Category Archives: Looking back

Celebrating Saugatuck, With A Mural And More

In 1852, Horace Staples — owner of a lumber and hardware business, silk and axe factories, shipping vessels and a thriving pier — founded the Saugatuck Bank.

Two years later he moved it to National Hall — his new building a couple of miles upriver, just across the bridge from a small downtown area overshadowed by the far more dynamic Saugatuck section of Westport.

Eventually, Saugatuck Bank became Westport Bank & Trust. It outgrew National Hall — which turned into Fairfield Furniture — and relocated to a pie-slice-shaped building nearby, where Church Lane feeds into the Post Road.

In 1965 the bank — whose motto was “A Hometown Bank in a Town of Homes” — commissioned Westport artist Robert Lambdin to paint a pair of murals. “Shipping on the Saugatuck” and “Hotel Square” were hung with great fanfare in the impressive, high-ceilinged room. (They’re still there, though the bank morphed a while ago into Patagonia.)

Robert Lambdin's old-time murals lend a touch of Westport history to modern-day Patagonia.

Robert Lambdin’s old-time murals lend a touch of Westport history to modern-day Patagonia.

In 1970 — to celebrate the opening of a new branch in Saugatuck, just down Charles Street from the Arrow restaurant — Westport Bank & Trust hired Lambdin to create a 3rd mural.

The artist incorporated more than 2 centuries of Saugatuck history into his new work. He painted Disbrow’s ferry, from 1745; the iron swing bridge, built in 1884; oxcarts, farms, churches, wharves, warehouses, factories and ships.

Standing prominently in the center is Captain Sereno Gould Allen, one of Westport’s last market boat captains.

The mural is framed — somewhat incongruously — by the I-95 bridge. It looks almost elegant. But when the “Connecticut Turnpike” was built in the 1950s, it destroyed the heart of that pulsing neighborhood.

Robert Lambdin's magnificent mural.

Robert Lambdin’s magnificent mural.

Westport Bank & Trust went the way of most local banks. It was swallowed up by bigger ones: Lafayette, Hudson. In 2013, TD Bank shut the Saugatuck branch for good.

Fortunately, the mural survives. In fact, it thrives.

TD Bank donated the work to the town. After restoration by Joseph Matteis, it’s the centerpiece of a wonderful new Westport Historical Society exhibit.

Called “Saugatuck @ Work: Haven of Community, Industry, Innovation,” the show includes photos and memorabilia — old maps, patents by Saugatuck inventors, costumes, and ship and railroad logs — from Saugatuck’s long history. (Did you know that before Italians came to work on the railroad, Irish did the same?)

Speaking of trains, there’s fascinating information on the role of transportation in the development of Saugatuck. The area is blessed with a river, Long Island Sound, rail lines — and of course, the highway.

Construction in 1957 of the Connecticut Turnpike bridge in Saugatuck. The highway ripped through that neighborhood.

Construction in 1957 of the Connecticut Turnpike bridge in Saugatuck. The highway ripped through that neighborhood.

The show includes photos of Saugatuck today, during its dramatic rebirth. Larry Untermeyer’s photos show new restaurants and shops, replacing some of Lambdin’s scenes.

A companion exhibit (“Framing Saugatuck: History Under the Highway”) shows the harsh impact of construction. The new interstate destroyed homes, businesses, even the Methodist Church.

The turnpike’s route was a political decision. The exhibit shows alternate possibilities. It could have cut the heart out of Green’s Farms — or even been double-decked over the Post Road, right through downtown.

The WHS exhibit runs through May 30. Lambdin’s Saugatuck mural then moves across the street to Town Hall, becoming part of Westport’s public — and very impressive — permanent art collection.

(For more information on the exhibit, click on www.westporthistory.org)

 

 

Remembering Elwood Betts

Elwood Betts — a proud Westport native, indefatigable civic volunteer and all-around good guy — died yesterday of cardiac arrest. He was 89.

