FAIRFIELD, Conn. – A group of nearly 20 aviation fans braved the rain and cold Tuesday afternoon to protest the planned demolition of the Fairfield home of Gustave Whitehead, who some say was the first person to fly, not the Wright Brothers.
The home at 184 Alvin St. is scheduled for demolition as early as Sunday, which protest leaders Ed Collins of Milford and Dolly Curtis of Easton say they cannot allow. Collins said the house was built by Whitehead and his family in 1914.
“If it's 100 years old, it gets another 60 days” before demolition can occur, said Collins. According to Melanie Marks, owner of Connecticut House History and a Fairfield resident, there is proof that the house existed on that plot in 1914.
She told the assembled group Tuesday that she found tax records indicating that Mrs. Louisa Whitehead paid $400 in taxes on a house on that property on Jan. 28, 1915.
“Unless it took 27 days for them to build the house, it was there in 1914,” Marks said.
The group has only until Thursday to get a stay of demolition because Fairfield Town Hall is closed for Good Friday and the earliest demolition can begin is Sunday, April 20.
For 87-year-old native Fairfield resident John Kassay, saving the house would be preserving a childhood memory.
“I went to school with the Whiteheads,” he said. “They were the nicest people around.”
The Connecticut Air and Space Center in Stratford has said it would like to take pieces of the house for its collection. But the group gathered to protest the demolition says it would prefer to have the whole house saved.
Whitehead has been the subject of controversy in recent years after it was claimed he made the first powered flight in 1901, two full years before the Wright Brothers are crediting with making their flight at Kitty Hawk.
In 2013, Gov. Dannel Malloy signed into law a statement that recognizes Whitehead as the first man to fly a plane. Later that year, the Smithsonian Institute said there was a lack of evidence for it to accept the claim that Whitehead flew before the Wright Brothers.
If the house is saved, protesters hope to see it made into a tourist attraction for the state, even if it is moved to another location.
Collins said he’d like to see the house as part of a greater attraction in honor of flight in Connecticut.
“If you save the place, the money will come,” said Jeanne Harrison, a longtime resident and activist in Fairfield.