Category Archives: Looking back

This Old House #7

Our house identification project is getting tougher.

Last week’s house — the latest in a series asking “06880” readers for information on homes photographed by the WPA in the 1930s, prior to a Westport Historical Society exhibit — has not yet been positively identified. Click here to see that photo, then scroll down for comments and suggestions.

Here is this week’s house. Unlike the others, we have no clue to its location. There is just one word on the back: “Westport.”

This Old House 7

If you think you know where in Westport it stands — or stood; it may have been demolished — click “Comments” below.

Westport Arts Center: Susan Malloy’s Living Legacy

In her 91 years, Susan Malloy was an exceptionally generous presence in Westport. Her time, energy and financial contributions aided countless organizations in town. The accolades pouring in after her death yesterday morning are heartfelt, well deserved, and broad in scope.

It’s hard to quantify which of so many institutions benefited the most from Susan’s generosity. But at least one most definitely would not be here today without her.

In 1947 a group of Westport artists began meeting informally — “and riotously,” according to a 2002 New York Times story — at various locations in town.

By 1969 they’d evolved into the Westport-Weston Arts Council. Their home was a tiny office in Town Hall.

In 1984, Joyce Thompson told the Times, the group needed its own home. They asked to use the former Greens Farms Elementary School — shuttered a few years earlier, when the student population declined.

After a year of negotiation, they agreed on a lease: $1 a year.

Greens Farms Elementary School was the Westport Arts Center first real home.

Greens Farms Elementary School was the Westport Arts Center’s first real home.

The newly named Westport Arts Center had to raise plenty of money, though. An oil tank had to be buried; steps needed to be installed — in addition to classrooms being converted into studios, halls painted white to use as a gallery, and the auditorium converted into a performance space.

The new center hosted art exhibitions, chamber concerts, children’s sculpture workshops and jazz jams.

But in the 1990s, the Times reports, the school population rose. The town wanted its school back. The Arts Center countered that they’d invested plenty of money in the building.

WACAfter heated negotiations the town paid the WAC over $500,000 to break the lease, and reimburse them for their improvements.

The Arts Center went on the road. They held concerts at the Seabury Center, the library and school auditoriums. They hung paintings wherever they could.

What they really needed was a home.

Heida Hermanns, a concert pianist who settled in Westport after fleeing the Holocaust in World War II, had set up a foundation to fund the Arts Center. But it wasn’t enough. And the settlement from the town had been designated for programs.

Susan Malloy stepped into the breach. “I could see the search was going nowhere,” the Times quoted her as saying. “Nothing was right. This place was too small, another wasn’t even in Westport, so I finally said, ‘OK. I’ll stake the arts center.”

Susan Malloy -- an artist herself -- helped the  Westport Arts Center survive.

Susan Malloy — an artist herself — helped the Westport Arts Center survive.

Her funds covered the rent for 2 years. It also inspired more donations. The result: In June of 2002, the Westport Arts Center opened its own home, on Riverside Avenue.

It’s been there for 13 happy, fruitful, artistic years. The WAC is now as permanent a part of the town as the library or Historical Society (2 other beneficiaries of Susan Malloy’s largesse).

It’s easy to forget the past. In Susan Malloy’s case, she wasn’t looking for praise, or even thanks. She simply saw a need, and filled it.

Think of that the next time you go to the Westport Arts Center. Or drive past it.

Or the next time someone asks you to help out your town, in any way you can.

The Westport Arts Center thrives today.

The Westport Arts Center thrives today.

Mark Groth Remembers 1968’s Nightly Le Mans

It’s been a long time since Mark Groth lived in Westport. A 1968 graduate of Staples High School — where he served as president of Staples Players’ Stage and Technical Staff — he’s now media production director at the University of Colorado School of Medicine.

But — like many other expats — he’s an avid “06880” reader. A recent post noting a 5-year wait for a railroad station parking sticker piqued his interest.

