Nature & Heritage Center set to open on historic Coogan Farm

Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center executive director Maggie Jones points out the remains of a small quarry, likely the source of stones used for fences and foundations, during a tour of the Coogan Farm property earlier this spring.
Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center executive director Maggie Jones points out the remains of a small quarry, likely the source of stones used for fences and foundations, during a tour of the Coogan Farm property earlier this spring. Peter Huoppi/The Day Buy Photo

In terms of the quaint seaside architectural and lucrative attractions of Mystic, Connecticut, the crumbling house and barn on Greenmanville Avenue don't exactly constitute a showplace.

In fact, to actually approach the place — across the road from a cemetery — one expects to hear the haunting strains of "Tubular Bells" and to be greeted, perhaps, by Jason Voorhees.

But Coogan Farm — and its 45 acres nestled secretly behind the structures - is not just an important piece of local history but is also in the midst of a transformation that will officially result, by late summer, in a Nature & Heritage Center at Coogan Farm that will be open to the public.

The kick-off celebration is scheduled to take place from Sept. 4 to 6.

The project, spearheaded by the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center and the Trust for Public Land, includes renovations of the main house and adjunct barn and landscaping of the grounds that will crisscross the diverse acreage with trails and provide recreation and educational areas.

The center bought the land last September for $2.8 million and set a $3.5 million fundraising goal. Along with private donations, they've received grants of $500,000 from the state and $600,000 from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

On a recent April morning, with winter finally in the rearview mirror, Maggie Jones, executive director of the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center, arrives at Coogan Farm by bicycle to conduct a casual tour of the house and grounds.

"This is truly a miracle that this landscape is intact," Jones says, smiling as she walks through a light rain. "There's so much history here. You race by on Route 27 and you'd never know this was even here. Turn into this little driveway and you enter this vast, unheralded landscape with wildlife and 400-year-old stone walls and two watersheds — this a very significant property."

The undulating meadows, separated by the walls, shaded by giant trees and choked with vines and wild berries and punctuated by long-ago stone quarries, seem almost pagan — particularly given the bordering and bustling reality of Mystic Seaport, McQuade's Market and Olde Mistick Village, and the traffic of Route 1.

"The people of Mystic, Stonington and Groton have been so supportive of this project and so generous with donations," Jones says. "At the same time, I think there are a lot of people in the area who have no idea this is even here."

By the time Mystic was founded in 1654, Captain John Gallup had built a home on the land — which he'd been given in appreciation of his efforts during the Pequot War. In the 1700s, colonial farmers worked the land and oversaw the erection of the stone walls — most probably with indentured Indian labor. By the Civil War, the Greenman brothers, Clark, George and Thomas, opened a shipyard — now the site of Mystic Seaport — and purchased the land as a working farm to provide for their shipbuilders. Ultimately, Charlotte Greenman Spillman and her husband Thomas Spillman bought the property in the 1890s and began work on an elaborately designed mansion. Construction was halted when Charlotte unexpectedly died, though the huge stone foundation still exists.

Jones, looking down into the expansive and multifaceted foundation, says she anticipates the surviving structure will be transformed into an outdoor facility for teaching, presentations or productions.

"It's amazing to think what it would have looked like if it had been finished," she says, "but it's also amazing just to look at it as it is. It's all part of what we hope will be an important educational facility."

Already on the drawing board, courtesy of the Mystic landscape architecture firm of Kent + Frost, is the Hamm Outdoor Classroom Pavilion and a Greenmanville Trail. In preparation, many segments of the property have been cleaned up — many by volunteers such as local Boy Scout groups. On this morning, a man driving a backhoe is clearing a section of land not far from a newly built pigpen, where five hogs watch the rain from inside their shelter.

Ultimately, a major aspect of the center will be a working farm and garden.

"In addition to conservation and education, we want this to be a fun place - we call it sustainable tourism," Jones says. "We hope people — local and tourists — will make this a destination." She indicates the Mystic River in the distance. "We're standing on a natural meadow at the epicenter of the property. It was so overgrown we didn't even know it was here. We have an individual donor so taken with the spot that we hope to have a natural pavilion here."

She similarly points out another building foundation, which was probably a barn or paddock for farm animals. Jones saves the farmhouse for last. At its present status — the New London architectural firm of Lindsay Liebig Roche is designing renovations to the house and barn — only a few rooms can be toured at the moment. While in obvious disrepair, it's easy to see what a lovely home it once was, and a framed photographic history of the house and its generations of residents, placed on the walls of the lower-level rooms, offers a faded black-and-white panorama of the past.

When finished, the farmhouse will serve as a multi-purpose office, conference room and library, and the barn will boast exhibits and archival displays, a welcome center and Denison Pequotsepos store, and a solar restroom.

At this point, the emergence of the land and its forgotten treasures out of the overgrowth provides an exciting look backwards. But the obvious progress of the new project is equally stimulating.

"What we're doing is not just about the past; it's also about going forward," Jones says.

Walter C. Morgan in a quarry on what is now the Coogan Farm property, circa 1912.
Walter C. Morgan in a quarry on what is now the Coogan Farm property, circa 1912. Photo courtesy Mystic River Historical Society
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