It has been six months since the passing of the Bird Homestead and Meeting House Conservancy’s founding president and guiding spirit, Anne Stillman. Under her leadership — and thanks to her efforts and those of State Assemblyman Steve Otis in winning a $250,000 state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation grant — the 1835 Bird family farm homestead, with its rare early Greek Revival residence, has been spared development. So, too, has the adjoining Grace Chapel/Meeting House, dating from 1871. Both are striking reminders of the time when the Milton section of Rye was its own village of farmers, watermen, and shipbuilders.
But the historic preservation of the Homestead’s three buildings and continuing restoration of the Meeting House are far from complete, said interim Homestead Conservancy president Aaron Griffiths, a transplanted Californian who’s become entranced with Rye and Milton history. He recalls learning about the project and “asking Anne what I could do. Now here I am.” The long-time advertising professional professes a fascination with history — and a sense that it’s important for young people to learn about their local history.
One key task he and the Conservancy face is that the Bird Homestead farmhouse still needs saving: initial grant funding paid for a new roof to preserve the structure, but the exterior is marked by holes that let in squirrels and raccoons, the only recent residents. Full restoration will be costly — and per its agreement with the City of Rye, which owns the house, the Conservancy is responsible for seeing it through. Although the City of Rye owns the Bird House and the Meeting House, the Save the Bird Homestead, under the terms of a 50-year lease, is responsible for maintenance and upkeep.
One possible source of funds: state government. Otis — who, during his tenure as mayor of Rye, oversaw the City’s purchase of the properties and their lease to the Conservancy — continues to take an interest in their preservation. He says doing so is a tribute to Stillman, of whom he says, “Her loss is a tremendous loss to the Rye community. She was unbelievable in her energy and accomplishments.”
Otis’s commitment is unwavering. “I’m a big historic preservation person,” he said. Although awaiting a price tag for the work still needed on both properties, Otis pledged that his office “will hunt for every possible source of funding.” He doesn’t rule out seeking a specific state budget appropriation, as well as looking for agency grants.
The Conservancy plans to take steps to stabilize the Bird House and two outlying storage structures, which together comprise a rare, preserved 19th century Rye farmstead. But even as it works to raise money, it plans to undertake expanded programming at the Meeting House, which was originally a Milton “branch” of Christ’s Church, built to extend the church’s mission to the working families on that side of town.
The Homestead plans a series of lectures about what Griffiths calls the “human and geographic” history of the vicinity. What’s more, he has ambitious plans to host formal courses on coastal ecology (for elementary school students); paleontology (reflecting Bird family adventurer Junius Bird’s relationship with the Museum of Natural History); and children’s literature, focused on first-edition children’s books bequeathed to the Rye Free Reading Room by its longtime children’s librarian, Doris Bird.
“We will build programs that reflect the passions of the Bird family,” he said.
The coastal ecology lecture series has already attracted donor support from money left by the late Ford Winter, a longtime Mamaroneck swim coach and Rye resident who kept a boat in the nearby marina and asked that donations in his name be made to the Bird Homestead. Per his instruction, “the Ford Winter Fund will be used to promote ecological studies and actions for middle school students learning ways to protect the waters of Blind Brook and Long Island Sound.”
In addition, the Conservancy plans to complete the mapping of the other property it owns, the wooded lot between the Meeting House and the Bird Homestead that was once the home of 19th-century free Black entrepreneur William Voris, who operated an ice cream stand and saloon on Rye Beach. Ground-penetrating radar has identified surviving underground foundations of the Voris home, and the Conservancy hopes to erect a series of markers calling attention to both what lies beneath the earth and to Voris’ amazing life story of escape from slavery in New Jersey to property ownership in Rye.
All this, of course, is based on hopes of attracting donor support. Griffiths noted that basic annual maintenance of the Conservancy properties costs $50,000. Ambitious new plans will cost more, of course, though he does hope the new courses will attract revenue, as well as attendance.
In the long-term, he dreams of a full Milton historic district — one that protects the Meeting House, the Voris property, the Bird House, and the numerous colonial and 19th-century buildings that survive in the neighborhood.
In the meantime, though, he waits — on a snowy January day, over lunch across the street at Milton Point Provisions — the arrival of the pest control contractor to rid the Homestead properties of the racoons. First things first.