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Always In Season

As the Stamford Museum & Nature Center turns seventy-five, we take a stroll down memory lane to celebrate its legacy

A 2007 exhibit of photographs from the Hubble Space Telescope featuring a model of a lunar module used in the 1969 moon landing

photographs courtesy of the stamford museum & nature center

If not for a few banners out front or a glimpse of a Tudor building barely visible through the trees, it would be easy to miss the Stamford Museum & Nature Center while passing by. But enter through the stone pillars and a 118-acre oasis opens up before your eyes. First-time visitors are often amazed that a place like this exists just four miles from downtown.

It’s a place where on any given day one can see Rodin sculptures or a life-sized Lego dinosaur in the galleries, milk a goat or feed a cow on the farm, touch a snake, climb a tree or gaze at the stars through a full-sized research telescope. At its heart, it’s a feel-good place for
family fun—a spot where it’s OK for kids to get dirty and adults to take a break from the rat race.

“It’s like theater here,” Executive Director Melissa Mulrooney says with a smile. Indeed, throughout the seasons, each of the museum’s core areas—nature, art, natural history and astronomy—take center stage. “We can’t be everything to everyone, but we sure can be a lot of things to a lot of people.”

That, in a nutshell, has been the story of the SMNC, which has grown from a small space downtown into a happening place that includes eighty acres of hiking trails, a preschool, a playground, an observatory and, of course, a working farm and a museum. Certainly much has been accomplished over the seventy-five years of the center’s growth, in large part because its leaders weren’t afraid to try new things.
“I think when people hear ‘nature center’ they think every town has one, but we’re so much more than that,” says board president David Swerdloff. “The best thing is that every time you come here there’s something different.”

Swerdloff speaks from experience. If he and his wife find themselves with a few free hours on weekends, they’ll jump in the car and head up for an afternoon hike. Looking back, he recalls bringing his daughter Carolyn, who is now in her twenties, to view Halley’s Comet in the Observatory when she was two years old. That sparks the memory of entering pumpkin-carving contests during Harvest Spooktacular a few years later with his wife and three daughters. “We didn’t win,” he reflects, as if picturing the day, “but it was still a lot of fun.”

Throughout the years the fun has included, among other things, folk music festivals, ice-harvesting demonstrations, art and dance classes, summer camps, nature walks, hundreds of museum exhibitions, sleepovers, bike nights, haunted houses, outdoor movies, a motorcycle meet and the infamous Run with the Animals, a 5K race that had participants leaping over fence rails and through oxen pens—they did that one only once. If you really want to see the place come alive, visit on Maple Sugar Sunday and taste the syrup boiled down using sap from the center’s own trees, or Spring on the Farm, with traditional wool spinning, sheep shearing, and the unveiling of the newest crop of baby goats and lambs.

Mulrooney recalls the opening of the Wheels in the Woods universally accessible nature trail as a personal highlight of her six-year leadership so far. The memory of folks in wheelchairs taking the first trip down the boardwalk and finding themselves immersed in nature with nothing but trees and ponds in every direction moves her to tears. “That was really one of my very favorite moments here,” she says. “That’s what it’s all about.”

Looking Back

The museum started like many other classic twentieth-century museums, with a single, committed, affluent and influential community member, in this case Dr. G.R.R. Hertzberg, a Stamford surgeon, deciding that his city deserved a museum of its own. Built around a “cabinet of curiosities” model, the original collection grew from community donations of birds, moths, butterflies and other geological specimens. It opened in 1936 in a three-room rental space in the Stamford Trust building at 300 Main Street, and from the very beginning attracted families, still its key audience today.

It quickly outgrew its space and in 1946 moved to Courtland Park, where its first art exhibits were outdoor displays by local artists. (The art had to be brought inside quickly if the weather threatened.) Here, animals were also introduced, a planetarium was constructed and a weather station installed. 

When construction of the Connecticut Turnpike threatened to cut through the property in 1955, the museum found its next home, at its current North Stamford location, the former Henri Bendel estate, and added “Nature Center” to its name. It was this pivotal move that allowed the center to grow to its current scope and accommodate more than 100,000 visitors each year. The Heckscher Farm for Children also opened that year, with everything from raccoons and seals to ringtail monkeys and buffalo. Today the animal collection focuses on New England heritage breeds but also includes exotic animals and otters.

Inside the Bendel Mansion, the art collection began to take shape with the  1956 gift of a John Singer Sargent portrait and the 1961 donation of the Schulman twentieth-century American art collection. Today the museum owns totem poles from a World’s Fair, telescopes, outdoor sculptures, farm tools, Native American artifacts, Warhol and Dalí prints, vintage pedal cars, antique Yale & Towne keys and locks, and works by Stamford artists Gutzon Borglum and Ruben Nakian. This May, visitors can take a peek into these archives with the exhibit the Nature of Our Collections.

“Initially, as long as it was seen as having an educational purpose, the museum accepted quite a bit,” says Curator of Collections Rosa Portell, who’s been on staff for nearly thirty years.

As the museum grew and audiences demanded more variety, more often, organizers added changing exhibitions on topics from astronomy and pop culture to natural history and fine art. One of Portell’s favorites—Ukelele Fever in 2002—was a tribute to the musical instrument, and even had CBS’s Charles Osgood stop in to take the challenge of learning and playing a new song in five minutes. But what she loved about the project was the nostalgic impact it had on World War II vets while at the same time providing a celebration of fun music to the children who visited. Seeing how generations of visitors absorb the exhibitions differently is what Portell often enjoys most about planning the exhibitions she curates. “The moment I know we’ve succeeded is when I see people immersed and looking at a case and calling one another to come look at something.”

