The beloved STAMFORD MUSEUM & NATURE CENTER’S new space offers an expanded menu of activities for people of all ages
Ask any Stamford resident who has lived here for a while about local landmarks, and they will mention the Stamford Museum & Nature Center (SMNC). With its working farm, classes, preschool and camp programs for children, seasonal family weekends, museum exhibits and farmers’ market in the growing season, it’s one of the first destinations that a neighbor will point out to a newly arriving household. And with the new year comes news of a change in the landscape, one that brings with it an even larger schedule of activities and events.
It all began in November, when a new entrance on Scofieldtown Road opened as the SMNC celebrated its traditional fall come-all weekend. Along with seasonal food and drink favorites, farm animal demonstrations, games and music, Farmhouse Weekend marked the completion of the newest attraction: The Knobloch Family Farmhouse. Providing much needed space for its cultural and educational missions, the 4,000-square-foot site and its companion structure, a new Maple Syrup/Cider House, make up the first milestone in a major effort to equip the SMNC for the twenty-first century. It’s also a watershed that gives the SMNC the wherewithal to reframe its reach to include more of the local and regional population than ever before.
The process has been in the making for more than a decade. A dozen years ago, when this popular local family and educational destination was showing signs of wear—much as the pages of a favorite book begin to fray from all the reading—its director and board began planning for the institution’s continued health. Two years later, the group began to draft a master plan that would ensure SMNC’s future, starting with some needed upgrades to infrastructure and culminating in a couple of large projects with long-term impact. A capital campaign, chaired by Stamford residents, former Lieutenant Governor Michael Fedele and his wife, Carol, launched in the fall of 2016 with a goal of $15 million. The effort has already secured two-thirds of the goal, with the $5 million farmhouse project opening just two years after the campaign was announced.
“One of the things that many people who were interviewed [during] the process of developing the long-term plan told us was that it was a place where they brought their small children,” says SMNC’s CEO and executive director Melissa Mulrooney. Part of the goal of the expansion is to change that perception, and demonstrate how the SMNC creates an environment for experiential education and lasting memories for individuals of all ages. With the additional meeting and event space provided by the farmhouse, its technical infrastructure, and both a built-in and a mobile kitchen, there will be room and scheduling opportunities for more adult-oriented programs, events and activities. The grownups can be participants, not just their children’s chaperones.
During a tour of the new facility, Mulrooney points out the features of the farmhouse, which is a focal point for visitors arriving at the new spacious parking area on the western border of the SMNC. With a visual axis that leads through a welcoming arch, past a courtyard, through the farmhouse’s glass walled vestibule to a panoramic view of Heckscher Farm from the deck of Overlook Terrace, the new structure creates both a literal and figurative gateway to the experience that awaits.
The center’s director of education, Lisa Monachelli, points out some practical benefits of the new facility for the thousands of students from Stamford and schools county- and state-wide who participate in SMNC’s Aligned With The Schools programs. The farmhouse provides sheltered space year-round—enough to accommodate more groups and run different programs concurrently. “We’ve had staff—seven full-time education employees—but sometimes no space,” says Monachelli. “This project changes everything.”
According to Monachelli, the generous indoor space at the farmhouse will accommodate more hands-on working stations. The kitchens will provide for more cooking programming, connecting farm-based activities such as growing vegetables, maple syrup production and apple cidering—the latter two are made in their own new facility next to the farmhouse—with food preparation. “Until now, our only kitchen was in the [Bendel Mansion]. The roll-out and plug-in mobile kitchen will give us a lot of new program opportunities.”
Monachelli and her staff will also make use of the 24/7, all-season space to realize some long dreamed-of activities, such as a Camp-In overnight for elementary students, who will now be able to sleep over, make dinner and feed the Heckscher Farm animals in the morning. Art programs for preschoolers will now also have plenty of elbow room for their hands-on projects. While the education staff already runs an impressive 1,700+ programs each year, the team’s reach to children will continue to expand.
Karen Meizels, who manages business development and corporate relations, has turned her attention to programs for adults (see sidebar). The farmhouse has made possible a variety of new activities starting this year, targeted specifically for the center’s grown-up fans and supporters. Starting this month and continuing through March, a culinary series on Monday evenings highlights local chefs and gives participants a chance to learn techniques to enhance their own skills. Every third Thursday from now until June, those who sign up (open to all; members get a reduced rate) can learn about such diverse subjects as wine making, flamenco guitar and dance, New Orleans jazz (with craft beer accompaniment), foraging for wild-growing food, and floral design with the design director of the New York Botanical Gardens. There’s even a class that covers how to perfect amateur nature photographs using a smart-phone camera.
More programs are in the works. With a beautiful new facility that can be opened for evening presentations and classes, a new era for the SMNC has begun.
NEXT IN LINE
WITH THE FARMHOUSE UP AND RUNNING, SIGHTS ARE SET ON THE SECOND MAJOR PROJECT OF THE CAPITAL CAMPAIGN
Having raised over $9.5 million of their $15 million goal, Michael and Carol Fedele are now focused on completing the fundraising for a new Astronomy & Physical Science Center, which will replace the existing observatory—no longer accessible and deemed beyond repair—and the small planetarium in the Bendel Mansion. It will provide dedicated space for physical science education through the STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts/astronomy and math) curriculum, and support both the State of Connecticut and the New Generation Science standards.
The proposed 8,000-square-foot structure will feature three levels that include a 100-seat auditorium, a science lab and a public outdoor viewing deck with steps leading into a forty-foot aluminum dome built to house a twenty-two-inch research telescope.
The farmhouse is an impressive message to potential contributors. Says Michael Fedele: “Finishing phase one of our campaign should impress those who have given to the project, and certainly those who are thinking about being part of this effort. The Astronomy Center will be the ‘wow’ building on the center’s campus. Ours will be the largest telescope in the area that is open to the public. The only comparable public telescope is at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.”
The Fedeles—she’s a Stamford native, and he moved here when he was three—have a long association with SMNC. She says: “We’re proud to be a part of this effort, and looking forward to seeing all of the capability that these projects will bring to the people of Stamford, the state and the region.”