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Tuesday, September 16, 2014

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Darien's golden track ignited Gilded Age

Updated 9:57 am, Thursday, April 17, 2014

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  • A postcard illustrating the Post Road in Darien shortly after the turn of the century. Photo: Contributed Photo, ST / Darien News
    A postcard illustrating the Post Road in Darien shortly after the turn of the century. Photo: Contributed Photo, ST

 

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After writing about up-to-the-minute trends in Fairfield County for the Hearst newspapers, journalist Maggie Gordon gained an appreciation for an earlier time when she wrote her new book, "The Gilded Age on Connecticut's Gold Coast."

The profusely illustrated volume is about the transformation the railroad brought to the towns of Greenwich, Stamford and Darien in the mid-19th century.

A slow-paced, pastoral coastal area was quickly transformed into a playground for the wealthy, and then lavish bedroom communities for commuting businessmen making their fortunes in New York City.

The book is packed with pictures of mansions, clubs and hotels that are long gone -- illustrations that struck a preservationist chord in the writer.

"I grew up in a house that is 160 years old, and I love that it still exists. The idea of it being gone tears at my soul," Gordon said during a recent interview.

Gordon writes the regular "Trending" feature in the Hearst papers and covers real estate for Greenwich Time. She said she has seen the way distinctive old houses can quickly vanish on Connecticut's Gold Coast.

"I toured a beautiful house that was for sale, but was told that whoever bought it would probably buy it for the land and tear down the house. It made me ache because things like this don't exist anymore. This is a huge responsibility for the people who preserve things and who work for historical societies," she said.

"The Gilded Age," published by The History Press, grew out of a "Trending" column Gordon wrote on the New Milford flea market featured on the "Flea Market Flip" TV series on HGTV. After the piece appeared, the writer received a call from an editor at The History Press who was interested in adding more Connecticut books to the publishing company's roster. Gordon drew up a list of possibilities for the publisher and soon had a deal for "The Gilded Age."

"By the time I wrapped my mind around how much work I would be doing ... the project was underway," Gordon, a former reporter for the Darien News, said.

For three very hectic months, the journalist would work all day on her Hearst stories, and "then rush home and start typing while shoving pizza in my mouth," she said, laughing.

Finally, Gordon took a week's vacation in North Carolina to finish the book.

"I rented a condo on the Outer Banks because I don't work so well at home. I knew I would do it if I drove eight hours just for the purpose of writing," she said.

One good omen was the fact that her deadline coincided with her father's birthday. She made the deadline with several minutes to spare, the author joked.

When the book was going into production, Gordon realized how lucky she was to be working for a news organization with extensive photo and art files.

"When you do a book like this, they tell you to start on the photo research before you do the words because tracking pictures down can be very difficult. But I'm so lucky to be here at the Advocate," she said of finding more good illustrations than could be used in "The Gilded Age."

Gordon also was able to draw on a remarkable collection of sketches of the countryside that Whitman Bailey did

for the Stamford Advocate in the 1930s.

"He did sketches every week and there were a lot of them to go through," she said.

As Gordon worked on the book, she found herself especially drawn to the Greenwich sections.

"It was originally supposed to be a third Greenwich, a third Stamford and a third Darien, but I became so fascinated by the captains of industry in Greenwich that it became a bigger part of the book than I expected it to be. Those people were so interesting that I couldn't stop writing about them," she said.

Maggie Gordon will discuss and sign copies of her book Saturday, May 3, at 6 p.m. at Barrett Bookstore, 314 Heights Road, Darien. For information, visit www.barrettbookstore.com.

jmeyers@ctpost.com; Twitter: @joesview