Category Archives: Downtown

Behind The Baron

The Baron is back in the news.

For years, Westporters have talked about “Baron’s South” — the hilly, wooded 30 acres of municipal land, once owned by “the Baron” between South Compo Road and Imperial Avenue. (“Baron’s South” differentiates it from the old “Baron’s property,” the 32 acres across the Post Road on North Compo, renamed Winslow Park after the town bought it nearly 3 decades ago.)

The Baron’s house — Golden Shadows — is in the news too, as Westport debates what to do with that perhaps historic, perhaps blah 1959 home on Baron’s South.

But who was this guy? Was he a real baron? Or was this just a high-falutin’, self-styled nickname, the way Elvis Presley called himself “The King”?

Golden Shadows perfume, by Evyan.

Golden Shadows perfume, by Evyan.

He’s legit. His real name was Walter Langer, aka Baron Walter Langer von Langendorff of Austria. But I guess barons also need day jobs, so he became a chemist (and a Ph.D. doctor).

He founded Evyan Perfumes in the mid-1930s, bought the South Compo estate in 1967, and lived there until his death in 1983. Evyan was meant to “challenge the French perfume industry.”

His wife — the baronness — was British-born Evelyn Diane Westall. She was also known as “Lady Evyan.”

I know this thanks in part to Wendy Crowther. She loves the Baron’s property, and wants to preserve his home. She sent along a couple of fascinating articles.

An ad for White Shoulders perfume.

An ad for White Shoulders perfume.

One — from the “Vintage Perfume Vault” blog (“Where the scent of yesterday’s vogue lives”) — says that Evyan’s famed White Shoulders perfume was launched in the 1940s. It’s remained very popular, through Evyan’s sale to Elizabeth Arden. It may even be “the iconic American fragrance.”

(Fun factIt was named, perhaps, for Lady Evyan’s beautiful white shoulders.)

Wendy also sent a link to a 1987 New York Times story. Back then, all eyes were focused on the baron’s North Compo Road land. A referendum — ultimately successful — was held on whether to acquire the property by condemnation.

The cost was $8.75 million, and the town wanted to act quickly. With the baron’s estate “tangled” thanks to 5 wills and many legatees, the cost was expected to rise in the future.

The baron had bought it in 1970 — 3 years after purchasing his South Compo estate. He was seen as a savior, since the previous owner — developer Albert Phelps — wanted to put a B. Altman shopping center there. (Click here for a fascinating story on the previous history of what is now Winslow Park, including a sanitarium and the most luxurious estate in Westport.)

The Golden Shadows house, looking southwest. (Photo/Wendy Crowther)

The Golden Shadows house, looking southwest. (Photo/Wendy Crowther)

But back to Baron’s South, and “Golden Shadows.” The estate — which at one point included not only his house but others on the land, plus magnificent gardens and arbors — got its name from another Evyan perfume.

Golden Shadows — the scent — was launched in 1950. The Baron created it himself. The New Yorker called it a “first cousin” to White Shoulders (with a “more nonchalant mien”).

Baron’s South will be a major topic of discussion in Westport, for months to come. We’ll talk too about the fate of Golden Shadows.

As we do, we should remember the man behind the land, the home, and the perfumes that provided the fortune that enabled him to buy — and preserve — such magnificent open space.

Historic Designation Sought For Golden Shadows

The best use of the Baron’s South property is still a subject of debate.

But a group of Westporters want to make sure that whatever it is, it includes Golden Shadows.

The 1959 Colonial Revival-style structure — built as a private residence by the perfume magnate Baron Walter von Langendorff (hence the perfume-scented name “Golden Shadows”) — sits in the middle of the hilly property, between South Compo Road and Imperial Avenue.

It’s unoccupied — save for some books stored there by the library, and perhaps some woodland creatures — but it’s still in decent condition.

Golden Shadows, looking southwest. (Photo/Wendy Crowther)

Golden Shadows, looking southwest. (Photo/Wendy Crowther)

Golden Shadows is listed on Westport’s Historic Resources Inventory. Last April, the Historic District Commission voted unanimously to support its designation as a Local Historic Landmark Property. Now, concerned Westporters want the RTM to weigh in with their vote too.

“On the heels of the Planning and Zoning Open Space Subcommittee’s January 8 vote to recommend re-zoning Baron’s South as open space,” a petition submitted to the RTM reads, “we thought it might also be an appropriate time to establish similar protections for Golden Shadows.”

The petition says that the home could be re-purposed as office space, event space or some other municipal use. (New Canaan did something similar with Waveny Park; Norwalk did it with Cranbury Park.)

