It’s something of a climb to Greenfield Hill. The historic green — the heart of the community and site of the Greenfield Hill Congregational Church and annual Dogwood Festival — sits at the confluence of two long, steadily rising roads, Bronson and Hillside, 258 feet above sea level. When early farmers began moving to this north-central section of Fairfield in the 1600s, it could take them half a day in bad weather to return from markets in town to the top of the hill.
Arriving today in Greenfield Hill takes less time but you’ll need bushels of money. The area is to Fairfield what backcountry Greenwich is to Greenwich proper. Straddling the Merritt Parkway, the Hill flattens and stretches to the Easton border past fieldstone walls, deep lawns, woods and open meadows, and mostly big, old houses.
Living on the Hill also takes a particular mind-set. New money has long circulated with old, but it does so fairly quietly. “Greenfield Hill is very understated,” says Rick Higgins, a resident and the chairman of the Higgins Group, a Fairfield-based real estate company. “The line between Westport and Greenfield Hill is the line between New York and New England.”
This New England reserve, which may be the essence of the place, is best expressed in what isn’t shown and isn’t talked about. The driveways are long and winding for a reason. And if, as the old social dictum goes, “Greenwich speaks only to Southport,” then Greenfield Hill speaks only to itself. Here, privacy trumps publicity.
The Hill exerts a kind of gravitational pull even on those from other parts of Fairfield. John Payne, an investment banker and local historian, lived in Southport for many years before moving with his wife to a pre-Civil War barn on Merwin’s Lane. “When you’re on Greenfield Hill, you feel you’re away from the commercial areas and busy thoroughfares,” Payne says. “As you go up the hill from the Post Road, it’s almost as if you’re escaping to Greenfield Hill.”
Part of the allure is the land itself. Most of the Hill is AAA-zoned, meaning two-acre minimum building lots, and enough properties have enough undeveloped acreage to give the impression of a rural community, albeit a wealthy one. Part, no doubt, are the homes, which range from white clapboard or weathered shingle, to palatial brick and stone, to invisible, imagined estates behind walls and gates and up winding, evasive driveways.
A third, less tangible draw is the area’s solid sense of place and almost palpable sense of history. More so than the historic district on Fairfield’s Old Post Road, or Southport village for that matter, Greenfield Hill lives with one foot in the past.
DOGWOODS AND DO-GOODERS
It didn’t take long for Fairfield farmers with ambition to discover the rich soil and high, refreshing breezes on the Hill. By the early 1700s, fifty-five families — including Banks, Bradley, Burr, Hull, Merwin and Sherwood — had settled in the area.
A half-century before the United States existed, Greenfield Hillers founded the Greenfield Hill Congregational Church on a common (later a town green) a mile wide. The congregation’s most famous pastor was Timothy Dwight, who had entered Yale at age thirteen, served as an army chaplain during the Revolutionary War, and arrived on the Hill in 1783. Before leaving to become president of Yale in 1795, he founded Dwight Academy in a house on the common.
When the Reverend David Rowe arrived in 1994 to serve as co-pastor of the church, he discovered a congregation similar, at least in spirit, to that of Timothy Dwight’s day. “It was really like a town meeting,” he recalls of his first Sunday service. “Everyone had come from their residences or little farms. There was a spirit of compassion and caring that I felt here, and it still has that feeling.” (Rowe, who lives in the 1823 parsonage across from the church, also communed with his predecessor’s spirit. For the 275th anniversary of the church in 2000, he dressed up like Reverend Dwight and delivered a sermon that the great man had written.)
The farmers on the Hill prospered, but by the second half of the nineteenth century the area was in decline, eclipsed by Southport’s commerce and wealthy Bridgeporters summering in Fairfield. One family, however, hitched its fortune to Greenfield Hill’s star and transformed the community in the process.
In 1796, Dr. Isaac Bronson, a Revolutionary War surgeon and banker from New York, bought Timothy Dwight’s house (on what is now Bronson Road, uncoincidentally) as a summer home and named it Verna. With his son, Frederick, he turned the 200-acre estate into a working farm. By the 1900s, people with money were living on the Hill year-round and summering at Fairfield beach, using horse-drawn carts to transport small beach shacks down to the shore in the spring and back up the Hill in the fall.
