An abandoned school becomes a cultural center
By Laura Hussey
Photographs by Pam Rouleau
At the intersection of Route 7 and 107 in Georgetown, a once abandoned Beaux Arts-style brick building sitting at the top of a hill now bustles with artists, actors and dancers. Anyone driving by too fast may miss the elegant terra cotta roof with its decorative plaster consoles, or the Flemish gable and brickwork announcing the stately front door of what was once the Gilbert & Bennett Schoolhouse, now a thriving cultural center.
An Historic Schoolhouse Is Saved
Built in 1915, the Gilbert & Bennett Schoolhouse at 49 New Street opened as a school for the children of the employees of the Gilbert & Bennett Company. Constructed through the generosity of the factory owners and deeded to the Town of Wilton, the school was a state-of-the-art facility with eight classrooms, an auditorium, a kitchen, a cafeteria, and a principal’s office—it even had indoor bathrooms, a novelty at the time. The school served the local community until the 1960s when it could no longer meet the needs of the growing population.
In the years since, the building was leased to several small private schools and finally, in 1981, to Landmark Academy. In 1998, Landmark made a bid to purchase the building, but was rejected by the Town due to neighbors’ concerns about heavy school-related traffic as well as Landmark’s proposal to knock down part of the historically significant building to make way for an addition that would allow them to nearly double their enrollment. While the building sat empty for many years, the local Georgetown Community Association (GCA) worked on a proposal for its use, funding and management. They also sought to gain architectural protection for the entire New Street neighborhood. In 2007 the structure became part of Wilton’s Historic District #6; now listed in the National Register of Historic Places, it is protected from demolition.
A Vibrant New Cultural Center
The GCA’s proposed vision for the building was a space where local artists and musicians could work, perform and interact with each other. This dream was realized in the spring of 2011 when the Gilbert & Bennett Community Cultural Center (GBCCC) officially opened its doors. Director Pat Hegnauer says, “This is a work in progress. Our initial success is due in large part to a wonderful team of volunteers who have worked hard to get the space ready - cleaning and painting the building, repairing the school bell, donating furniture and office equipment.” Under her energetic direction, the GBCCC has had a successful first year, with an artist-in-residence program, a framing gallery, a music center, art studios and classes, many art-related events and more recently, a theater academy.
The Artist Community
Christopher Curnan, a Ridgefield artist, became the GBCCC’s first artist-in-residence, after displaying his work in the Main Hall during the center’s opening and Hegnauer learned he was looking for new studio space. “This has been a rewarding opportunity for me.
Pat has a unique vision and it has been an honor to watch it come to fruition,” says Curnan.
Dara Polenchi-Quinn moved her framing gallery, Galleria d’Arte, from another location in Ridgefield to be a part of GBCCC, and says “I love the interaction with all of the artists here. I started teaching framing and matting classes in my studio and I am able to devote a lot of time to restoration work. This move has been wonderful for me.” Adds Susan Neilly, co-Governor of the Weston Music Center, a not-for-profit music school that had been operating out of Weston’s Emmanuel Church before it moved to GBCCC, “We fell in love with the space, and now hold many of our cello and violin classes here. Many of our students come from Redding and Ridgefield.” The music school was so happy with the space that it donated a grand piano for everyone to use.
The building contains several art studios available to artists for an hourly fee. There are days when a model is scheduled for several hours; typically 10-15 artists are showing up for these events. Several artists also use studio space to teach classes to students of all levels and ages.
GBCCC also hosts a variety of events such as workshops, concerts, movies, community dances, flower shows, and the occasional corporate meeting, as well as artists’ tag sales, holiday decoration and wreath-making events and a Christmas Sale in its Main Hall.
The Latest Addition
Described as the “missing piece of the puzzle” by Hegnauer, Wire Mill Academy opened at GBCCC in September, offering classes in acting, singing, and movement for the stage for children in kindergarten through high school. About three years ago, Wire Mill co-founder, Sarah Pfisterer, remembers watching her daughter’s soccer game at the field in front of the empty building. “I knew immediately that it would be a wonderful place to open a theater arts school, but I was not ready to make the commitment.” Early in 2011, Sarah, along with her husband, Rick Hilsabeck, and their good friend, Mary Jo Duffy, decided the time was right. When they discovered there was space available at the Gilbert & Bennett Community Cultural Center, Sarah knew it was kismet.
As accomplished Broadway performers and seasoned educators with a passion for working with children, launching a theater arts school was a natural evolution for the three friends. Their goal with Wire Mill Academy is simple. Explains Mary Jo, “We want every child to discover the power of creative expression. It is important to us that they enjoy the journey. They don’t need to be aware that they are learning so much through the process.” Rick adds, “We are giving them a foundation in the theater arts. If they choose to pursue it further, that’s great. But it is not necessary. We just want them to have fun while they are with us.”
Not one to rest on her laurels, Hegnauer says she hopes, in the future, to make the building “green” and go off the grid. The GCA, along with the Town of Wilton, has been evaluating proposals for solar panels to be installed on the flat roof. The conditions are so ideal that the panels should quickly pay for themselves and, in fact, earn extra money for the center each month. For an organization, that despite a shoestring budget, has so quickly established itself as a vibrant, interactive place for artists and as a cultural center for the community, this would be a great advantage.
Still new, GBCCC does not have a website, but Pat Hegnauer can be reached at 203-544-0056.