Category Archives: Looking back

How Julie Beitman’s Garden Grows

Oldtimers knew the plot of land on the west side of North Avenue, just up from Long Lots, as Rippe’s Farm.

Those who have been here a while remember when a guy named Buster sold fruits and vegetables there, from a roadside stand.

To newcomers it’s a cul-de-sac with homes that — in a nod to its agricultural past — were designed to look in part like silos. Greystone Farm Lane is a nonsensical name created from thin air. It might as well be called Buckingham Palace Drive, or Stonehenge Way.

But it’s a nice, neighborly area. And at least one resident pays homage to the area’s previous life.

The Beitmans' house, and part of the old barn (right).

The Beitmans’ house, and part of the old barn (right).

For the past 12 years, Julie Beitman has lived in the 1st house on the left. An original Rippe barn still sits on her property (it’s transformed into a “man cave,” where her sons play music). She and her husband have unearthed foundations from other farm buildings too.

The nutrient-rich soil is gone — the builder skimmed it off, and sold it for profit — but Julie has coaxed amazing trees and plants out of what is now hard clay.

Julie Beitman, with just some of her plants.

Julie Beitman, with just some of her plants.

She planted 16 fruit trees.

She grows lettuce, tomatoes, 5 varieties of hot peppers, peas, eggplant, grapes, cucumbers, apples, cherries, 3 varieties of plums, and herbs. She and her son Andrew — a rising Staples senior – have cross-bred Bartlett and Bosc pears.

When her string beans grew 40 feet tall, she called in neighborhood kids to pick them.

I didn’t know you could grow cotton in Connecticut, but Julie does. (The seeds came from Israel.)

In the winter, Julie makes maple syrup. This summer, she’ll jar peaches.

Pears ripen in Julie's back yard.

Pears ripen in Julie’s back yard.

She’s a completely self-taught gardener. But she has learned well. Everywhere in her yard, something grows.

“It’s my therapy,” Julie — who also owns a jewelry business, and plans parties on the side — says. “It’s a labor of love.”

But beyond planting, pruning, picking and placing peppers on the ground to keep animals away, she does not do much. “It takes care of itself,” she notes.

She’s being too modest. 1 Greystone Farm Lane is a wonderful bounty.

Mr. Rippe would be very, very proud.

Buster too.

It's a very green summer at 1 Greystone Farm Lane.

It’s a very green summer at 1 Greystone Farm Lane.

 

 

Bill Scheffler’s Benz Is A Movie Star

There’s something about Michael Douglas and Westport cars.

Growing up here, he was a member of the Downshifters – the high school club that met at the Y to talk about, learn about, work on (and sometimes race) cars.

Last summer, he filmed “And So It Goes” in Bridgeport. Directed by Rob Reiner, and also starring Diane Keaton, it’s about a self-absorbed realtor suddenly left in charge of a granddaughter he never knew existed until his estranged son drops her off. It was released last week.

Besides the familiar Black Rock scenes (and familiar former Westport actor), there’s a familiar car.

Michael Douglas driving Bill Scheffler's Mercedes.

Michael Douglas driving Bill Scheffler’s Mercedes.

Westporter Bill Scheffler’s 1963 Mercedes-Benz 300SE Cabriolet takes a star turn. With the star.

Douglas drives it — and it is featured prominently in the promos.

Scheffler bought the Benz in January 2013, at a Scottsdale auction. It’s a fairly limited production car — about 3100 hard tops and convertibles were made over the model’s 6-year life — and was built to rigorous standards.

The auction catalogue says the 300SE offered “a stirring combination of luxury and performance along with technical specifications better than anything else of its era.”

So how did Scheffler’s car make it onto Rob Reiner’s set?

It was spotted by a “talent scout/car wrangler” while being restored in Stratford.

And so it goes.

Michael Douglas poster

 

 

 

Frazier Forman Peters: A Legacy In Stone

Take even a brief drive around Westport, and you’ll see the signs: Able Construction. Milton. SIR.

They and other builders are redefining our town, with new construction that — in its use of stone — often tries to imitate old.

But they need to go a long way to reach the standards of Frazier Forman Peter.

Frazier Forman Peters

Frazier Forman Peters

Best known as an architect — but also a builder, teacher and writer — Peters was born in 1895 to a New York Episcopalian clergy family. He graduated from Columbia University as a chemical engineer, yet quickly grew disgruntled with the industry,

He came to Westport in 1919, hoping to work the land as a farmer. The rocky soil intrigued him, and he soon found his calling as a designer and builder of stone houses.

