Located at 132 Main Street, down the street from the fountain that renowned architect Cass Gilbert designed, built, and donated to Ridgefield in 1915, the Keeler Tavern Museum has been open to the public since 1966. Through decades of attention and admiration, the museum continues to flourish with the help of the Ridgefield community, attracting some 9,000 visitors a year.
Further adding to its success is a $1,500 grant from the Connecticut Humanities Fund, which will be used to host a lecture by Dr. Barbara Christen, an expert on late 19th- and early 20th-Century American architecture. With sponsorship also from Sean O’Kane AIA Architect, P.C., Helen Post Curry, Gilbert’s great-granddaughter, and Woolworth Tours, the lecture will take place on Sunday, Sept. 27, in the museum’s Garden House at 4.
As part of the museum’s Distinguished Speaker Lecture Series, Christen’s presentation, “Giving for the Future: Cass Gilbert’s Philanthropic Interests,” will highlight the charitable successes, architectural achievements, and legacy of Cass Gilbert, former owner of the Keeler Tavern.
“We have a role here as a museum in conveying some of [Cass Gilbert’s] later life story, not only his career accomplishments but the impact he had here at this site,” said Angela Liptack, associate director of the museum. “Barbara Christen comes at this topic from being an academic who has studied his life for many years and particularly in this instance, she is interested in developing a storyline around Gilbert as a philanthropist.”
An alumna of the City University of New York Graduate Center where she received her Ph.D. in art and architectural history, Christen earned her bachelor’s degree in English and art history. After graduation and teaching in Japan for a year, she went back for her master’s, specifically interested in architectural history. This eventually led to her contributions to Cass Gilbert, Life and Work: Architect of the Public Domain (W.W. Norton, 2001) of which she was also the primary editor. Through ongoing research, publications, and lectures, Christen continues to increase her admiration for Gilbert’s life and works.
Of recent interest is the waterfront sanatorium Gilbert constructed in Waterford, a project that began in 1931 and lasted until 1935. The building, originally built for use as a medical center for the treatment of children with tuberculosis, has been abandoned since 1996 and continues to deteriorate every day.
“Connecticut Humanities provides opportunities to get quick grants twice a year to any institution that applies.” Liptack said, adding “They’re interested in topic areas that can be made relevant for contemporary issues and that’s one of the reasons why Barbara is taking the angle on the philanthropic part of Gilbert’s story. Because it is original research and something that can be tied in to current debate over what to do with Seaside Sanatorium.”
Many years before his design and construction of Seaside though, in 1907, Gilbert purchased the Cannonball House (as the Tavern was then known, for the Battle of Ridgefield cannonball lodged in one of its timbers) to use as a family summer home. In order to transform the old building into a place for his family’s use, Gilbert made several improvements to the original structure. His most significant addition to the property was a large, 25-x-50-foot Garden House built in 1915 for his wife Julia.
“Museums like ours have to have a number of sources of income so the Garden House functions now as a venue not only for our own events, but for social events, weddings and anniversary parties,” Liptack said, adding, “That’s also true for the [Carriage] Barn,” another one of Gilbert’s noteworthy additions.
The Garden House is an ideal location for Dr. Christen’s presentation about the architect at 4 on Sept. 27. A question-and-answer session will follow and then guests will be invited over to the Carriage Barn at 5:30 for a wine and cheese reception.
At the Carriage Barn reception, the Keeler Tavern Museum will unveil an exhibit of 16 photographs featuring Cass Gilbert’s architecture from renowned photographer Carol M. Highsmith’s multi-year photography project for the Library of Congress.
According to Charles Pankenier, marketing chairman at the Keeler Tavern Museum and author of Cass Gilbert Comes Home to the Cannon Ball House, “The photographs that will be on exhibit here will range from a full scale of the West Virginia Capitol to a frieze over a doorway at Oberlin College where he did a campus plan and a number of individual buildings.”
Highsmith, often referred to as “America’s Photographer,” has had much success in her career with work published in Smithsonian, Time, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other national publications. The Highsmith photography exhibit will be open to the public until Oct. 5. Since the exhibit will be open for a short period of time, visits are by appointment or on Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays during museum hours for tours.
While the museum aims to attract as many guests to the event as possible, space is limited (with only 90 seats available) so pre-registration is encouraged. Visit keelertavernmuseum.org/events/ to register and purchase tickets or call the museum at 203-438-5485. Tickets to both the lecture and reception cost $50 ($35 for members/students) while tickets to the lecture only cost $25 ($20).