Sound studio

The waters of Long Island Sound are deep

SoundWaters President Leigh Shemitz invites me to gaze at the horizon, but I can’t help but look back.

She guides a tour at Stamford’s Boccuzzi Park at the construction site of an $8 million marine education and research center, which is slated to open in July. Most people know SoundWaters from its warm center in Cove Island Park at Stamford, or its schooner which sometimes adds a 19th century postcard silhouette to the coastline.

The view from Shemitz is as brilliant as a sunrise over the water. This center could be transformative for the Waterside neighborhood, as it will include additional benefits such as an extended beach and a splashpad. As I approach the entrance, I’m reminded that this isn’t Connecticut’s most prosperous part of town that shields itself from invisible security. The barbed wire surrounding the neighboring businesses has been there for generations.

Without bold moves like this, Stamford would be a different town. It almost was. I mention that 60 years ago Connecticut Light & Power almost turned Cove Island into a powerhouse. Many residents favored tax dividends. A court battle ensued before Mayor Thomas Quigley offered a solution: sell the property to the city for $485,000 and move the factory to Keyser Island, where Jesuits once ran a spiritual retreat named Manresa.

Stamford got its signature beach. Norwalk was rewarded with ash and toxic fumes.

“You’re welcome Norwalk,” Shemitz said.

The grandeur of Long Island Sound can make progress along its shoreline seem like grains of sand in its hourglass of history. Some squalls are larger than others, but it’s remarkable how the changing tides change history by chance.

Let’s dig deeper in the sand.

Centuries ago, during the height of agriculture in Connecticut, the cove was known as “The Pound”, a place to encircle wayward animals. There was no need to fence them off, as they had no way of escaping the island.

Someone finally realized the waterfront property could be put to better use. The Cove area has been redefined by familiar Stamford surnames: David Waterbury, Jonas Weed and John William Holly.

Holly set up a flour mill in the 1790s, followed two decades later by a familiar salt-cellar house for himself.

Let’s shake the sand in the hourglass and fast forward to the industrial age. The Cove hosted the Stamford Manufacturing Company, the world’s largest producer of dyes. Among other products, the company ground licorice for medicine, candy, cocktails and tobacco. Local children chewed the roots as treats.

The complex was sprawling, with brick factory buildings as long as 300 feet, laboratories, machine shops, 126-foot chimneys, waterfront ferries, and bridges. It was a testament to modern progress. The company expanded with factories in Greenwich, Westport, New Haven, Rye, NY, New Rochelle, NY and Lynchburg, Va.

Then it burned down on February 19, 1919.

“The great factory of the Stamford Extracts Manufacturing Company, on the port of Cove, was virtually wiped out last night in the most spectacular and, in all likelihood, the most disastrous fire that has ever visited Stamford,” reported the Stamford Advocate.

Let me make a small edit a century later – remove “virtually”.

“Fireproof” buildings were destroyed. The boilers exploded, the extraction pots jumped. The only fire hydrant failed, leaving firefighters to use salt water. No one was killed. Even mules and horses made it out alive.

About the only thing left standing was the Holly salt shaker. It survived another fire seven years later which cleared most of what was left. City officials have talked about turning the whole thing into a parking lot.

Now imagine what could be if there had never been a fire.

If condos come to mind, consider this bit of serendipity. Among the opponents of The Cove’s development as a leisure center in the 1950s was a certain Nicholas Condosa Republican candidate for state representation in favor of taking over state ownership

Aiming for the creek for a possible school (a madness that has resurfaced recently) isn’t anything new either. In 1958, my predecessors on the editorial page were appalled at the suggestion that much of the Cove land be turned over to the state for a University of Connecticut branch.

A year later, the Superintendent of Stamford Parks advised residents to bring identification to the new beach, stating that “this place of recreation is for the people of Stamford”. The following summer, he suggested that a section be designated as the exclusive territory of the elderly.

The Holly House became an office of the city’s parks department for a time and continued to deteriorate. Thanks to people like SoundWaters founder Len Miller and then Mayor Dannel Malloy, it was refurbished and became SoundWaters HQ in 2000.

“I maintain that it’s one of the best-maintained buildings in the city,” Shemitz says. “We love this building.”

He will continue to endure, but will soon have a companion 4 miles away. Leaving the governor’s office, Malloy also boosted the Waterside project by helping secure $2 million in bonds.

Another $3 million came from Steven & Alexandra Cohen Foundation, hence the official name of the Cohen SoundWaters Harbor Center. As I watched from the second floor, I smiled at a thought I didn’t express. Someone standing at the tip of nearby Kosciuszko Park could look across the water to a building named for the New York Mets owner, then turn around and see the Yankees’ YES Network studios .

Shemitz and I have long shared the view that too many area residents take the coastline for granted. The problem is access. Unleashing sound has always been part of the agency’s mission.

But that’s not all SoundWaters does. He uses sound to teach not only ecology, but also life skills. Michael Bagleyvice president of programs for the agency, shared anecdotes about interviews with alumni Young Sailors Academy participants in summer positions as teenagers.

“Almost to one person, when asked why they want to do this, they say, ‘Because Young Sailors are my second family…'”

Just for a moment, arriving like an August zephyr, emotion overwhelms Bagley. What could be more appropriate? There is water in his eyes.

It should always be there when you consider the horizon.

John Breunig is editorial page editor for the Stamford Advocate and the Greenwich Time. [email protected]; twitter.com/johnbreunig.