Compo Beach may soon look different. But this time changes will come from us – not nature.
Within the next few weeks Parks & Rec will issue a Request for Proposals. Engineering and design firms will bid on a master plan.
The Westport News quoted director Stuart McCarthy as saying the days of people “going to the beach, lathering themselves in suntan oil, and sitting in a chair” are over. Now everyone walks, jogs, bikes, pushes strollers, flies kites, launches windsurfers — you name it. And a lot more of us do it, too.
Noting the sorry state of bathhouses and bathrooms, and the crowded entrances and exits, Compo Beach Association president Skip Lane said the beach “hasn’t been improved or really looked at in 100 years.”
Well, not quite.
In fact, the beach has seen many changes over the past century. (Historical reference point: The cannons were dedicated in 1910, 103 years ago. If they’d been there in 1777, maybe the British would not have landed and marched up to Danbury.)
A wooden bathing pavilion was built in 1919; 750 bathhouses were rented by the hour. (Sounds sketchy, I know.)
By 1927, what we now call the “pavilion” — the open-air area with a few benches between the volleyball courts and beach — was a handsome 2-story affair, featuring dining and dancing.
A small lifeguard cottage, trimmed by a nice garden, sat by the water’s edge.
But as Roaring 20s-ish as that all sounds, the beach itself was awful. It was filled with rocks — good-sized ones, this being New England. It took a few more decades before Compo became the sandy beach we know today.
Anchored offshore — until about 1960 or so — were several large rafts. They were popular spots for diving, sunbathing, and teenagers trying to impress each other.
I don’t know why they were removed, but I bet liability was an issue. Things are much worse today, of course. If McDonald’s has to warn customers that coffee is hot, we’ll never see those rafts again.
Even through the 1950s, oldtimers say, the beach along Soundview Drive — from the drop-off area to Hillspoint Road — was considered “private.” It wasn’t, of course, but many Westporters asked permission of Soundview residents before sitting down to lather on suntan oil.
In my coming-of-age age — let’s call it the Age of Aquarius — Chubby Lane ran the concession stand. It was located where the volleyball courts are now. And with parking right outside, you didn’t need a sticker to drive up, order one of the best cheeseburgers known to man, and hang out until someone told you to move.
Chubby had another great way of boosting business. Employees — wearing blue button-down shirts, and high knee socks — roamed the beach taking orders. They called them in by walkie-talkie, and tied a balloon around a beach chair. Soon, another employee delivered the food.
The playground has changed over the years too. A carousel once sat near the basketball court, along with monkey bars and other stuff. The playground we now know was built in the late 1980s, in a burst of community spirit and volunteer labor — but not until a full-blown, nasty, typical Westport controversy wound through court.
Neighbors complained that the playground would ruin “the vista,” and send property values plummeting. It would also attract rowdy teenagers, who’d drink, do drugs and have sex.
Today, of course, the Compo Beach playground is one of the first things realtors show to prospective buyers. And kids party safely in their own basements.
So no, the beach has not just sat there, unchanging, for 100 years. Plenty has happened. Some of it’s good; some bad. Some has been planned; some not. I haven’t even mentioned the changes — to the coastline, the seawalls, the structures themselves — wrought by weather.
(Side note: A month ago, I wondered how Parks & Rec would ever get the post-Sandy beach ready for this summer. Thanks to a herculean effort — with help from Public Works and Kowalsky — it looks great. )
Back in the Carter administration, I was a young pup serving on a committee aimed at – surprise! — improving Compo Beach. Planning consultants were hired. They looked at the beach from all kinds of angles, and with fresh eyes. One of their proposals was to move parking away from the sand. “Reclaim the beach!” the consultants said. “People don’t need to drive that close to the water.”
No way, our committee said. This is Westport. People have always parked there, and they always will.
Let’s hope this next engineering and design firm comes up with some creative, reimagined ideas for the beach. They might even suggest diverting cars away from the water.
Hey, you never know.