By Richard Weizel
FAIRFIELD, Connecticut (Reuters) - Gustave Whitehead is not a household name in the United States, but fans of the aviation pioneer who contend he conducted a manned flight with a powered engine before Orville and Wilbur Wright say he should be.
For weeks, supporters have protested a Connecticut developer's plan to demolish the nearly 100-year-old house in Fairfield that the German immigrant built and lived in. They wanted the house to be moved and preserved as a landmark to educate people about the German mechanic's role in the invention of the airplane.
Time ran out on Monday when the town issued a demolition permit to developer Gary Tenk to build a new structure on the site, according to Fairfield First Selectman Mark Tetreau. Demolition of the small house on a residential street in Fairfield, could be completed as early as Tuesday.
"This home was in foreclosure and purchased by a developer," Tetreau said. "The town has no choice but to follow building regulations and issue the permit."
Tenk, the developer, did not respond to calls seeking comment.
Whitehead's supporters insist that the common belief that the Wright Brothers were first to fly is wrong, and suggest the house could be a memorial to the Connecticut resident's accomplishment. They said hundreds witnessed Whitehead flying a plane in nearby Bridgeport in 1901, two years before the Wright brothers' famous flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.
"My grandmother talked all the time about seeing (Whitehead) fly his plane in 1901 and 1902," said Stephen Fink, of Norfolk, Connecticut, who grew up in Fairfield and believes demolition would be "a disaster for history."
Fink said his grandmother, Elizabeth Papp Koteles, who lived across the street from Whitehead in Bridgeport, was among 18 people who submitted sworn affidavits that they witnessed the flights. Her two brothers helped Whitehead build his planes, Fink said.
Born Gustav Weisskopf in Bavaria in 1874, he emigrated to the United States in 1893. He died in Connecticut in 1927.
Whitehead was credited last year in "Jane's All the World's Aircraft," considered the bible of the aviation industry, with having flown a powered, heavier-than-air craft in 1901. The Connecticut legislature last year passed a resolution recognizing the accomplishment.
"Shame on us if we can't find a way to save a house of such monumental historical importance," said Melanie Marks, founder of Connecticut House Histories.
The timing involved is key as a town ordinance would have required the house to remain standing for at least another 60 days if it were 100 years old. But a title search last week showed the structure was built just short of 100 years ago.
Tetreau, the selectman, noted the town plans to "save some materials and hope a replica can be built."
But Susan Brinchman of La Mesa, California, who grew up in Fairfield, and has been researching the topic for three decades, called the house's demolition a tragedy for aviation history.
"I find it preposterous that Fairfield and Bridgeport politicians and the business chamber would allow the house to be destroyed," said Brinchman, adding that her forthcoming writings will include evidence that Whitehead flew numerous times before the Wright Brothers. "Fairfield did not want the house."
(Editing by Scott Malone and G Crosse)