Everyone Benefits

School groups from New York City to New Haven and everywhere between continue to fill the meadow, farm, art galleries and nature trails nearly year-round. “As art, music and the humanities are being stripped from public school curricula, the Stamford Museum and Nature Center programming becomes a vital complement to a child’s education,” says Director of Education Will Kies. “We are a classroom that they don’t have access to in their own school.”

Mulrooney and Kies concur that as society becomes more wired-in, the center’s nature programs are becoming increasingly important. “Kids, especially those from urban areas, have a real disconnect with the outdoors,” says Kies. “This may be their first experience on a farm or in the woods. It could be the first time they’ve ever fallen in a stream or a pond. I love seeing these kids, their reaction to the animals, the smells, and watching them taste the real maple syrup.”

Kies, who first started visiting the SMNC when he was eight years old and jokes that he “never really left,” pauses to reflect, then adds, “Maybe it’s me trying to relive my childhood.”

A childhood filled with time spent playing and exploring outside. “I want kids to have an appreciation of the outdoors, to feel comfortable in their environment, to experience getting dirty and catching frogs and working with the animals, things that I think get lost in today’s society and today’s culture,” says Kies. “When I was a kid you just went outside and collected frogs.”

Kies must be doing something right. Consider Jack Denning, who is twelve years old and a member of the center’s Junior Curators program, a sixty-year-old educational effort that gives children first-hand farm experiences. “I like being able to feed the animals and hang out with them,” says Jack, who says his Cloonan Middle School friends think his work at the farm is “kind of weird” but “I don’t really care what they say. I think it’s cool.”

Stamford Mayor Michael Pavia credits these programs with helping guide his career path to become the city’s first director of environmental protection in 1976. Like many Stamford natives, he first visited as a child as part of a school field trip. “I was so impressed by how you were right in the middle of nature,” he says. “I was in awe. I think that had a lasting effect on me.”

For former board president Arnold Karp, it’s always been a family affair. His first visits were as a small child, when he and his brother, Doug, would tag along with their father, an accountant who helped out with the center’s annual audit. While their father was crunching numbers in the museum building, the Karp brothers often explored the site. One of his favorite family photographs was taken on a play horse at the museum. “I could look at it today and it would feel like yesterday. It’s the kind of place where you just lose track of time.”

One year, after adopting a duckling and soon realizing it didn’t make for a good house pet, “we loaded Squeaky the duck into the car, painted his nose with a little black paint so we’d always know which one he was, and drove him up to the museum,” he recalls, “and out Squeaky went.” Today, when Karp, his brother, and their wives and children visit, they still keep an eye out for Squeaky’s descendants. Karp family legend has it that all ducks on the farm are relatives of their beloved duck.

Preparing for the Future

While there are certainly many highlights in the center’s history, it hasn’t been without its share of tragedies. One of the largest shocks came when Malcolm and Edna Edgerton, the couple who spearheaded the fundraising campaign for the 1955 move to North Stamford, died in a plane crash just one year later. The museum community again experienced a devastating loss in 2005, when executive director Sharon Blume, who many credited with bringing new life and vision to the SMNC, was diagnosed with cancer and soon after passed away.

The most recent challenge has been keeping programs afloat despite a tough economy. Mulrooney admits that it hasn’t been easy, but she has managed to maintain a balanced budget even after the city reduced its funding by one-quarter last year. She’s done it through incremental admission and membership increases, additional corporate sponsorship support, and some new fundraisers. “We’ve worked hard not to let it impact our programs,” she says. “When you start to close your doors two days a week, it’s a slippery slope. You need to be sure the membership is not devalued.”

Instead, she’s been aggressively pursuing new corporate partnerships with local corporations that share the center’s environmental values, like Aquarion Water Company, and further building on longtime partnerships with First County Bank, UBS and Purdue Pharma.

Mulrooney also spearheaded the Shippan Designer Show House last year, in partnership with the Talent Resource Centre, to make up for the financial shortfall, a project that was also designed to reach a new audience in Stamford’s waterfront community.

“I’m very proud of the way the executive director runs that organization,” says Mayor Pavia. “In a year’s time she has so many different programs and events up there, it makes you wonder how she’s been able to come up with all these things, but she does and she does it well.”

Throughout the years the museum has relied on the generosity of families whose names—Altschul, Graham, Edgerton and Karp—grace the buildings and walkways, but the single most important contributor, of course, is the City of Stamford. “It’s one of Stamford’s jewels that most communities don’t have, that most communities would love to have,” says Pavia.

Board member June Rosenthal says credit should also go to the staff and large pool of volunteers. “The people that work there love it as much as the people who go there,” she says, counting herself among their fans. “It isn’t just a job.”

It’s something to celebrate. Many will be raising glasses at the annual wine tasting to toast the diamond anniversary this June. But after the party glasses are washed and put away, the work of the next seventy-five years will begin. One item on the docket is a master plan—what Mulrooney calls “a vision for the future”—that looks to reshape the campus and attract audiences from even farther away. Given the slow economic recovery, members of the SMNC administration and the board are waiting for the financially appropriate time to launch a capital campaign (see page 87).

In the meantime, the future looks bright. “I’d like to have people say that the Stamford Museum and Nature Center is a place where you can go and always find something new and interesting,” says David Swerdloff. “That’s how I’d like it to be today and that’s how I’d like it to be in seventy-five years.”

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