He recalled a different era: a time when not every family had (at least) 2 cars. So someone had to pick up Dad every night. Mark writes:

Every night, the New Haven Railroad commuter train arrived in Westport at 6:26. A hundred mostly male workers disembarked for a ride to home, hearth and dinner. Some would have napped for an hour. Some spent convivial time in the bar car. Many wives came to pick up their husbands.

New Haven RailroadLike many others, I spent time in the back seat on this nightly exercise. But in the late ’60s I took driver’s education at Staples High School. My classmates and I could handle this mundane daily task, and free up our mothers for a few minutes before dinner was on the table.

This was also a chance to exercise our planning and driving skills. I had an older brother, so I knew the importance of leaving the uninitiated proles in the dust. Many dads willingly participated in this testosterone-pumping event.

Two good friends, Lee and Paul, were my major competitors. We would arrive early, then sit with engines running in the exit lane waiting for the hard core to exit the train before it stopped.

Hitting the ground running, assured that their ride was waiting, clutch in, our fathers slalomed between parked cars. We leaned over opened the passenger door, and they slid in.

When he wasn't picking up his father, Mark Groth played guitar.

When he wasn’t picking up his father, Mark Groth played guitar.

Out the east end exit we flew. We took the 90-degree left turn (watching out for annoying late arrivals), then the 180 degrees down and under the railroad bridge, and a quick right onto Riverside.

Snowy roads and an occasional 4-wheel drift under the bridge were tricky.

But summer was swell. Paul and I had convertibles, so our fathers did not have to duck to jump into the passenger seat. That gave us a split-second lead on sedans.

There were no trophies for the evening races, just the satisfaction of a certain style for a teenage driver.

One night, I was running late. I saw the big diesel engine pull in as I zipped under the bridge. Paul and Lee were already in position. I didn’t have time to go down to the parking entrance, getting caught in the melee as I failed my father and brought shame on our family.

So as I came up under the bridge I slammed on the brakes, threw it into reverse and backed up into the exit, right in front of Paul. His mouth dropped.

Carl Groth goes for the gold.

Carl Groth goes for the gold.

I had great position. My father dodged the parked cars, and slid in. Idling in first with the clutch in, I hit it. The door slammed. We went out the exit, under the bridge and off to freedom. I have joyously relived and savored that extremely lucky night ever since.

Paul and Lee sometimes beat me. It was pretty even who got out first. But we all had a wonderful time. We turned a tedious chore into our own chariot race.

The camaraderie of that brief teenage game made it a memorable part of our adolescence. Westport had its own true Golden Age.

Introducing Westport’s Most Famous 88-Year-Old “Baby”

Many Westporters know that “Little Toot” was born here, in the studio of longtime resident Hardie Gramatky.

Alert “06880” readers recall that the kewpie doll has a local connection: creator Rose O’Neill owned a 10-acre Saugatuck River estate.

But hardly anyone realizes that the Gerber Baby has Westport roots too.

In 1927, artist Dorothy Hope Smith made a charcoal drawing of her 4-month-old neighbor, Ann Turner. Ann’s father, Leslie, was an artist too; his comic strip “Wash Tubbs and Captain Easy” ran in 500 newspapers every day.

The original charcoal sketch of Ann Turner, and Ann Turner Cook today.

The original charcoal sketch of Ann Turner, and Ann Turner Cook today.

The next year, Gerber needed a face for its new line of baby foods. Smith entered her simple drawing in the contest. She competed with elaborate oil paintings — but the company loved it. By 1931, Ann Cook was the “official trademark.”

She’s been in every Gerber ad, and on every package, since.

But no one knew her. In fact — in an effort to appeal to both sexes — for many years Gerber did not even say if the baby was a girl or boy.

As years passed, several women claimed to be the Gerber baby. To end the discussion, Gerber paid Turner — by then married, named Ann Cook –$5,000 in 1951. That’s all she got — no royalties, nothing. (It’s better than Smith, though. She earned just $300 for her efforts.)

