anniversary of the arrival of the Meeting House. The Meeting House evolved from a schoolhouse to an Episcopal Sunday school when it was moved to 600 Milton Road in 1867. After the addition of the distinctive bell tower in 1877, the Meeting House became Grace Chapel (affiliated with Christ’s Church), and subsequently served for many years as a Quaker Meeting House. The City of Rye purchased the Meeting House in 2002, and acquired a grant for the property’s restoration, which commenced in 2005. Today, the building serves as a secular historic site and educational destination for all age groups.
The Bird Homestead, a historic and rare-surviving 19th-century farm complex along a tidal estuary, lies directly adjacent to the Meeting House. The property consists of a modest 1835 Greek revival house, an 1885 two-story barn, and a late 19th-century woodworking shop with an attached chicken coop. Henry Bird, the owner of the farm and patriarch of the family, was a prominent entomologist and President of the New York Entomological Society in the 1920s. His son Roland was an esteemed paleontologist at the American Museum of Natural History, and Roland’s younger brother Junius was an internationally known archeologist. The Bird family owned the homestead from 1852 until 2009, when it was purchased by the City of Rye; the following year it was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
Rye native Anne Stillman became integrally involved in the preservation of these two historic sites after longtime resident Doug Carey alerted her to the endangered status of the Homestead. The Bird family planned to sell the property, and based upon its condition, it was almost certain to be demolished. In 2007, Stillman and Carey co-founded the nonprofit Committee to Save the Bird Homestead, and the board of trustees elected Stillman as President and CEO.
Stillman, a historic preservation advocate, worked for both the Connecticut and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and was involved in helping to save at least 50 historic properties throughout Connecticut and New York. She was particularly passionate about saving the Bird Homestead, as she knew Henry’s daughter, Doris Bird, who was the beloved children’s librarian at the Rye Free Reading Room for decades.
In 2009 and 2010, respectively, the Committee signed 50-year management agreements and leases with the City to manage the Bird Homestead and the Meeting House. Since that time, the Committee’s goal has been to painstakingly restore the Meeting House and the three historic buildings on the Homestead property, all the while safeguarding the natural salt marsh and upland environment.
Thanks to numerous private donations and grants, restoration of these properties is ongoing. In 2015, the Committee received an Excellence in Historic Preservation Award for the exterior restoration of the Meeting House. Stillman points out that all funds utilized for restoration come from private donations and federal and state grants, and stresses that, “We are an all-volunteer organization, composed of professionals who generously donate their time, therefore everything goes to support the properties and high-quality educational programs.” On the environmental front, these properties shelter more than 50 species of birds and contain numerous wildlife-friendly areas that provide vital habitat for migratory birds.
The Committee is fully committed to using these historic properties for educational purposes. “In the spirit of the three remarkable scientists of the Bird family, we particularly wanted to encourage scientific curiosity in young people, and to build public awareness of important scientific matters,” said Stillman. To that end, the Committee presents ongoing lectures, films, and other public programs that focus on science, history, preservation, and the environment.
This spring, for the fifth year in a row, the Committee will conduct a free, nine-week, hands-on gardening program for first and second graders from the Port Chester Carver Center. In coming weeks, visitors can enjoy “Seed: The Untold Story,” an award-winning documentary following the passionate seed keepers who protect our 12,000 year-old food growing legacy, and “Butterflies in My Backyard,” a virtual tour of Victor DeMasi’s butterfly meadow in Connecticut.
Anne Stillman in the Meeting House
White pine lithograph by Alice Bird Erikson
The Meeting House at 600 Milton Road
— Photos courtesy of The Bird Homestead, the John Erikson Family, and Margot Burgheimer