The marble amphitheater in Lia Fail is going to be saved and brought back to life at Sarah Lawrence. That's the good news; I'm sorry, however, that Greenwich is losing a little bit more of its quirky, artistic past - there's less room for quirk each year, it seems.
A near miracle of rescue has come to a magical place in Greenwich long beloved by those in the know of one man’s dream made into grand reality—the Greek-fashioned O’Neil amphitheater in a hidden enclave of Cos Cob called Lia Fail. Since 1993, the amphitheater has been listed on the Connecticut State Register of Historic Places. But the registry “does not prevent a property owner from demolishing a building.”
On August 2, the property with amphitheater sold for the second time since the 2011 death of Madelyn O’Neil, widow of the theater’s architect-builder Horton O’Neil. By mid-September, activity on the property told the tale: the new Stamford-based owners, known only as the Nayden Florida Family Trust, had no plan to save the amphitheater. (The 80-year old amphitheater with its history of performance and drama is featured in the Greenwich Library’s Oral History Project.)
What transpired after that discovery by the neighborhood of Lia Fail, of the extraordinary efforts and actions of individuals on the state and local level, working against the clock to save the white marble wonder from the wrecking ball, was the finding of a new home for the amphitheater, in Bronxville, N.Y.
Horton O’Neil, as in the days of ancient Greece, had hand built the amphitheater to seat 700 along with four workers, including two Italian stonecutters [who had just been laid off after work on the Lincoln Memorial was completed - it was the Depression, work was hard to find, and they were happy to get an offer from O'Neil to come work in Cos Cob, Madelyn O'Niel told me - that's not one our famous FWIW invented quotes, just so you know. Ed]. “Horton designed it when he was 26!” said his son. “He created all that subtlety and refinement. He was a kid! He’d just graduated from architecture school.”
The Lia Fail neighborhood, now galvanized, met to brainstorm how to find a home for the amphitheater—reaching out to schools, organizations, and civic groups that had a campus, and broadening their search to other Connecticut organizations, schools and museums. The fact that the amphitheater was on private property prevented publicizing their efforts.
Calls to the town’s Historic District Commission directed them to the Greenwich Historical Society and its Greenwich Preservation Network, headed by Diane Fox. Fox knew that the Connecticut Trust for Historical Preservation had a “very important circuit rider program with a group that tries to preserve buildings. Called in was Stamford-based circuit rider Wes Haynes, whose job is to check out these historic places and “try to get parties together” to save them.
In early October Haynes made his visit to the amphitheater. His reaction was that he’d seen “the most unusual historic resource” he had encountered in his work with the trust. He promptly got in touch with the property owners to negotiate an agreement to allow the theater to be removed. He was given a deadline of the end of December for the removal—the owners were set on beginning their construction on Jan. 1.
“I thought this was going to be the most impossible assignment I ever had,” said Haynes of the theater’s size and complexity and time frame he was given. His field report on the “O’Neil Outdoor Theater” was duly placed with photos on his website to attract interested parties.
Wanted: Someone or some organization wishing for an amphitheater and able to fund the removal and relocation of some 2,500 marble blocks, a marble stage, and half a dozen marble monoliths, each weighing five tons.
... On Oct. 10 came the watershed moment. Josie Merck, a longtime supporter of her alma mater—Sarah Lawrence College—learned that a college-proposed Barbara Walters Campus Center might include an amphitheater. “There may be a way,” she mused, “to move the theater to Sarah Lawrence.”
Unbeknownst to Merck, Sarah Lawrence was the college of choice for the O’Neil family. Five members of the O’Neil family attended the college, including Horton O’Neil’s sister, Barbara O’Neil, his daughter Joellen O’Neil, his sister-in-law Nina Engel, and her two daughters, Nancy and Nina Washburn.
In late October, two momentous meetings were held at the amphitheater, the first with Haynes, Merck, and three Sarah Lawrence College principals: Stephen Schafer, vice president of Finance and Operations, Ellen Reynolds, interim vice president of Advancement, and architect Pamela Rew, from KSS Architects, who is involved in planning for the college’s future student center. After the meeting, Rew shared her enthusiasm with Merck: “What a great artifact and potential for Sarah Lawrence… If you could describe a dream day for an architect, yesterday would be in the book.”
A week later representatives from the renowned stone work enterprise Ottavino, which had reconstructed the Temple of Dendur for the Metropolitan Museum, arrived with their tools to lift up a couple of marble stones in the amphitheater to see if they were removable. The answer was yes.
... [B]y Thanksgiving Merck had handed over the necessary funds to Sarah Lawrence College, having succeeded in “a remarkably short time,” she noted, to obtain “enthusiastic acceptance from the Sarah Lawrence College president and board, and members of the faculty and staff”—and having handed over to them the arrangements with Ottavino for surveying, removal, storage and cleaning of the approximate 2,000 marble stones for the theater “to be used as an outdoor performance arts theater.”
“My parents would be unbelievably happy to know that the theater was leaving its hidden site, a ‘folly’ in the woods of Cos Cob, to become a part of a public institution, the Common, available to all,” said David O’Neil.
“It’s wonderful it worked out,” said Wes Haynes. “I didn’t think it would come together. The donor, Josie Merck, is a real hero.” A similar sentiment was expressed by Merck: “Wes Haynes is a hero.”
But for the town of Greenwich, and especially the neighborhood of Lia Fail, Sarah Lawrence College’s gain is their loss. For neighbor Renee Seblatnigg, “The O’Neil Amphitheater was the heart of Lia Fail.”