Mather Homestead completes work on educational center

Photo of Sandra Diamond Fox

Three years ago, it was just a vision. Today, that vision has become a reality.

The new Elizabeth W. Chilton Education Center is now completed.

“The barn is what we envisioned and more,” said Lauren Swenson, executive director of the Mather Homestead Foundation, whose property the center was built on.

The idea for an educational center began in 2017, when the foundation came into existence.

“It was something that Richard Chilton, the chairman of our board, and the initial board members who helped create the foundation, knew that they wanted to do,” Swenson added. “It was a part of their initial vision.”

Opening event

The educational center, at 19 Stephen Mather Road in Darien, will officially open to the public on Sept. 19 with a socially distanced picnic-style barn-raiser event.

“This is a chance to celebrate the opening of the education center, a chance for a lot of our supporters to come to the property in a safe way,” Swenson said.

It will be an adult only event open to the first 100 people who purchase tickets. Tours will be given in small groups.

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“Blending the new with the old”

The new 1,800-square-foot educational center is built on the site of a barn from the 1930s.

“We just weren’t able to keep it and make it useful in the way that we needed it to be,” Swenson said. “We created a space that can be new on the inside but look historical on the outside without looking like we’re trying to repeat history.”

Inside, the educational center is set up like a big event and gallery space that can hold up to 130 people. Events can include lectures, school tours and workshops.

“We tried to make it very much a multipurpose space, so we’ll be able to set it up for a sit-down lecture, or standing for a gallery event if we ever wanted to show artwork,” she said.

Additionally, a cocktail party can be held, as well as a fundraiser by setting up a tent on the front or back of the center to increase capacity.

“We’re really looking forward to all the different ways we can use it,” she said.

The main house on the property, which was built in the 1700s, will remain the fixture of the Mather Homestead property, according to Swenson.

“Students can take tours of it to get the full experience of what life was like back in the 1700s,” she said.

Additionally, the driveway has been widened to make it accessible to school buses.

“We worked with Paul Celotto, who is our builder,” she said. “The town really worked with us on helping blend the new and the old.”

The need

The main house doesn’t have the capacity to serve the purpose that the foundation wanted to use it for, according to Swenson.

“To have more than a group of 25 in the main house is too much wear and tear on a 1700 house,” Swenson said.

Additionally, the house doesn’t have air conditioning. “We were really reliant upon the outdoors, which meant we had to cancel in any inclement weather before,” she said.

They also needed a house that has current technology, “where we can show a video or have a sound system — and that’s what the new barn has now,” she added.

Found treasures

While cleaning out the attic of the old barn, many items were found that were used by the Steven Mather family — who built and lived in the house — several hundred years ago.

“One of my favorite items is Steven Mather’s camera. Steven Mather founded the National Park Service. The camera was stored in a leather camera case that he took with him on a lot of his national park trips,” Swenson said. “It really brings that era to life.”

There are also handmade tapestries and linens from the 1700s.

Another item found is a blue dress from one of the little girls who lived on the property.

A lot of the items that were found in the attic will be moved into the new center and put on display, according to Swenson.

Fundraising gap

The challenge of the project was raising the needed funds.

“We had to raise about 500,000 dollars,” Swenson said. “It seemed daunting at the time.”

The community came through for them, she said.

“We want to thank our lead donors: The Chilton family, the Darien Foundation and the McPherson family, as well as our many donors from the community,” Swenson said. “Without them, the education center would not exist.”

Swenson said there’s just a small amount left to be raised.

“We are hoping that our barn-raiser event will help close a very small gap that we still have left, to fill out some of our odds and ends,” she said. “Some of our landscaping, benches, display cases, are some small things that we’re hoping some of our supporters will help us with.”

To make a donation or schedule a private tour of the new education center, visit the foundation’s website.

COVID guidelines

The construction on the education center continued during the pandemic without any interruptions.

“Our builder kept going,” Swenson said. “He had a few things he had to source from different places.”

The Educational Center is following all the COVID guidelines for museums. Currently, it can have groups of up to 25 indoors. Most recently, it had book groups on the porch and yoga on the lawn.

The next chapter

The Mather Homestead is now in its next phase of growth, which involves getting more involvement from all three surrounding towns — Darien, New Canaan and Norwalk.

Swenson said she hopes to get more schools onto the property, “working with them in whatever way we can support them so that they know we’re here to be a part of their educational process.”

She said she wants the community to know that “right here in Darien, they have this resource that can teach them about the American story. This one family lived through everything from the Revolutionary War up through the Civil War, the creation of the national parks, World War I, World War II — all these different pieces of American history and here we are living more of it today,” she said. “It’s amazing that this one property has stayed intact, and our hope is to tell its story.”

She said that when she thinks about the challenges that society is currently facing during COVID, she thinks of the Mather family “and the fact they lived through being raided during the Revolutionary War, they lived through the challenges of early America, they lived through the challenges of Civil War times, farming life — and they’ve survived, they’ve prospered, they’ve done well. They were resilient, hearty people.”

Swenson continued, “We as an organization feel very proud that we got this off the ground so quickly. We feel ready and poised for the next phase of growth for the Mather Homestead. We feel like we can really start working to be the historical foundation that we want to be.”