Compo’s Last Century — And Next

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.

There's always plenty of activity at Compo Beach.

There’s always plenty of activity at Compo Beach.

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 (Historical reference point: The cannons were dedicated in 1910, 103 years ago.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.)

For over 100 years, the cannons have been a Compo Beach icon. This painting is by Thomas N. Graves.

For over 100 years, the cannons have been a Compo Beach icon. This painting is by Thomas N. Graves.

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.

The wooden bathhouses, with a boardwalk over the sand -- and the 2-story pavilion in the distance.

The wooden bathhouses, with a boardwalk over the sand — and the 2-story pavilion in the distance.

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.

A scene from the late 1940s or early '50. (Postcard courtesy of CardCow.com)

A scene from the late 1940s or early ’50. (Postcard courtesy of CardCow.com)

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.

It's a full house at the Compo Beach playground.

It’s a full house at the Compo Beach playground.

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.

Back in the day, cars parked even closer to the water than they do now.

Back in the day, cars parked even closer to the water than they do now. Check out the rocky beach. too.

13 responses to “Compo’s Last Century — And Next

  1. Lisa Marie Alter

    I agree that the traffic flow for cars and pedestrians for beach use and access needs improvement, but I think the statement of the “days of people coming to sit on the sand are over” is over-blown…just check it out on a sunny, 75 degree day when the sand is teeming with sunbathers !

    I have felt the beach needed a “face lift” since the day I arrived in Westport. It is such a gorgeous stretch of sand, sky and water, and the man-made aspects simply do not do justice or maximize the enjoyment of its natural beauty.

    I am also hoping that provisions for better maintenance will be given consideration in the “plan” — the conditions (cleanliness, upkeep) of the boardwalk, bathrooms, playground and pavilion are deplorable most days of the year — approaching 3rd world (by Fairfield County standards !) during the peak beach season.

    Also, more garbage cans (they can be low profile and attractive) along the entire stretch of the beach (and I personally think, the length of the sidewalk all the way to the Mill Beach) might aid in the control of litter and encourage dog-poop disposal… those areas are generally filthy.

    The other thing the WNews article fails to mention is that Compo Beach is income-producing – my understanding is that the income from the sale of parking stickers not only supports the expenses to run the beach, but also provides an income stream for the town… in others words, the beach is a “cash cow.”

    Please correct me if I am wrong about this – and I’m sure I will be ! (Now that we are forced to reveal our identities, we are culpable for our claims !)

    I mention this in the event that the use of “taxpayers money” becomes an issue in terms of the project…

  2. Tom Feeley

    “100 years” is probably a hyperbole. Duh.
    But the entire boardwalk area from Soundview to the showers on the west side of the lockers has been a disgrace for years. They never sweep the sand except for the fireworks and then they need shovels. The Westport News had two two large stories and photos covering the deplorable conditions of the boardwalk, bathrooms, and lockers. The RTM voted to clean up those areas after a big brouhaha with some members diving under the proverbial table to avoid responsibility for inaction.
    Skip is stating the obvious. The RTM has not done its job on this beautiful part of town and perhaps now with a new female moderator, we might see a shakeup on the P&R Committee and then some real improvements. When you can’t find a toothpick on the golf course, but there are bird droppings, bubblegum, and sand on the boardwalk, playground, and pavilion areas, then someone’s got their priorities screwed up.
    They even use the argument that since Compo attracts so many paying out of towers, it must be satisfactory! Appoint new members to the RTM P&R who are not “friends of Stuart” (direct quote) and maybe something will happen.
    Of course, the easier way would be to elect Jim Marpe as 1st Selectman…he’d fix it in a New York minute.

    • Avi Kaner and I are very focused on making sure our Town’s “Crown Jewels” are up to the same standards as our world-class schools. That will benefit all of us, even if we never set foot on the beaches, at Longshore or the Levitt or along the riverfront. The Compo Beach master plan is a step in the right direction.

    • John McCarthy

      Care to elaborate on how a Female moderator is different than a Male moderator?

