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Wednesday, April 25 News

Fairfield 375: From Jennings to Jesuits, iconic mansion is transformed

EDITOR'S NOTE: Fairfield, established in 1639, is one of Connecticut's oldest communities. From its settlement 375 years ago by English colonists on "four squares" of land that Native Americans called Uncoway to the vibrant town of 60,000 residents that it is today, Fairfield's history is a chronicle of compelling events and colorful characters.

The Fairfield Citizen will highlight vignettes from that rich history throughout this 375th anniversary year on a regular basis.

The Jennings name is ubiquitous in the chronicles of Fairfield history. There's Jennings Beach, Jennings Elementary School, Jennings Road and many know that the Connecticut Audubon's Birdcraft Museum was built on land donated by philanthropist Annie B. Jennings.

One of the largest estates ever created in Fairfield was also built by a member of Jennings family, although he didn't give it his name. Oliver Gould Jennings spent an estimated $1 million in 1906 to construct the elaborate French-style chateau in a rolling North Benson Road setting.

The estate, called "Mailands" for reasons lost in history, was built by Jennings as a new home for his growing family. He built it on the spot where he had previously built a smaller mansion. But razing one mansion to build a bigger one horrified some Fairfield residents.

Jennings, who derived his fortune as part of a family that played a role in establishing Standard Oil, was prominent in town as chairman of the Board of Finance. He also paved many of the town's roads, organized the Fairfield Beach Improvement Co., which attempted to control a long expanse of the local shoreline, and served in the state House of Representatives.

After Oliver Jennings' death in 1936, Mailands remained the summer home of his family, most of whom lived in Manhattan during the winter. In 1941, the mansion and 76.2 acres were sold to the Jesuit order of priests, who had been looking for property to establish a college and high school in the area. Some accounts say the religious order had asked the Jennings family to donate the house, which the family refused to do. Other accounts say simply that the Jennings would not sell. The Jennings family apparently found another buyer soon after, but when that deal fell through, they did sell the property to the New England Province of the Society of Jesus for $43,879.

Mailands initially became the site of Fairfield College Preparatory School, and then was used by Fairfield University. The mansion was named after Bishop Maurice McAuliffe of Hartford, who had been instrumental in finding a location for the Jesuit high school. Today, McAuliffe Hall today houses Fairfield University administrative offices and the chateau's original name, Mailands, lives on as the name of a neighboring street.