Pankenier pens book on architect Gilbert of the Tavern

Cass Gilbert may always be remembered locally as the architect behind the town’s fountain, but what local historian Charlie Pankenier wanted to give the former Keeler Tavern owner was something many often overlooked — a personality.

“There’s no shortage of commentary on his career and his accomplishments, but my advantage writing about him was being able to describe him in more than biographical terms,” said Mr. Pankenier. “I wanted to give him a personality and show that he was more multi-faceted than he’s been generally portrayed over the years.”

Cass Gilbert: He was a warm, family man.

Cass Gilbert: He was a warm, family man.

Mr. Pankenier wrote and published Cass Gilbert Comes Home to the Cannon Ball House earlier this year, after sixth months of researching and writing, to coincide with the Keeler Tavern’s 300th year anniversary celebrated on June 15.

However, there were several factors that motivated Mr. Pankenier to write the book. First, he felt there was a dearth of stories about Gilbert as a figure in Ridgefield, a town he lived in for more than 25 years.

“My instinct told me that there was not much written about his years in Ridgefield so I investigated everything that had been written about him and I discovered a niche,” he said. “My research of him told me there was room to write something about the time he spent here and what he was like as a person.”

Mr. Pankenier said he was encouraged to write this book now because he was able to interview Cass’s granddaughter, who is in her 90s.

“I wanted to make sure I got to talk to her while I could because I really wanted to get a sense of what life was like inside the Gilbert household in the 1920s and 1930s,” he said.

From conversations with her, and additional outside research, Mr. Pankenier said he was able to discover a softer side of Cass Gilbert that few people know.

He says that Mr. Gilbert was enchanted by his children and grandchildren, spending copious amounts of time with them and engaging with them through his drawings.

“This dimension of him doesn’t come out through other writings,” Mr. Pankenier said.

The author was encouraged to write this book now because he was able to interview Cass’s granddaughter, who is in her 90s.

The author was encouraged to write this book now because he was able to interview Cass’s granddaughter, who is in her 90s.

Another redeeming quality Mr. Gilbert had but didn’t often show off was that he was extremely self-aware, says Mr. Pankenier.

“In the eyes of the public, he was a pompous stiff who was rigidly conservative, but he knew who he was and he wasn’t afraid to make fun of himself when he was with a certain crowd he felt comfortable with,” he said.

Mr. Pankenier also wanted to show how dedicated Mr. Gilbert was to the town in which he spent his summers and the house he referred to as “the Cannon Ball House.”

He purchased the house in 1907 and knew about the inn’s history in the Revolutionary War, says Mr. Pankenier.

“Cass was very aware of the historical significance of the original tavern building and left it mostly the same as it was,” he said. “He was very respectful of its architecture.”

While he didn’t alter the original building, Mr. Gilbert did make some significant changes to the property, building a barn that still stands in the back of the residence as well as the famous Garden House, which used to house lavish parties with its “lovely setting.”

“Cass and Julia, his wife, loved to entertain widely and often,” Mr. Pankenier said. “They used to have parties with as many as 100 guests come and share their home.”

Mr. Pankenier said the book gave him the opportunity to correct a few inaccuracies he came across during his research phase.

Charles Pankenier: He wanted to show the side of Gilbert that has not been reported.

Charles Pankenier: He wanted to show the side of Gilbert that has not been reported.

For instance, he found that the town’s fountain was installed in the late spring of 1916, not 1915, which is often a misconception because no formal ceremony unveiling the fountain has ever been reported.

To write the book, Mr. Pankenier went through the historical archives of the Keeler Tavern, The Ridgefield Press and town hall as well as Mr. Gilbert’s correspondences that have been preserved by his family.

Mr. Pankenier got into Ridgefield history about a dozen years ago when he became a guide at Keeler Tavern. He says the more history he finds while working there, the more stories he wants to tell.

“The quality of the people who have lived there is a distinctive trait of the museum,” Mr. Pankenier said. “It’s a rich, evocative narrative of three centuries of New England history — there aren’t many places like the Keeler Tavern because it spans the entire history of this country.

“It’s not confined to any particular era, which makes it unusual to say the least.”

He added that Cass Gilbert is the “quintessential representative of Ridgefield in the Gilded Age.”

Although he admits Mr. Gilbert is without question the biggest celebrity figure to ever own Keeler Tavern, Mr. Pankenier believes Timothy Keeler played the most important role in the property’s 300-year history as the inn’s operator during the American Revolution, preserving it from British attack during the Battle of Ridgefield.

“The history of the Keeler Tavern and the history of our town intersect across three centuries of history,” he said. “From settlement through the revolution through the Industrial Revolution through the Civil War and into the Gilded Age — it’s always been here.”

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