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Thursday, October 7, 2010

Bridgeport Born, Fairfield Bred

Bridgeport Born, Fairfield Bred
(Appeared on the front page of the Bridgeport News 10/7/10)
By Mike Lauterborn
© 2010. All Rights Reserved.

Fairfield, CT – Painter. Boat builder. Model maker. Army veteran. Architectural designer. Father. Historian. Author. At 86, local personality William D. Lee, Sr. has worn a lot of hats, but perhaps the one he donned most proudly related to his work with the Sun Tavern.

Lee was born in November 1923 at St. Vincent’s Hospital and grew up on Main Street in Bridgeport’s North End. His father, Fitzhugh J. Lee, named after a confederate cavalry general, worked for the Connecticut Folding Paper & Box Company before the Crash of ’29, then for the General Electric Co. until retirement. Mom Lillian was a homemaker.

Lee was an only child who, from very early on at Madison grammar school, demonstrated a great interest in art. “I drew my way through school,” he confessed. He also had a talent for model making. Both skills would have application later in life.

The North End at the time was very rural. “It was country there,” said Lee. “Wooded areas and streams. There was a quarry near where I lived and my friends and I played explorers there. It’s marked by Quarry Street today.”

His summers were spent at Fairfield Beach, swimming, boating and fishing. “The bluefish started to run very early off Penfield Reef. I’d go with my mom, dad and grandparents. On the Fourth of July, we had our own fireworks on the beach. It was fabulous.”

He attended St. Thomas Church in Fairfield, which at the time was under the direction of Father Blake. Lee’s aunt was the first lay teacher there, in the 30s, when the school just started.

Lee always belonged to the YMCA and remembers downtown Bridgeport as incredible, especially at Christmastime. “There was Reed’s, Howland’s Department Store, Meigs. The Salvation Army had a little group of people with instruments and they’d play in the snow. It was like Dickens. People walking, snow flying,” he recalled.

Saturday afternoons were spent at the Rialto Theater. “Admission was five cents. We’d see cowboy movies, Buck Jones, Tim McCoy. It was a wonderful atmosphere.”

In high school, Lee excelled in art and received the Bridgeport Teachers Association Award for Unique Achievement at graduation. It was 1943 and he went right into the Army, assigned to Fort Devens, MA, as a combat engineer. He received basic training at Ft. Belvoir, VA then served overseas with the 35th Division, going from Normandy to Germany, and seeing combat at St. Lo’s.

Upon his honorable discharge in 1945, he married his high school sweetheart Catherine Anne Lalley. Her uncle, Frank Lalley, owned a great deal of property in the Fairfield Beach Area. Lalley Boulevard reflects his stake.

Lee applied to and was accepted at the Yale School of Art & Architecture, where he and Catherine “spent four of the happiest years together living in a Quonset hut outside the Yale Bowl (housing for returning married servicemen).” The couple had two daughters, Linda and Patricia, and Lee received his B.F.A. there.

He was then commissioned by a Catholic school in New Haven to do a mural, for which he was paid $2,000, a substantial amount of money in those days. It allowed the Lee’s to move back to Bridgeport, rent a cottage on the beach and add another daughter, Barbara, to the brood.

In 1952, Lee borrowed some money and started building small sailboats for day sailing. He built 50 boats, including Fairfield’s first catamarans, before contracting hepatitis from bad clams, which forced him out of the business.

A fourth child, Bill, had arrived by this time and to support the family, Lee got a job doing interior design for Reliable Stores Corporation. On the side, he was commissioned to paint oil portraits of local bishops and superior court judges.

In the late 50s, Lee established William Lee Associates, an art for architecture firm with an office located in Black Rock in the old Johnson Boatworks building. He handled the entire renovation of the Barnum Museum and also started doing exterior relief murals, church mosaics, architectural embellishments, bank murals and even lighting design.

By the mid 70s, he wanted to do something different. In 1974, he got a call from the Town of Fairfield asking him to get involved in planning for the Bicentennial celebration. He began a friendship with then First  Selectman John Sullivan and worked with George Pratt to put together a program of activities. The events were a great success and Sullivan asked Lee to stay on to help with the expansion of the Town Hall into the Burr Homestead and to help guide the design and features of new town hall offices behind the Burr property.

When the new town hall was completed, the Burr Homestead was vacated and Lee appointed as director to develop a historic civic center with the home as a centerpiece. Lee called in the Junior League and it was decided to make the property a show house for public functions – a revenue generator for the town.

At the same time, Lee convinced Sullivan to purchase the adjacent Sun Tavern, which was idle and in disrepair, and the 1.5-acre parcel on which it sat. The 18th Century building was built by Samuel Penfield after the town was burned by the British. It was on the main NY-to-Boston artery.

One morning, as Lee recalled it, Sullivan asked him about the Tavern, “’Now what the hell are we going to do with it?’ I told him it wouldn’t take a lot to fix up. ‘Then what? Do we rent it? To who?’ John said. ‘To me!’ I said.”

Lee made a renovation proposal, received a five-year lease and moved in. It was 1979. Five years became 15 as he handled all the renovation work and incorporated period furnishings. “All of my grandchildren spent their Christmases and Easters there. In 1989, on the 350th anniversary of the Burning of Fairfield, we had a huge celebration and reenactment, with the tavern as a main feature. We even had General Washington there!”

By the mid-90s, Fairfield had changed, there was a new selectman, Lee’s wife had become very ill and they moved from the Tavern to an expanded cape in Trumbull that backed up to property his uncle owned. His connection with Fairfield didn’t end there though. Lee was asked to do the mural for the new town hall’s entryway. As he thought about it and did some preliminary sketches, a Red Admiral butterfly paid a visit, the same type that would visit him and Anne as they relaxed often out behind the Tavern. It was destiny calling, he executed the mural and even incorporated the butterfly just above his signature in the completed artwork. As a reward, he was given a real key to the Town of Fairfield and, as a joke, tried to use it as a pass at the Jennings Marina gatehouse.

The tall and still very nimble Lee, whose wife passed in 2000, remains active. “Every day I wake up and say what am I going to do today? I think of the Longfellow poem with the line ‘something remains for us to do or dare; even the oldest tree some fruit may bear.’”


The Sun Tavern and Its Storied Residents

When Sam Penfield, who built Fairfield’s Sun Tavern, died in 1811, a new minister, Nathaniel Hewitt, who was going to be assigned to the First Church Congregational, purchased the property and moved in with his wife Rebecca. Hewitt had two sons, Augustine and Henry.

Augustine became the co-founder of the Epaulist Order of Catholic Priests and was instrumental in establishing St. Thomas. He was also associated with the Rev. Thomas Synnott who built St. Augustine’s (now St. Augustine’s Cathedral) in Bridgeport. The granite used in its construction was extracted from the quarry near which former Fairfield Historic Civic Center Director Bill Lee lived. Synnott was very involved with the development of Bridgeport in general and voted in as a member of the Bridgeport Board of Education. Augustine gave the eulogy on the occasion of Synnott’s funeral services in the late 1800s.

Henry Hewitt went to Yale and New York Medical School and became a doctor. In the Civil War, he was commissioned as a surgeon in the Union Army and was appointed by General Grant as his personal staff surgeon.

Hoping to complete it shortly, Lee is working on a related book project revealing the story of the life and times of Augustine Hewitt. The work will include a lot of previously unknown early Fairfield history, which promises to be a great contribution to the town’s legacy.