The Gerber baby at work -- and all grown up today.

The Gerber baby at work — and all grown up, some years ago.

Cook left Westport long ago. She had 4 children, and spent 26 years teaching literature and writing in  Tampa. After retiring in 1989, she wrote 2 mystery novels.

But now — at 88 — she’s been rediscovered. Oprah recently profiled Cook on her “Where Are They Now?” series. Huffington Post picked up the story.

Neither Oprah nor HuffPo mentions Westport. Nor does the official Gerber website.

But this is “06880.” It’s “where Westport meets the world.”

Which we’ve been doing — with tugboats, kewpie dolls and baby food — long before there were even zip codes or blogs.

(Hat tip: Carol King. No, not that one.)

This Old House #6

Last week’s house — labeled “Cross Highway — near Bayberry or Great Hill Rd. Westport” — has been positively identified as 167 Cross Highway. Click here for that photo, and comments.

This week — in our continuing quest to help the Westport Historical Society identify 1930s-era WPA photos, prior to an exhibition on old houses — we present the Osborn House.

Actually, an Osborn House.

There are 2 by that name in Westport. One — from around 1683-87 — is the oldest surviving house in Westport. Located at 187 Long Lots Road, today it’s the Wynkoop house. (Fittingly, the late Susan Wynkoop was a WHS president.)

The other  house — the one “06880” readers are asked to help identify — could be anywhere in town. The inscription on the back says simply “Osborn Ho. Westport.” Here it is:

This Old House - April 8, 2015

So put on your thinking caps. Click comments if you think you know where it is (or was — it may have been torn down in the decades since the WPA photo was taken).

PS: “Osborn” might also have been spelled “Osborne.” Does that help?

Searching For St. Anthony

It’s one thing to lose a fountain.

It’s another thing entirely to lose a saint.

St. Anthony — the symbol of Saugatuck and, ironically, the patron saint of finding things or lost people — is gone.

For decades St. Anthony’s Hall was the social heart of that strong Italian neighborhood. Located at 37 Franklin Street — the once-vibrant one-way road connecting Charles Street with Saugatuck Avenue, now overshadowed by I-95 high above — the meeting place of the St. Anthony’s Society was the go-to place for weddings, anniversaries, and all kinds of other gatherings.

The former St. Anthony Hall on Franklin Street. (Photos/Google Maps)

The former St. Anthony Hall on Franklin Street. (Photos/Google Maps)

And for decades, a statue of St. Anthony watched over Saugatuck, from an honored alcove above the front door.

St. Anthony, in the alcove.

St. Anthony, in the alcove.

The photos above are from last August.

But now, St. Anthony is gone.

Robert Mitchell noticed the missing saint the other day. He leads walking tours of Saugatuck for the Westport Historical Society (the next one is Saturday, April 18).

He was surprised to see it gone. So were many other Westporters.

Thanks to Cathy Romano, who works at Assumption Church — more on that later — I learned that Chris Anderson bought the former St. Anthony’s Hall building last July, for $1.2 million.

Chris has lived in Westport for 14 years. His wife is Italian. As he began renovating 37 Franklin Street for his business — In-Store Experience, a design and advertising firm — he planned to save the statue.

37 Franklin Street, after renovations.

37 Franklin Street, after renovations.

But when the contractor went to remove it, Chris said, “it disintegrated.” It was too old, and had just sat there — in the alcove — since God knows when.

The contractor knew what the statue meant to Chris. He gave him a replica of it.

And Chris knows what the statue — and all of St. Anthony’s Hall — meant to Saugatuck.

He plans to display a plaque honoring the site in his lobby. He’d like photos too. But he doesn’t know how to get them.

That’s where “06880” comes in. If you’ve got pictures — or any other memorabilia — from St. Anthony’s Hall, or the annual Feast, email canderson@instoreexperience.com.

