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Protesters press campaign to save aviation pioneer's Fairfield home

Efforts to delay the demolition of a Fairfield house built by pioneering aviator Gustave Whitehead might have gained momentum this week.

"I took it upon myself to do a title search on this house," said Melanie Marks, founder and president of Connecticut House Histories. "I can assure you they had a house here" in 1914.

The announcement was met with cheers from roughly two dozen people gathered in front of the small bungalow at 184 Alvin St. despite rain Tuesday afternoon.

If the house was built in 1914 it would be 100 years old -- the age set by a local ordinance that requires a 60-day stay on demolitions.

But town officials said their documents indicate the house was built in 1918. Because a demolition permit was issued last week, the house can be taken down as soon as Sunday, if that is the case.

Opponents cite evidence that Whitehead may have been the first man to fly a powered, heavier-than-air aircraft in 1901 -- years before the Wright brothers -- as a good reason to preserve the house the German immigrant built and lived in.

Some Whitehead supporters say knocking the house down is akin to destroying Thomas Edison's home or Abe Lincoln's cabin. Jane's All The World's Aircraft, the technical bible for aeronautical engineers and pilots, last year credited Whitehead as the first to build an operational heavier-than-air flying machine.

Hampering efforts: Newspapers of the time reported his flight a full two years before the Wright brothers, but no known photo of the event exists.

And Marks said she found a property tax record that shows that Gustave Whitehead's wife, Louise Whitehead, purchased four lots on Alvin Street in 1914. She got a mortgage on that property on Jan. 28, 1915.

"She wouldn't be getting a mortgage if she didn't have a house and they couldn't have built a house in 27 days," Marks said.

Property tax records in 1915 also show a house stood on the property, she said, adding that she planned to show the documents to town officials before Friday, when town offices are closed for Good Friday.

Protesters hoped that information would be good enough to delay the demolition so the time could be spent on raising funds to relocate the house or convince developer Gary Tenk, of Stratford, not to move forward with plans to tear it down.

"Despite the weather, and anything else, we are here," said Ed Collins, one of the event organizers. "And we are going to save this house."

Dolly Curtis, who helped Collins organize the rally, noted that Whitehead's trail-blazing accomplishments are known and being recognized throughout the nation. Read Full Article 

"If this story is fascinating for the entire nation -- it's really stealing this from everyone," she said. "I don't think anyone should have that right, especially a little local government."

Litchfield resident Stephen Link said his grandmother was the last living eyewitness of Whitehead's flights. Elizabeth Papp Koteles was Whitehead's good friend and neighbor.

"It was a very close community," he said. "These people were glued together."

Link brought along a sign that read, "It's not rain! It's the tears of Mrs. Whitehead and her children."

But not all the attendees were longtime Whitehead supporters.

Bert Garskof and Ellen Lieberman, of Connecticut Free Shakespeare, said they were told about Whitehead's accomplishments just recently.

"My feeling is from listening to the story it seems an injustice to the person," Garskof said. "This was a situation where it seemed to me history should be remembered and corrected."

Staff writer Robert Hagstrom contributed to this story.

Keila Torres Ocasio

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