The “landmark” designation would help conserve the building’s historic features, preventing it from demolition or inappropriate alteration, while also permitting the town to earn a grant for a needs assessment and plan of preservation.

A view into the central parlor shows a chandelier and circular staircase.  (Photo/Wendy Crowther)

A view into the central parlor shows a chandelier and circular staircase. (Photo/Wendy Crowther)

The designation would not force the town to do anything. But it does raise Golden Shadow’s profile, and — if passed — flags it as something the RTM deems important.

2015 will see continued debate on Baron’s South. Now, that debate will include a possibly historic landmark home, standing right in its midst.

Downtown Planning Report: 44 Ideas Worth Examining

After several years, countless meetings and surveys, and endless anticipation, the 1st draft of Westport’s Downtown Master Plan has been made public.

A full house of interested observers was on hand yesterday when the Downtown Steering Committee got a look at the 159-page document.

Now the fun begins.

Larry Untermeyer's spectacular aerial photo in the opening pages of the planning report highlights the inherent beauty -- and potential -- of downtown.

Larry Untermeyer’s spectacular aerial photo in the opening pages of the planning report highlights the inherent charm — and problems — of downtown.

The consultant — Norwalk-based RBA Group — has provided 44 recommendations and strategies. They range from big-picture creative ideas to practical smaller improvements.

Here — drum roll, please — they are:

Near-term

  • Improve and complete the sidewalk network
  • Implement Main Street streetscape improvements
  • Create a new road: Library Lane
  • Redesign Church Lane into a “shared street”
  • Support improvements to Toquet Hall
  • Support the redevelopment of the west side riverfront
  • Build a pedestrian bridge crossing the Saugatuck
  • Create a Westport Arts & Culture Heritage “Trail”
  • Improve pedestrian safety at Post Road crossings
  • Improve pedestrian and vehicular safety at Post Road intersections through traffic signal modifications
  • Redesign Myrtle Road intersections
  • Improve traffic movements at the Route 1/33 intersection
Traffic often backs up on Wilton Road, near the Post Road intersection. Development of the west side of the river is an important element of the Downtown Master Plan.

Traffic often backs up on Wilton Road, near the Post Road intersection. Development of the west side of the river is an important element of the Downtown Master Plan.

  • Improve the wayfinding system for motorists
  • Develop directional and informational signs for pedestrians
  • Support initiatives to access and connect downtown through transit
  • Provide amenities for transit passengers
  • Provide bicycle parking in downtown
  • Combine and co-manage public and private parking lots (Baldwin lot with Avery Place)
  • Change parking from 1-hour to 2-hour maximum in downtown
  • Implement seasonal valet parking
  • Relocate long-term parking

Short-term

  • Reinvent Jesup Green
  • Coordinate and implement uniform streetscape improvements throughout downtown
  • Support the Westport Cinema Initiative
  • Monitor the relocation of the Westport Arts Center
  • Create new pedestrian passageways
  • Consider the future of Elm Street
Modifications to Elm Street are shown in this rendering. The old Westport Pizzeria is on the right; Vineyard Vines is hidden behind trees at center.

Modifications to Elm Street are shown in this rendering. The old Westport Pizzeria is on the right; Vineyard Vines is hidden behind trees at center.

  • Redesign Taylor Street into a “shared street”
  • Support the library transformation project
  • Improve the appearance and safety of the Imperial Avenue lot
  • Consider a fee-based system to manage parking in certain locations
  • Redesign Jesup Road
An illustration of the possible reinvention of Jesup Green shows a pier, and relocation of parking.

An illustration of the possible reinvention of Jesup Green shows a pier, and relocation of parking. The library is at right.

  • Build a bridge to connect to the Imperial Avenue parking lot
  • Redesign the Main Street/Elm Street intersection
  • Consider implementing a real-time parking information system
  • Create a town-wide bicycle plan

Long-term

  • Transform Parker Harding Plaza
A section of the reimagined Parker Harding Plaza shows much more green along the riverfront.

Reimagined Parker Harding Plaza shows more green along the riverfront.

  • Place a cafe on the green
  • Provide public restrooms
  • Construct a downtown landing
  • Create a barge restaurant
  • Extent the westside riverwalk
  • Combine and co-manage public and private parking lots (Gillespie Center with old Town Hall)
  • Consider providing additional parking supply

Each idea is explored in greater depth. Of course, a section of the report is devoted to financing.

It’s fascinating — and important — reading. If you’ve got a few hours, the report can be downloaded here.

The next stage begins now. The committee will present the report to the Planning and Zoning Commission on Thursday, January 15.