Frederick’s son, Frederick Bronson II, built a shake-sided windmill (known as the Bronson Windmill, unsurprisingly) to supply water to the main house and greenhouses. The three generations of Bronsons planted dogwoods, digging the first ones up in the woods and transplanting them along the border of the estate.
Last May, when the dogwoods bloomed on Greenfield Hill in time once again for the festival, some 9,000 blossomheads thronged to the church common for the seventy-first occasion of the event — reenacting what, in effect, is a pagan, tree-worshipping ritual.
Although the Women’s Guild continues to run the Dogwood Festival, it is the Greenfield Hill Village Improvement Society that has doggedly made the trees one of its missions. The society’s very existence, not to mention its longevity and membership — nearly one thousand families strong — shows how seriously some people here take their houses and land.
In an effort organized by Mrs. Frederick Bronson and friends in 1896, the ladies of the Hill imported pink dogwoods from Japan and planted them on Bronson Road and the church green. They also straightened gravestones in the cemetery and paid for a sidewalk in front of the church. The society’s goal back then, as its handbook states, was “to maintain the rural character of Greenfield Hill.”
Increasingly it had less to do with improvement than with preservation at all costs. In 1921 the society opposed a proposal to build a hospital on the Hill, thus beginning a long series of objections to proposals that continues to this day. The society also opposed the Merritt Parkway in general — on the grounds that it would turn the peaceful countryside into “a gasoline alley for New York motorists” — and, in particular, the state’s plan to site an exit and entrance on Redding Road. Plans for the hospital and the exit were abandoned, even though the state owned the Redding road site.
“I think improvement and preservation always went hand and hand,” says DeeDee Brandt, a Virginian who moved to the area fifteen years ago and is currently president of the Village Improvement Society. “As far as strict adherence to zoning, which we’re doing now, that probably went back to when a Veteran’s Hospital was proposed for the area in which the Merritt Parkway was going. Had those two things happened, we wouldn’t have Greenfield Hill today. We’d have Tunxis Hill” — a section of Fairfield on the Bridgeport line.
“Not that anything’s wrong with Tunxis Hill,” an interviewer interjects. “Right?”
“Not that anything’s wrong with Tunxis Hill,” DeeDee answers, “but it has a completely different character. Fairfield’s nice because it has so many different areas, don’t you think? All we ever do is ask that zoning regulations are followed.”
Well, not exactly. With the population of the Hill soaring, in 1951 the society pushed through AAA-zoning and battled a firehouse on the green, a private club on Burr Street, a research-and-development center, a municipal golf course, and a four-lane highway on Hulls Farm Road. In recent years it has successfully opposed office buildings on Hill Farm Road, the addition of a girl’s school at Fairfield Country Day and a wave of proposals for condos in the area.
And, on fronts that strike some as nitpicking and meddling rather than improving or preserving, the organization has taken strong positions against road-widening, bush-trimming, aggressive tag-sales, real estate signs, streetlamps, and the shade of blue of the blue recycling bins.
GRANGERS IN A GRANGE LAND
What few could fault, though, are the Society’s efforts to preserve the Greenfield Hill Grange.
Springing up across the country after the Civil War, the Granger movement gave struggling farmers a voice in politics, a say in legislation and a place to socialize. The Greenfield Hill Grange Hall was built in 1897, the same year the Improvement Society was founded on Hillside Road, near the intersection with Congress Street.
Elizabeth V. H. Banks, who grew up on Greenfield Hill, remembers clambakes in the summer, with Grangers and their families gathering at the beach before taking their harvest to the hall on the hill, and Fair Days at the Grange in September, which were attended by most of the community.
Today the Greenfield Hill Grange has fewer than a dozen members. With Haydu Farm, a twenty-two-acre farm on Congress Street that the town bought in 1998, the Grange and Haydu Farm are the last vestiges of the farming community Greenfield Hill once was. The white, two-story, farm building — at home in rural Pennsylvania or the midwest but here residing in a neighborhood of historic homes and large estates — is in disrepair.
This past spring, however, the Improvement Society formed a partnership with the Grange to restore the Grange Hall. The move will not only help keep this section of the Hill more or less the way it’s been for the past century, of course, but will also preserve the hall for future generations of Fairfielders.
“The Grange is part of the legacy of Fairfield’s farming community,” says Grange president George Clark, who lives across the street from the hall. “We may have transitioned from corn and potatoes to roses and hydrangeas, but we’re still growing things, and I think the Grange can once again be a center of the community.”
