A Tribute to Eleanor Fitchen, Founder of Landmarks Preservation Society of Southeast, Inc..
Eleanor Fitchen, well-known Southeast preservationist, dies at 96
Eleanor Fitchen may be gone, but her legacies – including the Old Southeast Church, the Doansburg Schoolhouse and the Walter Brewster House – will remain for the thousands who pass by every day.
Fitchen, 96, died Monday, April 20th, 2009, in her stone home on Starr Ridge Road. From its large picture window she had a sweeping view across a town and county she helped shape through her convictions on historic and open-space preservation. She was "concerned about sense of place and community and countryside and people – that’s what people have come here for," she said in 1997 when she opposed a 10-screen theater on nearby Route 6.
This led to Fitchen and others forming the concerned Residents of Southeast (CRSE) in 1996. With her husband, Paul, she also founded Save Open Spaces, the predecessor of the Putnam County Land Trust, and the Landmarks Preservation Society of Southeast, which now owns and preserves the three buildings listed above. After locking herself and her granddaughter inside the Old Southeast Church to block the bulldozer, she organized a Landmarks Preservation Committee, which alerted the community to the threat to its heritage. Explaining that for the Church to be called a historic landmark – and qualify for State or Federal landmark-preservation funds – it must stand on its original site. This steered matters to where there was no more talk of the Church’s sale or demolition; instead a tour of the old colonial homes in the neighborhood raised enough money to begin repairs. Under the guidance of architect-historian John Mesick, door and window frames were tightened, foundation mortar was firmed and the crooked terrace realigned.
In the summer of 1970, a drive was launched to spruce up the Old Southeast Cemetery. As volunteers arrived, uniformed Girl Scouts stood ready to care for the children. A scoutmaster led his Boy Scout troop in regular assaults on weeds and brush with tools provided by the local hardware store. Interested citizens followed – chopping, pruning and spraying. As the cemetery cleanup continued, the headstones of five of the early pastors of the Church stood revealed. With autumn, there emerged the grave markers of some of those first settlers of Putnam County: a family of Crosbys, from whose ranks had sprung Enoch, immortalized in James Fenimore Cooper’s The Spy; some dozen Barnums, whose descendant would make his circus world-famous. Rows of small headstones stood in testimony to tiny lives mowed down by epidemic and long, dark winters.
Funds trickled in, Christmas cards of the Church, designed by local artists, went on sale, and there was a special Christmas Appeal. In March, 1971, a handsome check came from a wealthy summer resident whose daughter wished to be married there.
Not the least of the joys following the church’s resurrection was to watch the carefully procured artisans – painters, carpenters, stonemasons – who, treading in the footsteps of father and grandfather, still labored with old-time skill and integrity.
By the fall of 1971, work on the dangerously slanting belfry had begun. As the renovation continued, the Old Southeast Church became a center of religious and cultural activities. In the summers of 1972 and 1973 two series of chamber-music concerts were held there. Listening to the music, one became aware of the harmonious grace of slender pillars, the sweep of the Church’s classic proportions. What a shining jewel of architectural splendor had been hidden in our midst!
In the summer of 1972 the Old Southeast Church became the first site in Putnam County to be included in the National Register of Historical Places, which lists approximately 10,000 landmarks representative of the "heartbeat of the nation."
September of 1973 saw an interdenominational service at the Church in which several ministers, a monsignor and a rabbi joined in praising the rescue of a common legacy. The Church’s new "congregation" was a testament louder than words to the wide spectrum of motives that had made it a spiritual focus for the community. There were youngsters who would never forget a history they had helped turn into a living reality – grade-school children who had acted out a Puritan Thanksgiving in the Church, high-school seniors who had made gravestone rubbings in the cemetery, the teenagers and adults who had served as hostesses in colonial costume at afternoon open-house programs. Over these years, a most deeply satisfying moment came on an icy New Year’s Eve when, over the dark trees floated the sound of a church bell. It was later learned that schoolchildren and old-timers had pulled the bell rope together, celebrating the final repairs to the sagging belfry. After its long years of silence the old church had found its voice again and was thanking us one and all for the loving concern that had been its salvation.
Excerpts from the Journal News and 1974 Reader’s Digest.