The restoration and preservation of the Thomas Lyon House is one of Greenwich Preservation Trust’s most pressing priorities. Threatened with demolition in 2007, members of Greenwich Preservation Trust saved the house from the wrecking ball. Today, GPT is planning for the house to have a vibrant and safe future and continue to occupy a special place for those interested in preservation, architecture, genealogy, sociology and local history.
The Thomas Lyon House is the oldest unaltered Colonial house in Greenwich. Probably built circa 1695, it remains relatively unchanged and retains a Colonial footprint established more that 300 year ago. Moved nearly intact in 1927 from its first site on the north side of Boston Post Road, this classic saltbox retains much of its original building material.
In 1922 the Atlantic Highway, which ran from Maine to Florida, was renamed Route 1, and changes to the 2,400-mile road began in many states. In Greenwich the road was slated to be widened in 1925, and town leaders began to look for a suitable entryway to Greenwich, and, by extension, to the rest of New England.
When Julia Lyon Saunders (the last of six generations of the Lyon family to occupy the house) and her husband Chester realized her family’s home would be demolished to accommodate the new road, they accepted an offer from the Lions and Rotary clubs in 1925 to move it to the opposite side of the road, on land the Town had purchased for the new Byram School, to be used as the “Gateway to New England.”
Its location as the first house in New England on Route 1, coupled with increasing automobile tourism, seemed to make it the perfect choice for a welcome and information center for Greenwich and New England.
The clubs launched a preservation movement to raise funds to move the house and restore it to its original Colonial condition. Sponsors of their movement included 36 of Greenwich’s most prominent people: town administrators, judges, doctors, churchmen, and businessmen. The clubs hired noted Greenwich architect Theodore E. Blake, associated with Carrere & Hastings, to prepare plans for the restoration and the fundraising campaign began
Enough money was raised to move the house across the road in 1927 to land leased from the Town, but there was little left to restore the interior. The onset of The Great Depression in 1929 provided a poor climate in which to raise funds for historic preservation.
After five years, the two clubs decided to lease the house to The American Fence Company, who would use one downstairs room as an office and restore the interior and make it available for visitors interested in Colonial homes and history. An article in the Greenwich Press on April 7, 1932, states that “the shrine is not to be commercialized or its value as a historic spot lessened by offensive advertising.” Road maps and other information for the passing motorist would be provided and the clubs mentioned the possibility of a room set aside to display historical documents and relics.
Two months later, the Lions and Rotary clubs opened it to the public on June 28, 1932. Unfortunately, not enough tourists or passing motorists showed interest in visiting the site. The clubs then decided to rent the house and use the income for their philanthropies, which they did for nearly 70 years.
In 1980 the Rotary Club ceded their interest to the Lions Club Foundation. When repairs to the house became too costly, they gave the house to the Town, which assumed legal responsibility for it in January 2007. The Town maintains the site and has removed 20th-century material that marred the house’s exterior.
The Thomas Lyon House has attracted the interest of architectural historians throughout the 20th century. It was included in a Works Progress Administration study in the 1930s, the Connecticut Statewide Inventory of Historic Houses in 1966, and listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1977. It is mentioned in J. Frederick Kelly’s The Early Domestic Architecture of Connecticut and Florence S. Crofut’s Guide to the History and the Historic Sites of Connecticut.