His next door neighbor sends along this wonderful tribute:

This Thanksgiving, I am truly thankful for having the honor of being the next-door neighbor of the soul of Westport for the last 6 years. Elwood Betts always had a pleasant hello waiting for me and my fellow neighbors, raising his arm with his big hand in the air with an echoing “Helllllllllo there!” When you heard that voice you knew who was outside, happy to see and greet you, rain or shine…

When we first moved to Park Lane, welcoming neighbors were first to inform us who was our street chieftain. He told us great stories about his beloved late wife, and all the joy he shared with her for over 50 years. A few years after we met, his son moved back into his childhood house to take care of his father, along with his lovely wife. We knew Westport was the right town for us to raise a family, but we had no idea we’d be blessed to live next to such a wonderful man.

Elwood Betts at Evergreen Cemetery. That restoration effort was one of his many civic projects.

Elwood Betts at Evergreen Cemetery. That restoration effort was one of his many civic projects.

That first year we moved next door to him, before the arrival of our son, he would show me his library of historical photos and information about the town of Westport, his beloved church, his family heritage. Over the years, he had collected an incredible amount of facts about town because he loved it like his family. He was Westport in my mind, and he wanted to pass on his passion by leaving behind all the reasons why Westport meant more to him than just a zip code. He wanted everyone to embrace the depth of our cultural town.

The first piece of history he shared with me was when his church, Saugatuck Congregational, was moved across the Post Road in 1950. He told me how the road had been blocked so that 500 men, women and children could gather before the shored-up structure for a service of prayer and thanksgiving. They sang “Faith of Our Fathers” accompanied by a portable organ. Then at 60 feet per hour, the 200-ton building was moved down a 19-foot incline on 55 logs across the Post Road, to stand adjacent to the parsonage. He had all the photos in a bound book. I thought, “This guy knows his stuff!”

My wife and I quickly learned what mattered to him most: family and his church. He loved his kids and his grandchildren so much, a proud father indeed. He shared stories that made me think how lucky they were to have him as their family patriarch.

Last year at Sherwood Island, Elwood Betts (left) showed archaeologist Ernie Wiegand where the 1787 Sherwood house stood.

Last year at Sherwood Island, Elwood Betts (left) showed archaeologist Ernie Wiegand where the 1787 Sherwood house stood.

He was a rich soul who cared for everyone else first, putting himself last. When his beloved place of worship suffered a devastating fire, Park Lane was lined with cars for months. He stepped into a leadership role, towards restoring Westport’s centerpiece of grace and place for the faithful. People rallied for him, took his direction and the spirit of community spread from there.

I learned recently that because the church is under restoration, he had offered to host the men’s group on Thursday mornings at his home. Even at the age of 89, he was still thinking of ways to help his community.

Tomorrow I will truly miss wishing a “Happy Thanksgiving” to a man of such character, integrity, sincerity, and humility — my irreplaceable neighbor and friend, Elwood Betts.

God bless you and your family. Here’s thanks for all your efforts to make Westport what it is today. May we all live up to your standards of preserving its authenticity.

Click below for Elwood Betts’ oral history of Westport:

(Calling hours are this Friday, Nov. 28, from 5-8 p.m. at the Harding Funeral Home. A memorial service will be held on Saturday, Nov. 30 at 11 a.m. at Greens Farms Congregational Church. A reception will follow.)

(For more “06880” stories about Elwood Betts: resurrecting Evergreen Cemeteryremembering the Hindenburg over Westport; remembering Sherwood Island Mill Pond)

Calling All Candlelight Connoisseurs

Next year, Staples’ Candlelight Concert celebrates its 75th anniversary. Hallelujah!

To mark the occasion, the music department — in conjunction with Class of 1961 grad John Brandt — plans a spectacular video.

In 1979, the annual concert was already 39 years old.

In 1979, the annual concert was already 39 years old.

Candlelight originator John Ohanian was known for his meticulous attention to detail. The organizers of next year’s celebration have learned his lessons well.

Thirteen months ahead of time, they’re already searching for archival material. They need programs from before 1961 (the 1st one — 1940 — would be golden).

They’d like still photos, and of course recordings — either vinyl, old Beta videos, even reel-to-reel tapes.

Please send in jpeg or .wav format — or simply in its original form. All material will be copied and returned. Send to: Adele Valovich c/o Staples High School, 70 North Avenue, Westport, CT 06880. You can email her at  avalovich@westport.k12.ct.us, or call 203-341-5128. The deadline is December 12.