The public gets a crack on Wednesday, January 28, with an open house in the Town Hall auditorium (4:30-9 p.m.), and 2 separate report presentations (5:30 and 7:30 p.m.).

Nothing is chiseled in stone, as 1st Selectman Jim Marpe points out. However, it looks like 2015 will be a year in which downtown might really start to rock.

(For more information, click on www.downtownwestportct.com)

Downtown Westport offers many opportunities for growth and rebirth. (All photos and renderings courtesy of the Downtown Master Plan report)

Downtown Westport offers many opportunities for growth and rebirth. (All photos and renderings courtesy of the Downtown Master Plan report)

 

Masons’ Temple Lodge: Not The Scariest Building In Westport. My Bad.

A couple of years ago I called the Masonic Temple on the Post Road “the spookiest spot in Westport.” In the Comments section, Tony Giunta invited me to come see how un-scary it was.

Recently, the 1964 Staples grad — and current Worshipful Master — repeated the invitation.

The other day, I took him up on his offer. Despite occupying the top 2 floors of a building that also houses a funeral parlor, the building on the corner of the Post Road and Imperial Avenue is not particularly spooky.

Westport's Temple Lodge #65.

Westport’s Temple Lodge #65.

A bit dated, perhaps. But also — as Tony notes — one of “the best-kept secrets in Westport.”

Our Temple Lodge #65 has been around since 1824 — more than a decade before Westport itself was incorporated. After convening at various spots (including National Hall), the local chapter of the centuries-old international organization moved into the then-new building in 1911.

The Masons have been there — meeting the 2nd and 4th Thursday of every month — ever since.

There are now about 100 Masons, though a typical meeting draws 40 or so. The lodge includes a parlor, dining room, kitchen, library, foosball room and large meeting room.

The Mason's meeting room.

The Masons’ meeting room.

The meeting room includes a clock from Jason Robards’ estate, and an altar. “We’re not a religious organization. But to join you must have a belief in a Supreme Being,” Tony explained.

“We don’t discuss religion or politics in meetings,” he added. “That causes too much discord.”

Meetings are governed by rituals, but include committee reports, information on the welfare of brothers, and discussions of charitable works.

Tony joined in 2007, after retiring from the Westport Police Department. He’d been a Kiwanis Club member and worked with the Y, but had always wanted to be a Mason.

Tony Giunta, in the meeting room.

Tony Giunta, in the meeting room.

He proudly showed me a list of previous Masters. Well-known Westport names like George Constantikes, Don Goss, Tom Hofstetter, George Underhill, Carl Cirino and Rocco Frank are inscribed in careful calligraphy.

In earlier times, the list included Westporters from famed families like the Fables, Wakemans, Sniffens, Bradleys and Krauses.

As Tony conducted his tour, I realized that the Masonic Lodge is not a scary building. Instead, it’s simple — and historic.

Plus, it’s got a killer view of the Memorial Day parade. Every May, the Masons gather there.

When it’s over, the bagpipers come upstairs. And then the real party begins.

The downtown view, from Temple Lodge #65.

The downtown view, from Temple Lodge #65.

Coming In 2015: Outdoor Fitness Parks In Westport?

Four years ago in Tel Aviv, Vadim Mejerson looked out his hotel window. He saw what looked like a child’s playground — but it was filled with adults. They were all exercising, on equipment you’d find in a gym but adapted for outdoors.

You or I might think, “Hmmm … interesting.” Meyerson — a longtime Weston resident with a Ph.D. in exercise physiology, who helped Exxon and many other companies develop fitness centers for executives — thought: “Wow … opportunity!”

He and his son Adam — who’d seen the same sight, independently, on that trip to Israel — did some research. They learned the parks were open 24/7. Some were roofed. Some were linked by bike trails.

A fitlot park by the sea in Israel...

A Fitlot park by the sea in Israel…

Vadim and Adam found that outdoor fitness parks were exploding in popularity around the world. England, Switzerland, Australia, Canada — everywhere, it seemed, governments and private sources were developing 1,000-square-foot areas where people could work out, get fit and socialize.

Everywhere — except the U.S.

Believing that every individual should enjoy the health benefits of parks like these, they formed a 501(c)(3) organization called FitLot. Partnering with neighborhood associations, and with funding from corporations, foundations and governments, it’s developing outdoor fitness parks throughout New Orleans.

That’s a perfect place for them. The city is burdened with obesity, diabetes and other health-related problems — but it’s also rebuilding itself, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

...and one in Europe.

…and one in Europe.

Now Mejerson wants to build facilities closer to home.

The other day he and 2 fellow enthusiasts — Steven Lewine and Rick Jaffe — talked about their vision for Westport.