Peters’ homes can be found from Virginia to Maine — but most are in Connecticut. Between 1924 and 1936 he designed and built at least 41 stone houses in Westport. His designs are revered for their unique fieldstone wall construction method, as well as their spatial organization and sensitive placement in relation to the natural environment.

Susan Farewell wrote:

Were Frazier Peters to build houses today, he’d be receiving all sorts of accolades for being an architect on the leading edge of environmentally-conscious, energy-efficient, sustainable design and construction.

The thick fieldstone walls (as much as 16 inches) typical of a Peters stone house make them energy-efficient; the stones effectively hold the heat in winter and keep the interiors cools in summer….

Frazier Forman Peters designed and built this house for himself, and his 7 children.

Frazier Forman Peters designed and built this house for himself, and his 7 children.

He segregated rooms by giving each one a separate identity, and through the use of step-downs, varied building materials, and interesting transitions. He was also taken by how beautifully European stone structures aged and compared them to American-built frame houses that “droop and pout if they are not continually groomed and manicured.”

Another important component of Peters’ designs was the marriage of the house and its surroundings. He wrote a great deal about this and was especially enamored with the brooks, hillsides, and woods of Connecticut.

Adam Stolpen — who lives in a Frazier Peters house — adds: “He was our first ‘green architect.’  And he was completely self-taught.

“These are definitely not cookie-cutter McMansions. They are homes meant to be lived in. And each one has a bit of whimsy.”

This Frazier Forman Peters house on Riverview Road features The exterior to the Tudor cottage at 9 River View Road features fieldstone facades, slate roof and copper gutters.

This Frazier Forman Peters house on Riverview Road features fieldstone facades, slate roof and copper gutters.

Peters’ work is revered in Westport. (Though not always: a gorgeous one belonging to the late pianist Natalie Maynard on Charcoal Hill, near several of his others, has been torn down.)

Now the architect lives on in more than his buildings. He’s the subject of a book — Frazier Forman Peters: Westport’s Legacy in Stone — by Laura Blau and Robert A. Weingarten.

She’s Peters’ granddaughter, and a noted Philadelphia architect. He’s the Westport Historical Society‘s house historian.

Frazier Forman Peters bookThe handsome, lovingly designed book includes stories of Peters’ life, descriptions of his building techniques and philosophies, and plenty of photos of his Westport houses.

The interior shots are great, showing double-height rooms with central hearths, balconies and built-in casework.

But the exterior photos are even more compelling. Except for one on Greenbrier Road (demolished in 1997), the authors have found shots of every Westport house Peters was known to build.

From the Old Hill section to Coleytown; from Wilton Road to Compo South; from Longshore to Hillspoint, Frazier Forman Peters’ legacy surrounds us.

You just have to know where to look.

(Frazier Forman Peters: Westport’s Legacy in Stone is available at the Westport Historical Society, 25 Myrtle Avenue, Westport, CT 06880, or by mail at that address [$25 plus $5 shipping per copy]. Click on the WHS website for more information.)

 

Steve Wheeler’s 40-Year-Old 4-Minute Mile

On August 1, Raleigh, North Carolina hosts the 1st-ever Sir Walter Miler. It sounds like a great event: parties, fun runs, and a mile race in which the goal is for someone to run a sub-4-minute mile.

It won’t be the 1st time that’s happened there. Forty years ago, former Staples star Steve Wheeler — who went on to a great career at Duke University — blazed to a 3:59.4 in a Raleigh meet. It was the 1st sub-4-minute mile by any Connecticut runner.

That was the exact time Roger Bannister had run 10 years earlier, when he broke the 4-minute barrier.

Steve Wheeler (Duke) sets the pace in a relay race. (Photo/Sir Walter Miler)

Steve Wheeler (Duke) sets the pace in a relay race. (Photo/Sir Walter Miler)

Wheeler remains one of Westport’s most legendary runners ever.

This month, the Sir Walter Miler website interviewed Wheeler about that great race 4 decades ago.

“I remember it well,” he said. “It was special going under 4 minutes, but my goal was to win, not reach a certain time. I was unaware I had broken 4 until after the race, although I knew it would be close.”

Wheeler — behind for much of the race — “kicked really hard with 250 to go on the back straight. I wasn’t challenged at the finish and probably had a little more in reserve if I had been – but not much!”

Wheeler is now the city manager of Hood River, Oregon — perhaps the most famous state for running in the US.

Asked for advice on breaking 4 minutes, Wheeler said: “Work on both speed and strength. Take care of yourself. Try to stay healthy and injury-free, because consistency of training means a lot.

