Founded in 1931 to collect and preserve the history of Greenwich, Connecticut, the Historical Society was housed in a library in the village of Old Greenwich. Outgrowing its space, the Historical Society began its search in the late 1950s for permanent headquarters.
In 1957 the Historical Society purchased Bush-Holley House, a circa 1730 waterfront mansion on the historic Cos Cob Harbor that had become a boardinghouse for an art colony between 1890 and 1920. Volunteers began the campaign to restore the house and its outbuildings, and the house opened to the public as a museum in 1958. Emphasizing its early history, the house was furnished with eighteenth-century furniture and served the dual role of curators’ residence and house museum.
In 1975 the town’s first National Register and Local Historic District, the Strickland Road Historic District, was established through the Historical Society’s efforts. The district includes Bush-Holley House and protects over 25 houses built between 1730 and 1938. To celebrate the Bicentennial, volunteers researched and published a chronology of Greenwich from 1640 to 1976, recently updated to 2000.
In 1987 the Historical Society built the William E. Finch, Jr. Archives, followed by the hiring of an archivist and the first director. The board leadership galvanized 200 volunteers into the “Antiquarius” committee to raise funds for the Historical Society. Over the next ten years they raised over two million dollars, making possible the transition to a professional organization.
In 1989 the Justus Luke Bush Storehouse (1805) was purchased. The importance of the house and storehouse’s nineteenth-century link to American Impressionism came into stronger focus in the 1990s through a collaborative exhibition with the Bruce Museum and the formation of the Connecticut Impressionist Art Trail, joining ten sites featuring Impressionist art collections. In 1991 Bush-Holley House was granted National Historic Landmark status as home of Connecticut’s first art colony. The Historical Society adopted its first long-range plan in 1994, and adjacent property and buildings were acquired.
In 1997 the Historical Society began restoration of the storehouse and the first phase of a historic landscape restoration. The Bush Storehouse opened as a Visitor Center, and the museum’s name was changed to Bush-Holley Historic Site in order to convey the Historical Society’s interpretive strategy to unite the landscape and historic buildings’ exteriors to their appearance in 1900 at the height of the Cos Cob art colony.
With the opening of the Visitor Center in late 1997, the Historical Society instituted a bi-annual changing exhibition program, hands-on history gallery and a museum shop. The focus then shifted to expanding the education programs and the reinterpretation of Bush-Holley House to convey its two periods of significance. In 2001 construction began on the Hugh and Claire Vanderbilt Education Center, and the remaining historic landscaping was completed. With its expanded and professionally developed site, exhibitions and programs, the Historical Society received accreditation by the American Association of Museums in 2005.