“It’s free. It’s easy to access. It’s not an intimidating ‘gym environment,’ so it appeals to everyone,” Lewine said.

They ticked off potential spots for outdoor fitness parks: Compo Beach. Luciano Park, near the train station. The Y. The library. The Senior Center. Winslow Park. Baron’s South. The front lawn of Town Hall. Mini-parks, like Grace Salmon on Imperial Avenue.

They also like Sherwood Island. Connected by bike trails, they say, the fitness parks would be a way of tying the town together with the state park in our midst.

A roof may be necessary for a Westport outdoor fitness park.

A roof may be necessary for a Westport outdoor fitness park.

They know there are obstacles. Compo Beach is in the early stages of a renovation project. Winslow Park has been deemed “open space.” Bike paths are tough to build and maintain.

Still, the 3 men have had preliminary discussions with town officials, including 1st Selectman Jim Marpe, Parks and Recreation Department director Stuart McCarthy, and Parks and Rec Commission chair Charlie Haberstroh. The talks were “constructive and productive,” Lewine says.

The cost of an outdoor fitness center is no more than $100,000 — 10% of the cost of an indoor facility, Jaffe says.

“It’s inexpensive, it’s public, it’s a beautiful concept,” notes Mejerson. “There’s no downside.”

Westporters embrace physical fitness.

Westporters embrace physical fitness.

“We think the community would welcome this gift with open arms,” Lewine adds. (It would be a “gift” thanks to corporate or private sponsorship.) “Westport is an enlightened town that considers physical fitness to be an important value.”

The big problem, the outdoor parks advocates know, is finding the right space(s), then gaining public support.

In Israel, Mejerson says, outdoor fitness parks are everywhere: hospitals, schools, prisons, gas stations, eldercare facilities.

Will one or more rise in Westport? If so, where? Click “Comments” to weigh in.

 

 

 

First Night 2015; Last Post 2014

First Night got underway late this afternoon. The sun was setting, the air was cold — but the anticipation of Westport’s 21st annual New Year’s Eve community celebration made for a warm feeling all around downtown.

Festivities continue through 10 p.m., when fireworks soar over the river. Come on down!

(Click on this schedule for all events.)

Horse-drawn carriages clomped throughout downtown. For more modern transportation, buses run between Jesup Green and Saugatuck Elementary School through 9 p.m.

Horse-drawn carriages clomp downtown. For modern transportation, buses run between Jesup Green and Saugatuck Elementary School through 9 p.m.

The Westport Astronomical Society hauled out some serious telescopes. The view is better now that the sun has set.

The Westport Astronomical Society hauled out some serious telescopes. The view is better now that the sun has set.

First Night Westport/Weston runs smoothly, thanks to an army of volunteers.

First Night Westport/Weston runs smoothly, thanks to an army of volunteers.

The Survivors Swing Band kicked things off at the library. (Photo/Fred Cantor)

The Survivors Swing Band kicked things off at the library. (Photo/Fred Cantor)

First Night Forges Forward

Barbara Pearson-Rac’s life is intertwined with First Night.

She lived in Boston when that city inaugurated the original First Night — an alcohol-free New Year’s Eve celebration at a variety of venues, with performances, entertainment and fun for all ages.

She moved to Westport 21 years ago — the same year our town started its own First Night celebration.

She joined the board 2 years later. Now she’s president.

First Night 2015 logoAnd though other First Nights have come and gone, Westport’s remains vibrant and strong. It’s one of only 3 left in Connecticut — and, judging from their websites, ours blows Danbury’s and Hartford’s out of the water.

Barbara is a strong believer in community service. She chairs Westport’s Make a Difference Day and is involved in breast cancer awareness, among other activities.

First Night — a happy, upbeat event, on a day when everyone looks forward and feels fresh — holds a special place in her heart.

“It’s live entertainment,” she says. “It’s a way of introducing children to talent, and for adults to have plenty of fun too.”

But keeping First Night alive is hard. There’s a perception that it’s only for kids (it’s not). More families now travel over the holidays. Non-residents don’t think they’re invited (they are). And the threat of bad weather always hovers overhead.

Fireworks in winter -- a tradition that moves this year to Jesup Green.

Fireworks in winter — a tradition that moves this year to Jesup Green.

First Night is an all-volunteer effort. Attendance — by button-buying people — is crucial. Costs include performers, sound engineers, insurance, police and fire support, and pyrotechnics. (A barge is being rented this year, because the new Levitt Pavilion is no longer a viable spot for shooting fireworks.)

Westport’s First Night lives on thanks to the ongoing support of sponsors and the town of Westport, along with a very fiscally responsible board. While many First Nights have folded, Westport’s is now 21 years years old. “We’re legal!” Pearson-Roc jokes.

