Alain White might not believe his eyes. The mansion he once called home has been transformed into a model nature center and museum celebrating its 50th birthday this year. The changes did not come quickly or easily.
Alain, a Litchfield native, and his sister, Mae were pioneer environmentalists, turning their 4,000-acre property into a nature preserve and founding the White Memorial Foundation over 100 years ago.
However, after the two passed away in the 1950s, their mansion, Whitehall, was left to the elements. The 50th anniversary of the foundation in 1963 sparked a move to do something about the building.
The Conservation Center was incorporated in 1964 with the challenge of converting the rundown manor house to a museum. Initially it was known as the Litchfield Nature Center and Museum. The founders wanted the best, with many of the early dioramas put together by experts at New York’s Museum of Natural History.
But initially there was little “flow” as the rooms were designed for a home, not a museum space. Visitors came through a front hall and went in and out of rooms to see the displays. It took over 30 years, but in 1996, everything changed, with a two-year renovation adding a modern exhibit building that puts it into the top ranks of nature centers.
The Museum Today
Now known as the White Memorial Conservation Center, the building includes a nature museum with state-of-the-art exhibits on natural history, conservation, and ecology, as well as a dormitory, and a nature store and classroom facilities for the many school groups that visit.
The Conservation Center's Nature Museum offers a picture tour with exquisite dioramas and artwork telling the story of this unique 4,000 acre wildlife refuge, its diverse habitats using giant photo murals and animal mounts. A special exhibit on the Art of Taxidermy explains how the mounts were made.
A live snake habitat, beaver dam, fluorescent rock cave, bird sculpture garden, and children's room with books and activities guarantees a fun and informative experience for the whole family. The thousands of surrounding acres add many opportunities for first-hand contact with the natural world.
More than 35 miles of trails are open year-round for hiking, biking, cross-country skiing and horseback riding. These include interpretive nature trails and a boardwalk trail for observing the extensive bird life found in a wetland environment. Bantam Lake and the Bantam River offer fine fishing and canoeing and the grounds have ample scenic spaces for picnicking and camping.
The White Memorial Conservation Center is located at 80 Whitehall Road in Litchfield and is open seven days a week, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and from noon to 5 p.m. on Sundays. Admission to the museum is $6 for adults and $3 for children ages 6 through 12.
For more information on White Memorial www.whitememorialcc.org. For information on Litchfield Hills www.litchfieldhills.com