Now let hosannas ring…

Choir member Michael Sixsmith was part of the always-evocative "Sing We Noel" processional. (Photo by Lynn U. Miller)

A recent Candlelight processional. (Photo by Lynn U. Miller)

Bring Back Needle Park!

After the recent removal of cherry trees and ivy, Westport’s attention has been focused on the former YMCA’s former Bedford building.

Across the street, meanwhile, a sterile little plaza just sits there.

It was not always thus. Back in the day — when the Library occupied the space now filled with Freshii and Starbucks — the corner of the Post Road and Main Street was an actual park. Westporters enjoyed benches, flowers, and a fountain donated by the Sheffer family.

In the 1960s it became known as Needle Park. That’s where Westport’s alleged heroin users — both of them — allegedly shot up. In reality, it was just a great hangout for high school kids smoking a little weed.

I defy you to find anyone shooting up in this photo.

I defy you to find anyone shooting up in this photo.

Now — after several renovations (not “improvements”) — the place is a monument to concrete. It’s even less inviting than the “plazas” New York developers built in exchange for adding 30 more stories to their glass monuments.

Those developers did everything they could to make their public spaces unusable.

The latest incarnation of the old Needle Park does the same.

Library park

As alert “06880” reader Remy Chevalier points out, one of the benches is not level with the ground. That, he says, is “a nasty little trick developers use when they don’t actually want anybody sitting on them and loitering.”

A crooked -- and hardly welcoming -- bench. That's a level on top, showing that it's not level.

A crooked — and hardly welcoming — bench. That’s a level on top, showing that it’s not level.

Remy publishes a great blog, called Greenburbs. It shows what towns like Westport can look like if people in power really care about how human beings interact with their environment.

And make no mistake: Whoever is responsible for that grim “park” across the street from the old Y/new Bedford Square clearly abused his power.

One Last Look Back

The Kemper-Gunn House has moved. The old YMCA Bedford building begins renovations soon, becoming an anchor of the new Bedford Square.

But Westporters can’t stop looking back.

Alert “06880” reader Jonathan Rohner sent this fascinating postcard showing the Y and the Westport Bank and Trust building (today it’s Patagonia):

YMCA and bank in 1920s or so

I love the cars — all looking the same — parked or driving haphazardly on the trolley-tracked Post Road.

I love the elm trees framing the Bedford building, and how peaceful downtown looked.

Equally alert “06880” reader Scott Smith contributed this photo, from a decade or so later:

YMCA witih old cars

I love the hand-colored blue sky. The bike leaning casually against the tree on the left.

And check out the front-in parking job of those cars in front of the Y. That would never fly today.

I was especially intrigued by another image Scott sent. This one shows the Westport Hotel. The area was called Hotel Square. Westport Bank and Trust had not yet been built:

Westport Hotel - site of old Y

The hotel had a pool room. Youngsters were not permitted inside. Edward T. Bedford vowed to give them a place. In 1923, he built the YMCA.

The rest is history.

And now, a new chapter has begun.

 

Waaaay Before The Ivy

Since we’re looking back at the YMCA in its pre-ivy days — check out yesterday’s 1964-era photo — we might as well do it right.

Alert — and history-minded — “06880” reader Patty Mraz Graves sends along this postcard from the 1920s 1930s. There was no ivy — but the elm trees mentioned in yesterday’s post were already mature, and handsome.

YMCA1920s

Two things have not changed much from nearly a century ago, though.

There was plenty of traffic.

And the cars were big.

The More Things Change…

Many Westporters are lamenting the loss of 3 cherry trees. Cut down last week as part of the new Bedford Square project, they stood outside the downtown Westport Y seemingly forever.

“Seemingly forever” is actually 50 years.

A very alert “06880” reader found a Westport Town Crier clipping from March 15, 1964. The paper reported that despite spraying, pruning and feeding, a “venerable” tree succumbed to Dutch elm disease.

The "venerable elm tree" frames the Y.

The “venerable elm tree” frames the Y.

For 100 years or more, it stood on that exact same spot: in front of the Y.

The elm tree is removed after toppling.

