Stamford Museum and Nature Center - History

History

In 1936, the Museum’s founders envisioned a safe and stimulating sanctuary where children and families could learn about the natural world, the agricultural sciences, astronomy, art and history. Dr. G.R.R Hertzberg brought this philosophy to the first organizational meeting of the Museum on January 20, 1936. The Stamford Museum was founded five months later, as a “cabinet of curiosities” model occupying three rooms at the Stamford Trust Company building at 300 Main Street. The original collection grew from community donations of birds, moths, butterflies and other geological specimens. Open to the public on June 27, 1936, this early incarnation of the Museum drew families from the area, still its prime demographic today.

In 1938, the Hall of Mammals and the Hall of Geology & Mineralogy opened. In 1939, the Museum was incorporated under a state charter which enabled it to receive public funds while still remaining autonomous. The Town and City of Stamford (there were two governments at that time) began contributing, and as the Museum grew, so did the city and town’s contributions. This same year, the Hoyt Marine Hall opened.

By 1945, the Museum was quickly outgrowing its small downtown location. The E.Y. Webster Estate deeded eight acres to the city of Stamford, creating the Museum’s second location at Courtland Park. The former carriage house became the Museum’s new home, and a small barnyard and wildlife area were constructed. Local artists were showcased in the small gallery, and a planetarium and weather station were constructed and installed. Opening to the public in 1946, the Courtland Park location was short-lived as the Connecticut Turnpike claimed six of the eight acres in Courtland Park in 1955. Once again, the burgeoning Museum sought another, larger location to call home.

In 1955, the museum made its final move to the former Henri Bendel estate, where it continues to attract over 160,000 visitors each year. Henri Willis Bendel was a department-store pioneer and philanthropist who, together with architect Perry Barker, built his dream castle in North Stamford in the late 1920s. After his death in 1936, the property passed through different hands for twenty years. In 1955 the estate was bequeathed to the Stamford Museum. The large, asymmetrical, 10,000 square-foot, neo-Tudor mansion Bendel used as a summer home anchored the large estate and provided ample space for the Museum’s early collections. The “Nature Center” was added to the name of the non-profit as the Heckshire Farm for Children opened the same year.

Since then, the museum has grown considerably both in size and features. An additional sixteen acres of the Bird Sanctuary owned by the City of Stamford was made accessible. Another property of eight acres was donated by Board member Benjamin D. Gilbert. A right of way of three acres making the Museum accessible to the Bartlett Arboretum trails was donated by Mr. & Mrs. Dwight Marshall. In 1980, eleven acres abutting these properties was purchased by the City of Stamford, with the museum having permanent property rights, bringing the Museum’s total property to 118 acres.

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