Norwalk: White Barn Walking Tour

In the end there wasn’t the mad crowd of political flunkies who staged what would have been a spectacular tribute to Lucille Lortell in a remash of the West Side Story. The theatrics, for once appropriate, weren’t there, and instead a small troupe of political flunkies arrived at the White Barn property to add another milestone to a long series of events that started in 1999.
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Despite the save cranbury web site, the saga of the Lortell foundation’s decision to interpret Lortell’s last will as a flexible document to keep the white barn theater going, but not at the physical white barn theater property is a murky one, though not unusual. Foundations it seems, have become a vehicle for leveraging many things, and not necessarily what the benefactor wanted. The NY Times recently reported;

Banks can reduce gifts and increase the foundation’s assets, thus increasing their fees. At the same time, banks and lawyers stand to gain personal influence and prestige by selecting new charities.

“Donors who’ve given us money for years die, their money ends up in a foundation controlled by their lawyer or their bank, and we don’t get any more grants,” said Juliana Eades, president of the New Hampshire Community Loan Fund.

Which is maybe how the Lucill Lortell foudnation eneded up giving $2 million to the Westport Playhouse, a theater unconnected to the Lucille Lortell during her lifetime, instead of using those funds to preserve Lortell’s actual White Barn Theater. From Westportnow.com

Westport Country Playhouse officials announced Monday they have received a $2 million capital grant from the Lucille Lortel Foundation to name in perpetuity the building adjacent to the theater as “The Lucille Lortel White Barn Center.”

In addition, the Lucille Lortel Foundation has pledged a $500,000 operating grant over 10 years to create The White Barn Theatre Program at the Playhouse.

The original White Barn Theatre, founded by Lortel in 1947 to present experimental works, is now a museum located on Newtown Turnpike in Westport. Its final production there was in the summer of 2002.

The Lucille Lortel Foundation grant brings the Playhouse’s five-year Campaign for a New Era to within $200,000 of its $30.6 million goal for Playhouse renovation and expansion, artistic and educational programming and an endowment. The campaign is scheduled to end on December 31, 2005.

Today though, the focus was on the future of the property, not the recent lost opportunities. The milestone at hand was a new agenda item for Tuesday’s Common Council meeting. After years of building an open space fund, the Council was going to vote on appropriating $250k from the fund to match the $450k the state DEP had promised in a grant.

Common Council President Mike Coffey, and his entourage of 4 children, led the many rounds of thanking the hard work of all present to get to this point. He described the process of freeing the money from the Open Open Space funding, and added that $30k would be given to the Harte Peninulsa acqusition.

The theme of thanking stressed the high level of cooperation amongst people on both sides of the political aisle and was mentioned by virtually all the speakers.

Gail Wall spoke on how the Save Cranbury Association was formed 4 years ago to save the property. Joanne Jackson spoke about the amazing results that can be achieved with cooperation of politicians of different parties and across town borders, mentioning Westport’s Partrick wetlands. Marny Smith, president of the Norwalk Land Trust, spoke about the process of getting the $450k grant released due to the acreage changes and need for a new appraisal.

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Mayoral candidate Walter Briggs explained how he instituted funding for open space out of the planning commission budget approved by the council. In recent years, the previous Mayor, Alex Knopp, removed that funding. Briggs mentioned that with the Moccia administration took over the Democratic led council was able to restore that funding. “Finally,” Briggs said, “We have many things to do [with the funds].”

Marny Smith added, “It is now spelled out that we have a process for funding and applying those funds and its being practiced.”

Council member Gwen Briggs added that “this council has been very generous with open space.”

Maribeth Becker displayed the plans for the Friends School and explained how the school became involved in acquiring the property.

Council member Fred Bondi talked a bit about all the open space projects that the council was moving forward with, saying, “Three projects in 2 years is really great.”

Kelly Straniti reiterated how it took so many people coming together to get to the point that the property preservations was at. “Four years ago, before I was elected t the council, I jumped in and wanted to do something to preserve this land. And now I have an impact as a council person, and will be voting for the funding next week.”

Doug Hempstead spoke last, but not least, (well, less than Gail Wall actually), “This is Americana at its best. Nothing good comes easy.” He was alluding to the difficulties in getting to the Friend’s School project. “This has pulled everyone together for a common cause. It should put Norwalk on the map for a lot people to see how a community can come together and get a school like the Friends School that is so ecologically fitting here.”

With all the remarks and speeches out of the way, the walking tour began, and concluded with none of the kids having fallen into the pond, only Doug Hempstead forging across the brook and none of the hiking party getting trapped by rusting relics of illegal dumping.

source:, NY Times, Donors Gone, Trusts Veer From Their Wishes, By STEPHANIE STROM, September 29, 2007

  • anonymous

    This city council has done alot of great work preserving open space in the past two years. Way to go, and keep up the good work. Preserving space at the White Barn, Hart property, and Fodor Farm is really great.

  • can you belive this

    Nice to see elected officials who follow through!
    I know Kelly Straniti and Doug Hempstead made that one of there campaign commitments last election to our district, and they made sure the Mayor supported it. An special accomplishment considering they were part of the minority party,it shows what bi partisan team work can accomplish.
    That one of the reasons I am going to vote for them!

  • anonymous

    It looks like the bipartisanship was a two way street between the dems and pubs. Kudos to both sides on this.

  • anon

    I’m not surprised that this council has been good on open space. They have families in Norwalk so they have a sense of balance.