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Wildcliff Historical Timeline

in News by Barbara Davis, City Historian

Wildcliff was most likely built as a wedding gift in 1855 for Cyrus Lawton and his wife, Sarah Marie Davenport, Overcliff, (as it was first called,) was designed by one of the leading architects of the day. Alexander Jackson Davis was noted for connecting his residential works with the landscape, giving it a variety of textures and appeal. Wildcliff was one of at least six New Rochelle residences designed by Davis. Sans Souci, which was built for Lawrence Montgomery Davenport, (father of Sarah Marie Davenport Lawton) and located just down the hill at 157 Davenport Avenue, is the only other extant Davis-designed building in New Rochelle. It is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places but, unlike Wildcliff, is locally-designated. 


1940    Wildcliff, as the Gothic cottage was later renamed, was gifted to the City of New Rochelle by the Julius Prince family in 1940 (sold to City for $1.00.) They stipulated that the property be used for municipal purposes. A small cottage on the property was included, with the understanding that Prince descendants could live in it until the youngest turned 21. 

1946    Mrs. Clara Prince suggests that the building and property be used for a natural science museum. 

The building is used for City Offices, including the Parks department.

1964    Planning and fund-raising for a Natural Science Museum begins. The School District gets on board with Title III monies. The idea for the museum is patterned after the Stamford Museum, which is also a former estate.

1966    The first young people start using the Museum

1968    Wildcliff Youth Museum officially opens

1970    The name is changed to “Wildcliff Natural Science Center” “courses are increasingly oriented toward ecological, biological and oceanographic science.)

1976    Wildcliff Craft Center at Ward Acres opens.

1975    City of New Rochelle allocated 20,000 to Wildcliff. The Center is serving 50,000 people in Westchester. 

1978    Many of the Museum’s full-time workers go on strike. It is settled by the end of the year. 

1979    Co-director David Kendig resigns, after nine years. Dee Topol, the other director, stays on.

1981    Topol resigns in January. By August all operations are halted under a cloud of financial improprieties. Wildcliff Museum owes $191,000 to the IRS and NYS Tax Bureau, and has a $158,000 debt. Robert Streger, President of the Board, is held accountable. County of Westchester pays out $114,683 of the tax debt.

1984    City turns down proposal by Robert Weiner for Theatrical Center.

In March, the City approves a plan of East Coast Arts to convert the museum into a theater and art gallery. The City rents the building to ECA for $1.00 a year, with a 10-year contract and option to renew for another 5 years. Supporters include David Mamet, David Saperstein, Joseph Papp, Shel Silverstein and many others.

1991    East Coast Arts stages its last play (in the 100-seat theater) in December. “We were always on the brink of financial disaster.” (private and corporate donations accounted for 75% of the $700,000 annual budget.)

1997    Fleetwood Stage moves from Mount Vernon to Wildcliff, and has a similar arrangement as East Coast Arts. The building is plagued with maintenance issues.

2002    Wildcliff is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

2004    Fleetwood Stage closes.

2001    NR Historical and Landmarks Review Board (HLRB) receives $15,000 grant for a building needs assessment. 

2002    City hires Webb Management Services to prepare an RFP for development and operation of Wildcliff ($36,500 cost to be split between City and IDA.)

2003    Council approves sale of Cottage behind Wildcliff for 1.3 million to Anthony Paolercio. Sale was contingent on change in zoning from recreational to residential – a change that required state legislation, which Gov. Pataki signed in October. Proceeds are to be used for capital improvements on the building. 

2004    City enters into an agreement with Playgroup Theatre Company.

2005    City Council authorizes an application to SHPO (State Historic Preservation Office) for Environmental Protection Funds for $350,000 for rehabilitation. If necessary, this will be matched with funds gained from sale of cottage.

2007    MACE Contracting of NR begins work. City finally receives Environmental Protection Fund grant of $180,000. 

2010    Marie Inzinna-Masseo enters into an agreement with City for her proposed “Jen’s Community at Wildcliff.”

2012    Eric Woodlin, President of Incoming Tide Productions, licenses Wildcliff’s outdoor space for craft fairs, a sculpture garden, and live performances

2018    November 26: Fire