Ridgefield’s Keeler Tavern Museum & History Center opened a new visitor center on July 4, marking the latest achievement in the organization’s ongoing expansion and reinvention process.
The center’s premiere follows the April 25 announcement that the museum hit the $1.5 million mark in the fund-raising campaign to finance its transformation.
“We can declare victory in having reached our initial goal in our capital campaign,” proclaimed Hildegard M. Grob, the museum’s executive director.
The Keeler Tavern dates back to 1713, and it became a popular destination for travelers seeking food and shelter while traversing Connecticut. The tavern found its way into the middle of the Revolutionary War when British forces fired on the structure during the Battle of Ridgefield on April 27, 1777 – a cannonball lodged in a corner post of the building and is still there.
The building operated as a hotel until 1907 when architect Cass Gilbert purchased the property as a summer home away from his New York City business. He added the venue’s sunken garden and other structures – today’s visitor center was originally a library for Gilbert’s papers and books. The nonprofit Keeler Tavern Preservation Society Inc. bought the property from Gilbert’s daughter in 1965 and opened it to the public as a museum in the following year. In 2016, the museum expanded its size by acquiring the adjacent property at 152 Main Street, which was part of the original site dating back to Ridgefield’s founding in 1708.
The new visitor center will serve as the starting point for visitors to the four-acre campus, as well as a venue for exhibitions and classroom presentations and an archive for the museum’s artifacts and documents. Grob noted that prior to having the building, the museum was challenged in finding storage for its holdings.
“If we ever wanted to have more impact, we need to have more space,” she said.
The museum is continuing with its capital campaign through 2021, with a $2 million goal, and the funds raised will be used to pay down the mortgage that the museum used to fund its purchase, as well as developing new tours and programs that expand its focus beyond the Revolutionary War era into a century-spanning celebration of the region’s history.
“A lot of people still think of us as the tavern, but we claim that we have 300 years of continuous history,” Grob said, pointing out the museum’s collection of costumes, artifacts and publications spanning the years between the Civil War and the Jazz Age.
While the museum welcomes many Ridgefield residents among its visitors – Grob stated that “a lot of people who live in town bring out-of-town guests” – it also hosts 2,500 schoolchildren per year.
“We bring in a lot of schoolchildren all throughout Fairfield County, from Bridgeport up to Sherman,” she continued. “We do full-day, immersive, hands-on school experiences. We are a big classroom for teachers. We are not really a field trip because we are connected with the curriculum.”
To engage today’s schoolchildren, Grob stated that the museum goes beyond the traditional lecture format by bringing the emotional aspect of history to life.
“We bring up to 100 kids and have them listen in on point-of-views dialogue between the British and Continental generals, which we developed based on historical documents,” she said. “We have an African-American historical interpreter that helps develop a narrative as it relates to race. Our programs address issues of race, gender, privilege and opportunities. This brings a contemporary relevance, because these are issues that are still part of the national conversation.”
The museum is only open nine hours a week. Grob envisions being open for 20 hours. Its staff consists of two full-time and seven part-time employees. Fund-raising continues to preoccupy much of Grob’s time. Last month, the museum received a $96,575 Good to Great grant from Connecticut’s Department of Economic and Community Development – but that requires raising a 25 percent match.
The museum has brought in a steady stream of revenue through hosting pop-up retailing and catered events. Grob insisted that the museum’s historic and educational value will help it meet its fund-raising goals.
“We’re the one site that can speak from colonial times to the building of the Revolution up through the 19th century’s Gilded Age and the early 20th century,” she said. “Between Hartford and the Hudson Valley, we are probably the most significant historic site.”