I can’t speak for Chris. But it can’t hurt to send anything from the entire area, right?

This photo of Franklin Street might be good for the new lobby. It shows the original Arrow restaurant. The restaurant got its name from the "arrow" shape of the Saugatuck Avenue/Franklin Street intersection.

This photo of the original Arrow Restaurant might work in the new lobby. The name came from the “arrow” shape of the Franklin Street/Saugatuck Avenue intersection.

PS: About Assumption.

One of the great traditions of St. Anthony’s Hall was an annual feast. Before it died out in the 1950s — around the time the highway came through — there were games, food, and a parade during which a statue of St. Anthony was carried down the street.*

You can still see that statue. It was donated to Assumption Church. Today it sits proudly inside the church.

(Hat tip: Loretta Hallock)

*In 1984, the Feast of St. Anthony was resurrected as Festival Italiano. It thrived for 27 years, until 2011.

St. Anthony's statue, just inside the back entrance of Assumption Church.

St. Anthony’s statue, just inside the back entrance of Assumption Church.

Missing Fountain Mystery Deepens

First, “06880” wondered what happened to the early 1900s fountain/horse trough located at the intersection of the Post Road and Wilton Road.

Turns out it turned up next to National Hall. Then it was established that it’s no longer there.

The fountain a few years ago, near National Hall. It's gone now.

The fountain a few years ago, near National Hall. It’s gone now.

Crazily enough, no one knows when it vanished. Or why. Or where it is now. Even though it happened within the last decade.

What’s beyond dispute, though, is that the fountain was there in 1991, when Arthur Tauck gave Westport one of its greatest gifts ever.

National Hall had stood on the west bank of the Saugatuck River since 1873. It was built by Horace Staples — our high school’s namesake — and over the years served many purposes.

It housed Staples’ First National Bank of Westport. It was used as a newspaper office, a coffin-making business, and for many other purposes. Adjacent wharves provided easy shipping to New York, Boston and other ports.

The 3rd floor was used for everything from basketball games to concerts, said noted local historian Eve Potts. In 1884, the very 1st classes of the new Staples High School met there.

Ships lined up near National Hall (right), in this early photo.

Ships lined up near National Hall (right), in this early photo.

According to the New York Times, the bank moved out in 1924. Other tenants followed. By the 1940s — with most commerce being conducted on the other side of the river — the building was sold to Fairfield Furniture.

But that store closed in the 1970s. For 3 decades the building — one of the most prominent in Westport — sat empty.

Fairfield Furniture -- a hulking presence for many years.

Fairfield Furniture — a hulking presence for many years.

It deteriorated. Water leaked in. Tons of bird droppings caused the roof to sag.

In 1989, the area was designated a Historic Design District. That enabled Tauck — president of the high-end tour company founded by his father, which at that time was headquartered nearby on Wilton Road — to redevelop the area, in a historically sensitive way.

Over a period of several years, Tauck renovated National Hall. He’d bought it at auction in 1986, for $1.5 million. At a cost of $6 million, he and Ferris Architects restored the building to its original brick and cast-iron facade grandeur.

Tauck  created the boutique 15-room Inn at National Hall. Every room was different. Each floor included a living room, library and fireplace. A restaurant occupied the ground floor.

The Inn at National Hall, after Arthur Tauck's restoration project.

The Inn at National Hall, after Arthur Tauck’s restoration project.

The manager was Nick Carter. From 1979-85, the former British Navy officer was in charge of royal accommodations on the yacht Brittania.

Tauck also donated the gas lamps on the Post Road bridge to the town.

Reporting on the project in 1991, the Times described “a new landscaped plaza with a fountain as its centerpiece.”

For a variety of reasons, the Inn at National Hall did not succeed. Today, though with Vespa on the ground floor — and offices above — the place is bustling. And the building is a handsome sight for anyone entering town.

But back to the fountain. Sometime — during one of the many renovations of the property — it disappeared.