BUT WHERE EXACTLY IS IT?
One problem with the concept of this community, in particular, is that no one seems really sure where Greenfield Hill begins or where it ends.
“From the Village Improvement Society point of view, let’s see … We have a lot of members up in the Hemlock Hill area, so that would be included, and Sturges Road to Black Rock Turnpike, and north to Haydu Farm on Congress. And in lower Greenfield Hill, the church and windmill to Hulls Farm Road,” says Deedee Brandt, who lives on Hulls Farm Road.
Chris Salko, fifty-two, has lived in a small, red farmhouse on Hulls Farm Road all his life. He and his wife, Teddy, board horses along with nineteen of their own for riding lessons and run a summer riding camp. While some may regard Hulls Farm Road as the floor of Greenfield Hill, or as “Southern Greenfield Hill,” Salko, whose mailing address is Southport, and others regard it as the ceiling of Southport.
“It’s all the same to me,” says Salko, “but I guess it’s prestigious to some people to live in Greenfield Hill.”
The official word on the area is expressly unofficial. “There are no official boundaries,” says John Pugliese, senior assessor for the town of Fairfield. “Unofficially, if you can see the Church from your house, you live in Greenfield Hill. If you can’t, you don’t. Realtors might want to say it’s more than it is, but for our purposes, Greenfield Hill would be from Redding Road on the West to Burr on the East, the Merritt on the North, and maybe Brookside to the South.” Then again, Pugliese adds, “On Redding, and you might want to go over to Merwins Lane.”
Art McCain, who lives off the Hill but is a long-standing member of the Congregational Church, passes the buck to a higher authority. Greenfield Hill, he says, is “an idea in the mind of God — if, indeed, God lives in Greenfield Hill, which people here think He does.” As for boundaries, McCain guesses “where Bronson begins to climb, and Hillside goes to Congress, and east to Burr. And people all the way up Redding Road believe they are Greenfield Hillers, and that’s a pretty big hill.”
What is or isn’t Greenfield Hill matters, at least in terms of real estate. When houses on the Hill get listed for sale, the word “prestigious” invariably precedes location, and “prestigious” translates to “expensive.”
This spring, a renovated Cameron Clark Colonial on six acres on Verna Hill Road went on the market for $3.995 million. The Redding Road home of Robert Penn Warren, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of All the King’s Men, was listed for $3.1 million. On “The Ridge,” the recent luxury-home development off Sturges Highway that had been the 265-acre estate of the Rudkins (Pepperidge Farms’s founding family), houses routinely sell for between $1.5 million and $4.5 million.
Those and other listings come fully loaded with history.
More pre-Revolutionary houses stand on the Hill — thirteen — than in the rest of Fairfield. The houses, which remain largely unremodeled, give the area a rural authenticity. But a number of fine twentieth-century houses are notable, including examples by such remarkable architects as Royalberry Wills, William Jackson, and C. Cameron Clark, who designed or redesigned some twenty houses on Greenfield Hill between the 1920s and late-1940s. In recent years, well-known Southport architects Jack Franzen and Mark Finlay have also designed homes and overseen renovations here.
But the key fact of life on Greenfield Hill is that someone or something was there before anyone presently alive.
Diana and Lawrence Erdmann, for example, live on Hillside Road in a house that Cameron Clark remodeled into a Greek Revival mansion in the 1930s. Before that, it was a nineteenth-century Colonial on the grounds of Dr. and Mrs. DeVer Warner’s estate. In 1911 their daughter, Margaret Warner, and her friends opened the Tea Time Tavern, where they held weekly tea parties to raise money for a Bridgeport nursery school. Their little group, the Thimble Club, was the predecessor of the Junior League of Bridgeport.
And before that the property was an onion farm. Two hundred years later, scallions still come up on the Erdmann lawn.
Further down Hillside a young investment banker who grew up around the corner currently owns a twenty-nine-acre estate that belonged to, in order, the Greenfield Hill Country Club, the Baeklands, John Brackert and, for several years at the turn of this century, Martha Stewart. (Had Martha remained on the Hill, there’s little doubt she would have taken over the Village Improvement Society by now.)
LIVING IN AN ANACHRONISM
On the other hand, if you happened to descend from a family that predates the founding of Greenfield Hill, then you needn’t worry about whether you’re a Greenfield Hiller or a Fairfielder or who was here before your family. No one was.