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Did You Know? Greenwich backcountry could have resembled a small city?

By Christopher Shields

When you think of the backcountry area of Greenwich, images of tall buildings, airports and major roadways constructed to support the work of diplomats probably don’t come to mind. But this bucolic area (and the Town as we know it today) would likely have had a vastly different appearance and character if officials at the newly chartered United Nations Organization (UNO) had their way after the close of World War II.

A “UNO” search committee began the work of selecting a site for the headquarters of the international organization in June 1945. Naturally, many large cities including New York, San Francisco and Philadelphia were eagerly hoping that they would be selected. But by January 1946 it appeared that the first choice was a location that included practically all of Greenwich north of the Merritt Parkway, as well as sections of Stamford and North Castle. The core of the site was 42 square miles, with plans to extend it to over 100 square miles. Not surprisingly, the natural beauty of the area, access to water supplies, favorable climate and proximity to New York City all factored into the site’s favor.

Bernie Yudain, then a journalist and managing editor of Greenwich Time, received word of this momentous decision from banker (and future U.S. Senator) Prescott Bush. His article ran the following day in Greenwich Time. Once the word was out, the stunned area citizenry quickly formed strong opinions, both for and against the proposal. Many opponents recognized the enormous change that the addition of tall buildings, railroad and highway extensions, power plants and at least one new airport would bring to the community. They did not want the special character of their home to be so altered by the new “UNOville,” the name coined by opponents for the proposed development. Some supporters of the proposed site believed that the goals of the United Nations were so important that they should take precedence over other concerns, especially after the recent and terrible losses of the Second World War. Financial considerations underpinned both sides of the debate, as such a dramatic change would have seriously impacted property values and presented significant opportunities for area businesses.

It was a very active and tumultuous time as the efforts for and against the United Nations proceeded at a brisk pace. Ultimately, the opponents won the day after the majority of votes cast in a referendum were opposed to the development of the United Nations headquarters in Greenwich. Although the results of the referendum did not provide any definitive legal barrier to the United Nations, officials at the world organization eventually decided that the Greenwich site presented too many thorny problems.

An exhibition called “No to UNOville” (presented by the Greenwich Historical Society in 2003-2004) examined the debate in greater detail. The Archives at the Greenwich Historical Society contains a variety of material related to the exhibition and this important episode in the Town’s history. The Town History Collection also contains the letter file of Wilkie Bushby (a leading opponent of the UNO development).

The archives are open to the public on Wednesdays from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.

Christopher Shields is the archivist at the Greenwich Historical Society, 39 Strickland Road, Cos Cob, CT 06807.