How could a handsome — and very heavy — fountain simply have vanished? And how come no one recalls when it happened, or where it went?

Where is Rod Serling now that we really need him?

(Hat tip: Elaine Marino)

 

Jane Yolen Tackles Cinderella

The other day, US News & World Report ran a story on “Cinderella.” Bottom line: the new Disney film perpetuates the wrong image of the famous fairy tale character. She’s not the “sweet, accommodating and passive heroine” we’ve been led to believe; in earlier versions of the tale, Cinderella was really a brave, clever, assertive, savvy and ambitious princess.

Jane Yolen today...

Jane Yolen today…

The story quotes Jane Yolen, “one of America’s best-known storytellers.” As far back as 1977, she warned that the 1950 Disney version of “Cinderella” sends kids the wrong message.

Instead of learning that a wish and action can make dreams come true, children learn “only to wait for something or someone to save them.”

It’s not enough today, Yolen says, to rely solely on niceness.

She should know. A child of the 1950s — a time when gender roles were far more rigidly enforced than today — she carved an exciting path for herself.

And she did it in Westport.

...and Jane Yolen, 1955-56 Staples basketball captain.

…and Jane Yolen, 1955-56 Staples basketball captain.

The author or editor of more than 280 books — including Holocaust novella The Devil’s Arithmetic, and How Do Dinosaurs Say Goodnight — she was a dynamo at Staples. Before graduating in 1956 she was news editor of the school paper Inklings, captain of the girls basketball team, and vice president of the Spanish and Latin Clubs.

She also sang in the choir, served on the yearbook and Soundings literary magazine staffs, won 2 “Voice of Democracy” contests, and worked as a Westport Library page and Sunday school teacher.

Yolen went on to Smith College, and published her 1st book at 22. She also raised 3 children.

Far fewer doors were open to young women 60 years ago than today. But Jane Yolen walked (or, more likely, ran) through the ones that were — and probably pushed a few stuck ones open herself.

Sounds as if young girls (and boys) in 2015 should be watching a movie about her.

Not Cinderella.

(To learn more about Jane Yolen’s life, click on www.janeyolen.com)

Historic Fountain Disappears

Monday’s post about Vespa and Neat restaurants included some interesting back stories about their respective locations: National Hall and the Vigilant Firehouse. It included this photo of the intersection of the Post Road and Wilton Road.

National Hall - Riverside - Wilton Rd - early 1900s

Alert “06880” reader Jack Harder wondered: “Whatever happened to the fountain/horse trough in the middle of Wilton Road?”

That got another alert reader — Elaine Marino — thinking. A Google search led her to this photo:

Westport downtown fountain

It was taken on the boardwalk behind — yes — National Hall and the old fire station.

But a caption from October, 2013 on the website she found it on — Panoramio — reads: “This fountain is gone! I am missing this piece and it should be placed back where it was originally!”

That’s right. The fountain has vanished. Which raises 3 questions:

  • Was the fountain on the boardwalk the same trough in the early 1900s photo?
  • When and why was it removed?
  • Where is it now?

Alert readers who know — or who have memories of the fountain — should click “Comments” below.

This Old House #5

Last week’s house — the most recent in a series seeking readers’ help identifying homes photographed for a 1930s WPA project — remains a mystery. It probably no longer stands on Riverside Avenue — but it may. No one seems sure. (Click here to see the photo, then scroll down for readers’ comments.)

This week’s house carries identification on the back of the photo: “Cross Highway — near Bayberry or Great Hill Rd. Westport.”

This Old House 5 - April 1, 2015

Hmmm….interesting. Cross Highway near Bayberry narrows it down. But there is no “Great Hill Road” in Westport. Weston, yes — but it’s not adjacent to Cross Highway or Bayberry.

If you think you know where this house stands — or once stood, if it’s been torn down — click “Comments” below. Information is needed for an upcoming Historical Society exhibit on preservation in Westport.