Updated 11:10 p.m., comment from Planning and Zoning Director Mike Greene.
NORWALK, Conn. – Not only are drawings inside the White Barn Theatre not the work of the late Geoffrey Holder, according to a reliable source, but they would have been preserved no matter what, developer Jim Fieber said.
“I would never, ever destroy something that can be adaptively used or appreciated by members of the public if it’s possible and financially feasible to preserve it, Fieber said Wednesday, going on to express frustration about the “extraneous garbage” that has been spread about his planned 15-home conservation development on the estate of the late Lucille Lortel.
The Zoning Commission Plan Review Committee will consider Fieber’s application Thursday, after an extensive public hearing that featured an organized assault on the plan for the Cranbury estate, on the Norwalk/Westport line.
“They are just averse to any sort of development whatsoever,” Fieber said. “I mean, here is a plot of land where you have 15 acres, and 10.2 acres are going to remain absolutely in its virginal state. How can you accomplish that with a subdivision or with a school plan? It’s the least intrusive development that can be contemplated for this property except for conserving the entire site, which would mean an additional gift on our part to the city.”
The Historical Commission voted recently to ask Zoning to include in its approval for Fieber’s plan, if that happens, a condition that the site be documented by a consultant qualified as an architectural historian by the Connecticut State Historic Preservation architect. It also asked for preservation of the drawings from Geoffrey Holder’s wedding on the dressing room walls of the theater, that they be conserved, removed and donated to the city’s museum collection.
The drawings might be from Holder’s wedding, but they weren’t done by the Tony-award winning actor and dancer, remembered by people who watched television in the ’70s and “the 7-Up guy.”
A reliable source said:
“The drawings are not by Geoffrey Holder, they were done by a young woman who for many years helped out as an usher during the summer productions at White Barn. The woman and her sister began as interns/volunteers when they were about 15 years old at the request of their grandmother, who was friends with Lucille Lortel. They kept coming back year after year by request of Lucille herself, who very much appreciated their help. One summer the sister who loved making visual art decided to decorate one of the hallways inside the White Barn Theatre, just outside of the dressing rooms, so she painted quick sketches of some of the guests and White Barn regulars, plus she depicted the wedding of Geoffrey Holder and Carmen De Lavellade (done with black paint onto white walls). These quick sketches were painted straight onto the thick plaster walls, so they are not easily moved.”
There are photographs of the drawings, the source said.
Fieber said he had been told by Lortel’s nephew that everything of value was removed from the property.
The Westport Library has a collection of White Barn memorabilia.
“I guarantee you if it is there, nothing is going to happen to it. I will take a picture if it is there and we will find out how to take it off the wall if it’s possible,” Fieber said.
He went on to criticize the opposition to his conservation development.
“This is one of the best applications, according to people on staff in town, that this town has ever received. Why people decided they just don’t want anything at all is beyond me,” he said.
“I don’t rate applications,” Planning and Zoning Director Mike Greene said Thursday.
While some local pols have spoken against the project, including Republican mayoral candidate Kelly Straniti, other city officials have quietly offered support, he said.
“Cities are looking for revenue to support all the other important causes that a municipality supports,” Fieber said. “If this were going to be a school there would be no tax revenue. This is preserving more of the land than in the school application, which by the way, didn’t include their playing field, would means they would have used about 10 of the 15 acres.”
“People in this neighborhood have always come out and opposed everything,” but people from other parts of Norwalk are in favor of the development, Fieber said, describing letters that were sent to Zoning in support.
“People are seeing through the more affluent sections of town that just come out and oppose everything, vs the people in town who can really use revenue going into the city of Norwalk, because they are the ones who really benefit by the social programs that the revenue supports,” Fieber said. “It’s just unfair for people who are fortunate and live on their 1 acre in their $900,000 home not to realize they are sharing the benefits of the city with a lot of people who are very less fortunate.”
There is a rumor that members of the Al Madany Islamic Center are interested in the property. Fieber said those rumors have a foundation in truth.
“Is it true that our site is under consideration from the mosque? The answer is yes. It’s my property, I don’t have to do anything with them. Did they show interest? Yes, they did,” Fieber said. “I am also cognizant of what is appropriate for the neighborhood. My intention is to develop the site as will meet approval by the land use boards in Norwalk. But yes, there’s truth to that.”
“Our intention is if our application is approved we will develop the property pursuant to the application that has been submitted,” Fieber said.
Special Properties has donated land to preserve open space in other areas, Fieber said, mentioning a large tract of riverfront property in Suffield, where he could have built 280 homes.
The White Barn property is a “horse of a different color,” he said; it’s an infill site that the city would like to see developed, he said.
“I have a significant economic investment there,” Fieber said. “I sold it to the school, the school defaulted. I did not anticipate getting the property back, I got the property back. Now I have to monetize my investment just like anybody else would do.”