“And move to Eugene, Oregon. It seems like under-4 happens there almost every week! Living in Oregon, I’ve seen some incredible track performances.”

As did racing fans in Raleigh 40 years ago, thanks to a tall track star from Westport.

(Hat tip to Peter Gambaccini)

Hey! I Know You!

Last night, the Westport Historical Society celebrated 2 new exhibits.

“Larry Silver/Westport Visions” is a fascinating look at our town, through 40 years of remarkable photos. Larry has focused a keen eye on Longshore, downtown, the railroad station — you name it, he’s captured it in a special way.

"Compo Beach Showers" (Photo/Larry Silver, courtesy of Bruce Silverstein Gallery)

“Compo Beach Showers” (Photo/Larry Silver, courtesy of Bruce Silverstein Gallery)

His most remarked-on shot last night may have been the “Dragon Lady”: the striking woman who for years strode up and down Compo in heels. If you didn’t know her, don’t call yourself a Westporter.

Equally intriguing is the 2nd exhibit, in the smaller Mollie Donovan Gallery. “Faces in the Crowd” consists of a few dozen group shots from long (and longer) ago. Class shots, Little League teams, parties — if there was a gathering in Westport, it might be on the wall.

Here’s one, of teenage Hi-Y Club members at the YMCA:

WHS - Hi-Y

And another of a crazy party in the barn at 57 Kings Highway North, owned by Ann Sheffer’s grandparents:

WHS - barn party

But what’s really fun is the interactivity. Each photo has a number; each number has a small notebook. If you recognize someone in any of the photos — Ed Hall, say, or Harold von Schmidt or Dan Woog — you can write where that person is in the photo, and add something about the scene.

Yeah, me. I’m in the WHS exhibit, in the photo below. Go, Apaches!

DW - Little League

(The Westport Historical Society is open Monday through Friday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m., and Saturday 12-4 p.m.)

Que Pasa, Qdoba?

You may not have heard of Qdoba. But your kids probably have.

As reported in “06880” way back in Enero, the Mexican grill — beloved by college students for its (relatively) fresh food and (somewhat) reasonable prices — is coming to our little ciudad.

The sign went up today:

Qdoba

Burritos, quesadillas and 3-cheese nachos can’t be far behind.

Qdoba is located in the free-standing space at the entrance to Playhouse Square. The previous tenant was Pierre Deux. Before that, it was Alphagraphics. Earlier, it was Sam Goody.

Waaaaay before that, the Crest Drive-In.

And yeah — even longer ago, back when dinosaurs roamed the earth — it was a Dairy Queen.

Dairy Queen, Westport CT 1956

Fortunately, Qdoba has its own parking lot. So traffic in Playhouse Square won’t be adversely affected — well, not too much.

On the Post Road around that light, though — ¡ay, caramba!

Another Park. Another Plan?

For many years, Luciano Park was a thriving neighborhood playground.

For 2 years during college, in fact, my summer job was supervising the small Saugatuck spot, between the railroad station and parking lot. Another counselor and I kept an eye on kids, organized a few games, and set up bus trips to amusement parks and Yankee Stadium.

Luciano Park, looking from Railroad Place and Charles Street toward the parking lot. (Photo/JP Vellotti)

Luciano Park, looking from Railroad Place and Charles Street toward the parking lot. (Photo/JP Vellotti)

Later, when Parks and Rec stopped funding the positions — and the area changed — Luciano Park was known mainly as the site of the annual Festival Italiano.

These days, it’s largely forgotten. And almost completely unused.

Home plate remains, but the rest of the softball diamond is gone. View is toward Railroad Place. (Photo/JP Vellotti)

Home plate remains, but the rest of the softball diamond is gone. View is toward Railroad Place. (Photo/JP Vellotti)

The reasons are varied. Saugatuck is no longer a place of small homes and large families.

The few kids with free time in the summer don’t play baseball in parks. They don’t swing on swings.

No one does, anywhere in Westport — except for the very creative Compo playground, which has sand, water and food nearby.

The seldom-used playground equipment in Luciano Park. (Photo/JP Vellotti)

Seldom-used playground equipment in Luciano Park. (Photo/JP Vellotti)

I was reminded of all this after receiving an email and photos from alert “06880” reader JP Vellotti. Walking through Luciano Park at 12:30 last Friday afternoon, without a soul in sight, he thought: “If there is a park in Westport that needs a master plan, this is it!”

He added:

As Westport thinks about its future, let’s give this park some thought. It need not only be for kids. Hundreds, maybe more, quite literally ‘park’ nearby every day.

Could this be a quiet place to sit before or after work? Why not add a fitness station as an alternative to the gym?