But it’s still alcohol-free.

(New events this year include a fashion show with a “Project Runway” contestant; 2 children’s performers; telescopes on Jesup Green, with Westport Astronomical Society members offering guidance, and popular college comic hypnotist Jim Spinnato. Regular keyboardist Mark Naftalin — hot off his election to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — is back at the Westport Historical Society. For a full schedule, and information on buying buttons, click on www.firstnightww.com.)

Former Paul Butterfield Blues Band organist -- and new Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member -- Mark Naftalin is a First Night regular.

Former Paul Butterfield Blues Band organist — and new Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member — Mark Naftalin is a First Night regular.

 

Lucy Loved The Minuteman

The unveiling of the recently renovated Minuteman caused a few old-timers* to reminisce about one of the statue’s most famous star turns.

In 1957, Lucy and Ricky Ricardo “moved” from their East 68th Street brownstone to Westport. Their good friends Fred and Ethel Mertz joined them.

It was the 6th and final season of “I Love Lucy.” And in the very last episode, Lucy accidentally smashed the Minuteman statue that Ricky is about to unveil at the “Yankee Doodle Day” celebration. Hilarity, of course, ensued.

Lucy Ricardo, posing as the Minuteman statue.

Lucy Ricardo, posing as the Minuteman statue.

The episode — including a cameo appearance by 5-year-old Desi Arnaz Jr. — was watched by over 35 million viewers. (The top-ranked comedy in 2013-14, ” Big Bang Theory,” averaged 20 million.)

So how did Lucy end up in Westport, demolishing the Minuteman statue?

According to a fascinating story by Marshall S. Berdan in the December 2006 issue of Westport Magazine, the show’s writers needed “a whole new set of zany predicaments” that the suburbs could provide. (The reason given on TV: With young Desi Jr. growing up, the apartment was too small.)

I Love Lucy logoBob Weiskopf — one of the 4 writers — had actually lived in an old Victorian house on Canal Street, before moving to California. He suggested Westport as the Ricardos and Mertzes’ new home.

Broadway set designer Ralph Alswang and his wife Betty — Weston residents — drove a senior writer around town in December of 1956. They showed her Compo Beach, downtown and the train station, then had dinner at Cobb’s Mill. That one day in Westport sealed the deal.

According to Berdan, actor Arthur Kennedy’s 1928 home on Old Hill Road — with plank floors, wooden beams and a massive stone fireplace — served as the model for the Ricardos’ home. The Mertzes moved into the “guesthouse.”

Lucy did find “a new set of foils,” Berdan wrote, “in the form of Westport’s somewhat stiff, commuting corporate types and their patrician Yankee wives, the latter in collective form as the Westport Historical Society, the Westport Garden Club and an unnamed country club.”

In one episode, Lucy lost control of a power lawnmower on Main Street and the Boston Post Road. In another, the Ricardos and Mertzes attempt to surprise each other at the train station, but miss connections. I’m sure it looked funnier than it sounds.

In the Minuteman episode, Lucy Ricardo reads a poster to Ethel Mertz in "Westport." It says: "Yankee Doodle Day Celebration -- Statue Dedication at Jessup (sic) Green."

In the Minuteman episode, Lucy Ricardo reads a poster to Ethel Mertz in “Westport.” It says: “Yankee Doodle Day Celebration — Statue Dedication at Jessup (sic) Green.”

In the final scene of the Minuteman episode, Berdan said, “the Ricardos’ dog nuzzles the replacement statue (Lucy) to life while Ricky extols the bravery and heroism exhibited by the patriots at the Battle of Compo.”

That’s a far cry from the scene on Monday, when Westporters got their first look at the newly restored Minuteman.

But it sure puts the complaints about the old guy wearing a Santa cap in perspective, no?

*Not as old as the Minuteman, but still.

For exceprts from the “I Love Lucy” Minuteman episode, click below:

(Hat tip to Richard Epstein)

 

‘Twas The Afternoon Of Christmas…

…and all through downtown
Not a creature was stirring…

Main Street empty -  JP Vellotti

…’cuz they were all at the Sound!

Christmas Day 2014

(Hat tip for the story idea and photos to JP Vellotti)

New Shop, Old Times

Norma Hayo recently opened a barber shop, at 8 Myrtle Avenue.

This is “06880”-worthy for 3 reasons.

  • There are not a lot of female barbers around.
  • Unlike many downtown store owners, she’s decorated her place nicely for the holidays.
  • You gotta love that barber pole. And it will be there long after the decorations are gone.

Normas Barber Shop