As the construction equipment moved in on the six massive marble columns at the remains of the O’Neil Outdoor Theater in Cos Cob on Tuesday morning, a large owl sat watching the commotion from atop the terrace fence of the old O’Neil house.
One couldn’t help consider the Native American legend that says when an owl is out during the day, it always signals death.
Around 10:15am , workers from Tony Vitti’s company, A Vitti Construction, who kindly volunteered their equipment for the salvage project, set about removing the six remaining 5-ton columns that encircled the historic ampitheater.
The ampitheater’s seating had already been sent to Sarah Lawrence College to be reassembled.
Smaller marble columns, which had been previously removed, had presented a different challenge because they were cemented onto platforms.
“They had pockets hollowed out at their bases that were filled and cemented onto platforms,” said Frank DiVincenzo, a member of the Parks & Rec board who lives nearby. “These columns are much bigger, but easier to remove. They are very heavy, but they are secured only by their weight.”
DiVincenzo summed up the turn of events that led to the six columns making their way from 21 Lia Fail Way to the Town’s DPW shed on Indian Field Road.
DiVincenzo said that Peter Berg of the RTM land use committee mentioned the destruction of the ampitheater to Nancy Caplan who is the chair of the Parks & Rec board. Caplan, in turn, mentioned the potential for salvage to DiVincenzo, not knowing he and Berg were acquaintances and neighbors.
“I came over here the same day Nancy called and saw the theater being chopped up,” DiVincenzo said on Tuesday as the construction crew zeroed in on the columns.
Downplaying his role, DiVincenzo said, “The reason it worked out was because nobody was against it. If there were detractors, it might not have even happened.”
“It is extraordinary prospect to see the monoliths raised from the ground,” said said Bea Crumbine, who stopped by to watch the progress. When the marble is cleaned and white again, what a glorious gift this will be to the Town of Greenwich.”
Once the first of the six columns was loaded onto a massive flat bed, it was taken to through Cos Cob to the Indian Field Road DPW shed. Along the way, Bruce Spaman the town’s Supervisor of Parks & Trees, facilitated traffic, which was particularly tricky on the narrow parts of Indian Field Road.
Tuesday’s outcome was almost not to be. Last fall, the new owners of 21 Lia Fail Way were setting about clearing both trees and demolishing the historic ampitheater, when neighbors heard the activity.
There are wetlands straddling the driveway and the Inland Wetlands and Watercourses Agency responded immediately.
From there, Conservation Department became involved and and then a connection was made to Diane Fox of the Greenwich Preservation Network.
Ms. Fox contacted Wes Haynes who is with the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation. Mr. Haynes reached out to a stone mason company A. Ottavino Stoneworks who have expertise in stone restoration. They estimated the cost of removing and relocating the ampitheater, as well as cleaning the stones at $2.0 million.
“Horton O’Neil had a real sense of history and appreciation of stone,” said Renee Seblatnigg, a neighbor in Lia Fail Way who was collecting her mail on Tuesday morning. In fact, she said, she’d have liked to see the the existing house saved.
“Horton O’Neil built the house for his father. It incorporated many recycled materials, including barn wood for the siding, and beams from the original Havemeyer Estate,” she said.
Seblatnigg said that people interested in saving the O’Neil Outdoor Theater had reached out to museums all over the country, but found no takers.
“Fortunately, Josie Merck came through with a generous donation,” Seblatnigg said. “And, luckily, before the clock stopped, Sarah Lawrence College came through.”
The columns, which are 9 ft x 2 ft x 2 ft and each weigh five tons, will be stored until Phase 2 of the project, which will be to determine a suitable design and destination. “First we have to find a design, go through town departments, and we’ll have to raise funds,” DiVincenzo said.
Anyone interested in contributing to Phase 2 of the project should contact Parks & Rec chair Nancy Caplan, who will steer donations earmarked for the “Lia Fail Monoliths Project” to the endeavor.
As for the owl flying over the scene of the demolished ampitheater, Renee Seblatnigg wondered out loud. “Maybe it was Horton O’Neil in the form of an owl,” she said.