  3. Gary Singer

    As a member ( not chartered ) of the “park real close to the rocky beach” club” I learned to swim at Compo in 1932, before I could walk. Years later, we became one of the lucky ones to trade up from wood to a brand new stone bathhouse.The “concession” ( I can’t recall what we called it then ) sold hot dogs and hamburgers only , and a few soft drinks. It was pre-Chubby and plain vanilla. As changes came, I still happily recalled my earliest days there.

  4. Here is a very tiny improvement that can be made today at modest cost. There has been a porta-potty stationed along the road in the South Beach section of Compo for years. Assuming it is needed, put some stockade fence around it! It looks really tacky. I am sure it can be done in a way that will allow the service truck to still have access for cleaning. There is stockade fence shielding the one on the 13th at Longshore ,which is far less exposed. Plus, I see they put some new fencing to hide the mechanical equipment at the end of the parking lot by the Ned Dimes marina which was less of an eyesore.

  5. Just out of curiosity how much is a visitors parking permit for the day? Is it charged by the car or the number of occupants? If Westport tax dollars are going to be used for this “improvement” then surely those day fees should also increase?

  6. Sally Campbell Palmer

    At Staples in the mid fifties we did a study of the currents at Compo and found that they picked up the sand at Compo and dumped it at Old Mill, hence the breakwaters at either end. There are probably 5 or six feet of good sand at the north end of the beach by now, dumped at Schlates Point. When I was a lifeguard in the late fifties (I think after the breakwaters were built?) they pumped sand onto the beaches, dredged up by a big barge few hundred yards off shore. For a couple of years, we had glorious sand! I’ve spent a lot of time walking the beach in the early morning, and its configuration is different every day, especially in winter. Not sure we can ever do anything permanent about that, but the place sure could use a good clean up and better maintenance!

  7. Tom Feeley

    @John McCarthy:

    You got balls asking a question like that, but I’ll try to give you a straight answer. Since I grew up with a twin sister, I feel somewhat qualified to respond.

    I’ve found females to be superior to males in just about everything except lifting things off the planet, cage fighting, and starting wars. They listen better, care a lot more, are way ahead on intuitive skills, and can usually see the essence of a situation without getting caught up in macho-ness. In this particular case, I happen to be a fan of Eileen and respect her judgment and sense of balance. Plus, she does not live on St George place.

    I believe that she will take a thorough look at the condition of the boardwalk and pavilion area, the bathrooms, and the lockers. Hopefully, she will conclude that there is significant room for improvement. She sits on the P&R Committee. If you want to be helpful, get Kirk Lang’s two articles from the Westport News reprinted. They detail with photos all the past and current problems.

    Then check with the female voters in your district. See if they think the rest rooms are satisfactory? I stood outside the women’s rest room with Mark Smith [RIP] and listened to female citizens talk about the deplorable conditions. I walked the boardwalk, pavilion, and the rest rooms separately with Charlie Haberstroh and Helen Garten when they were on the RTM. Ask them if conditions are satisfactory.

    John, I’m a fan of you as well, so please join with those who know we can do better and make the Compo Beach area as clean as the golf course. And check the revenue and expense of both. The RTM needs to step up.

  8. One major improvement, seemingly overlooked, was Compo in the 60’s+ had very little sand. The walk to the water was mostly rock and every one walked sheepishly to the water. Much better now. I know my kiddos enjoyed the added playground area and they have maintained it. While, my “shake and bake” days are long gone, I do note on my bike rides, many still love to lay in the sun catching the rays. I believe Stuart is mistaken. A last comment, the skateboarding area at Compo looks like shit.

  9. Compo is Westport.
    If it has been allowed to go to seed then Westport should be ashamed.
    My Mother and Father took me home from the hospital as a newborn via Compo. I can only imagine what they were telling me about what the future would hold for all of us privileged enough to be raised in Westport during the 50’s & 60’s.

  10. becky kohl

    We should hoard Compo’s sand for another few years, sell it to New Jersey and Florida for their beach replenishment projects at a huge markup, and then enjoy our very New England rocky shore all the way to the bank.