Good questions, all. And as Railroad Place prepares for the next stage of Saugatuck’s redevelopment, and residents throughout town ponder both Compo Beach and downtown improvements, why not add this tiny, valuable parcel into the planning mix?

(Photo/JP Vellotti)

(Photo/JP Vellotti)

Johnny Winter’s Summers

Johnny Winter was found dead in a Switzerland hotel room late last night.

The 70-year-old albino guitarist/singer — called one of the 100 all-time greatest guitarists by Rolling Stone — was legendary throughout the blues/rock  world.

He also spent some legendary summers here, in the late 1960s and ’70s.

Raisin’ Cain: The Wild and Raucous Story of Johnny Winter says that to escape stifling summers in New York City, he “always rented a big summer house with a pool in Westport, Connecticut for vacations and rehearsals.”

One day, the book says, the house caught fire. Winter says the firefighters told him, “Get the fuck out of here….Don’t get anything, just get out of here.”

He adds, “They stole some grass we had too, those motherfuckers.”

Johnny Winter

Johnny Winter

Winter’s band White Trash played a concert in the Staples auditorium on July 11, 1971. But there was much more informal music.

A Staples graduate from the mid-’70s recalls that Winter and his brother Edgar would “hold court at the Playhouse Tavern [most recently the Dressing Room restaurant] on summer nights. The beer, drinks and aroma flowed freely.

“They often were joined by group members like Rick Derringer. Other rock stars would surprise the audience, like Joe Cocker and his Mad Dogs and Englishmen, as they prepared for their famous road show that followed.”

He adds: “Rock on, Johnny. RIP. 70 years young.”

 

Uber Westport

Since time immemorial — well, at least since F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald summered here, guzzling bootleg gin and carousing in their motorcar up and down South Compo — Westport has had a difficult relationship with drinking and driving.

We don’t condone it, of course — particularly now, in the post-Mad Men era, when we all know its dangers.

But after a night at a party, restaurant or bar, none of us may be in condition to drive. Local taxis have sketchy reputations. And not many parents will call their kids for a ride.

Enter Uber.

Uber logoThe San Francisco-based company connects passengers with drivers of vehicles for hire. Cars are reserved through a cellphone app. Payments are done by credit card, so there’s no need to carry cash.

When you need a car, you click on the app. GPS pinpoints your exact location, and estimates how long before a car gets to you.

You can select car types: a black car or SUV. UberX is the least expensive: usually a Toyota Camry or something similar. You can also rate your driver.

Uber operates in over 70 large cities — and, for the past couple of months, Westport.

A longtime local businessman — who requested anonymity — used it Friday night to return home from a party.

It cost $7 — including tip. (Uber says, however, there is “no need to tip.”)

He told a few friends. The next night, they texted Uber too.

3 screen shots from Uber in San Francisco.

3 screen shots from Uber in San Francisco.

They report that their cars were nice and clean. The drivers were pleasant. It’s a great economic opportunity for them to operate here, the Westport rider says.

“It’s great,” he adds. “You don’t have to worry about having that extra glass of wine. Once the word spreads, our roads will be much safer. And the parties more fun!”

Somewhere in that great speakeasy in the sky, F. Scott and Zelda are smiling.

 

Remembering Shirley Land

Shirley Land died last night, surrounded by her family. She was 96.

Shirley’s daughter described her as a “remarkable, kind, upbeat, intelligent, interesting and inquisitive woman. She grabbed life with both hands, and enjoyed it immensely.”  

Shirley was one of the last of a generation of men and women who made a remarkable impact on Westport. In 2008, when she moved to North Carolina to be closer to her family, I wrote a story extolling her virtues. I am honored to reprint it.

As a new generation takes over Westport — altering its physical, political and social landscapes in ways large and small, positive and negative — an older generation fades. Men and women in their 70s, 80s and 90s — the ones who steered our town through the turbulent 1960s; who modernized old cultural icons like the library, and created important new ones like the senior center; who kept the artistic flame burning on stage and in galleries — are moving on.

Some go permanently, through death. Others fade slowly, moving away from Westport into assisted living centers or with their children. That is how things happen in a community, and the world. It is life, and life moves on.

But Westport must remember, and honor, the many folks whose countless hours of service and boundless stores of energy made this place what it was, what it is, and, in many ways, what it will remain for years to come. Which is why the departure of Shirley Land — who leaves Westport next month for North Carolina — cannot go unnoticed.

Shirley Land, loving life.

Shirley Land, loving life.

Land is small in stature — I tower over her, no small feat — but her imprint on our town is huge. Julie Belaga, a former state legislator and candidate for governor, first met her in 1965, when the Belaga family moved to Berndale Drive.

“We were next door neighbors,” Belaga recalled. “From the very start I realized she was a remarkable woman. She was dear, loving, high-energy and every time I turned around she was working on something. The first project I knew about was for underprivileged pre-school children, with Sybil Steinberg, but she went on to work for the bicentennial, the library, the arts — you name it.” Belaga remembered that Land was one of the Westport News’ first EASE columnists.

“Shirley was the best neighbor anyone could have. She was generous and fun. Everyone would be lucky to have Shirley Land as their neighbor.”

Shirley Land and her beloved husband Alex.

Shirley Land and her beloved husband Alex.

Westport got lucky when Land moved here in 1961. Immediately, she volunteered at her 3 children’s schools. “That was natural, because this was such a wonderful small town,” Land said. “I grew up in Chicago, and never lived in a small town. Moving here was a wonderful fluke, but it was the best thing that happened to us and our children.”

Mollie Donovan — no slouch herself in the volunteer department — said, “In 1974 the PTA Council took over the Westport Schools’ Permanent Art Collection. My sister Eve Potts, Dora Stuttman and I worked with Shirley on it. She said it would take a year. Thirty years later, it’s still going strong.

“Shirley is one of the most loyal friends I’ve had,” Donovan praised. “Any committee I ever asked her to serve on, she did, from arts shows on Jesup Green to anything for the historical society. Her energy and creativity are amazing.” Donovan also noted that Land ran “one of the earliest exercise groups in Westport” — at her backyard swimming pool.

In 1974 Land was appointed chairman of Westport’s Bicentennial Committee. Throughout 1976 she helped produce a full and wide-ranging calendar of events, culminating with a Grand Ball at what is now the Levitt Pavilion.

In addition, said former 2nd selectman and dynamo-about-town Betty Lou Cummings, “Shirley really made the Riverwalk come true. She was president of the Friends of the Library. She thought having a brick walkway along the Saugatuck River was a wonderful idea, and she made sure it happened.”

Cummings lauded Land’s “Yes, we can do it!” spirit. “She always had a positive answer. Everyone always turns to her because such a good do-bee. She’s made such a difference in our lives.”

Land’s other accomplishments include leading the United Fund (the precursor to today’s Westport-Weston United Way), and co-founding the Y’s Women organization.

Shirley Land

Shirley Land

More recently, Land turned her attention to the Senior Center. She was an original member of the organization’s Friends group, and served on the center’s policy and planning board. According to director Sue Pfister, “Jack Klinge, the president of the Friends of the Senior Center, says that whenever something absolutely had to get done, he asked Shirley. Then he was sure it would be taken care of.”

Land was active in the center’s home-delivered meals program, organized current events seminars and, with her late husband Alex, participated in aerobic chair activities. “She was so loving, committed and devoted to him, particularly in the final years of his life,” Pfister said.

“She is energetic, informative, well-versed, enthusiastic, upbeat and determined,” Pfister added. “If there was ever a problem, Shirley solved it immediately and correctly. She is so well-respected and loved. I’ll miss her — and so will everyone here.”

Perhaps no organization is more closely entwined with Land’s life than the Westport Public Library. “She was involved with everything here,” said director Maxine Bleiweis. “She reactivated our Friends of the Library group and was president of it. She was an employee here, doing public relations, for 11 years, and then she volunteered. She was the first recipient of our Special Friends award, and no one was more deserving of that honor.”

“It has been a privilege to have her energy and positiveness put to use for the library — as it has been for so many other groups and organizations in town,” Bleiweis added. “Her personal strength and her willingness to do whatever needed to be done, for whatever cause she was working on, are inspirations and examples to everyone.”

Shirley Land was not a big woman, but she had a broad reach throughout Westport.

Shirley Land was not a big woman, but she had a broad reach throughout Westport.

Five weeks from now, on March 31, Land leaves the town she calls “so comfortable. I feel so privileged not to have sat in a corner, but to have gotten to know such a diversity of people through so many activities.” She will miss all that — including walking along Compo Beach, an activity she continued with her husband even when he was sick. “We met everyone there, she said. “And together we solved all the world’s problems.”

Land looks forward to living near her daughter Carol in Chapel Hill and getting involved in the rich cultural and social life of the area. However, she admitted, “At 90 years old, this is a long jump to take. The thought of leaving Westport is a little scary.”

Not nearly as scary as imagining Westport without Shirley Land.

(There will be a small service in North Carolina for Shirley this month, followed by a memorial in Connecticut at a date to be determined.)