The elm tree is removed. It was taken to the “city dump,” and burned.

In its place, the Town Crier said, 3 flowering Japanese cherry trees were planted. Twelve feet high, they were donated by Westport garden center owner (and very active citizen) Alan U. Parsell.

They flourished there for exactly half a century.

In 2064, I’m sure “06880” — or whatever replaces it — will run a nice looking-back story on the “venerable,” lovely trees that for 50 years framed handsome Bedford Square.

The Westport YMCA, after the Dutch elm was removed. Note the lack of ivy too.

The Westport YMCA, after the Dutch elm was removed. Note the lack of ivy, too.

 

Everyone Lift! Kemper-Gunn House Move Set For Tuesday

It’s not the Saugatuck Congregational Church move. But it should be pretty cool anyway.

In 1950, the church — sanctuary, bell tower, hymnals and all — was moved from its longtime location near Baron’s South (the site today of a gas station) across the Post Road (then called State Street) to its current spot on the corner of Myrtle Avenue (where it now looks like it’s been all along).

How do you move a church? In 1950, this way.

How do you move a church? In 1950, this way.

The move — accomplished thanks to a series of logs — took 10 hours. Life Magazine spotlighted the event. (It was a slow news week.)

This Tuesday (starting at 6:30 a.m.), the much smaller Kemper-Gunn House makes a much shorter trip. The 1890-era building will be wheeled — or in some other way conveyed — across Elm Street. Its new home is the Baldwin parking lot.

An artist's rendering of the Kemper-Gunn House, after it is moved to the Baldwin parking lot.

An artist’s rendering of the Kemper-Gunn House, after it settles in at the Baldwin parking lot.

Lost in the mists of history is what those mid-20th-century Westporters did while watching the church make its verrrry slooooow trip down Route 1.

But we do know what will happen Tuesday. Java — the 1-year-old coffee shop across Church Lane from Kemper-Gunn —  will hand out free coffee and baked goods (courtesy of the Westport-Weston Chamber of Commerce).

Pray for good weather.

An Adams Family Mystery

In 1932 — the depths of the Depression — the University of Chicago’s hospital lowered its rates for delivering babies. The new price: $55, for a 10-day stay in a 4-person room.

A little child wrote the hospital. In careful, misspelled cursive, she said:

Dear sir

If i send you $55 will you send us our baby cause our baby aint come yet an i wont wone.

It was signed M. Adams, Westport.

The letter from M. Adams...

The letter from M. Adams…

The letter reached Jessie F. Christie, a nurse and superintendent of what was then called the Chicago Lying-in Hospital and Dispensary.

She replied:

I am sorry we cannot sent you a baby for $55.00. You would have to send your mother to us before any arrangement could be made. The stork will only fly for mothers, not for little boys or girls. I think it is a very poor arrangement but it is one we cannot alter. I hope your own baby will come soon.

...and the response from Julia Christie.

…and the response from Jessica Christie.

The letter — addressed to “Miss or Master M. Adams, Westport, Connecticut” —  never got here. The post office returned it, due to insufficient address.

For nearly a century, the yellowed letters were tucked away in a University of Chicago Medicine & Biological Sciences filing cabinet. Now — 82 years later — they’ve been found.

UC news office assistant director Ashley Heher asked the Westport Library for help. Jaina Lewis checked historical records. She found a listing for an Adams family in 1930. But the only child whose name started with “M” was 19 years old.

storkBridgeport’s 1940 records show a Marjorie Adams, age 16. That would make her 8 in 1932. No younger children are listed in 1940. But her mother was 39 in 1932 — meaning she would have been at high risk if pregnant.

Now that the letter has been discovered, Chicago officials want closure. So they reached out to “06880” for help.

If you have any information about M. Adams — or his or her mother or sibling — contact Ashley.Heher@uchospitals.edu.

And tell “06880.” This is our mystery now too.

(Click on the University of Chicago blog “Science Life” for more details.)

Remembering Vivien Testa

Vivien Testa died 2 months ago. Until today, there has been no public notice of her death.

That’s astonishing. Vivien Testa was 102 years old. For decades, she was a legend in Westport. She was a superb art teacher, townwide director of art, and a mentor to countless students and teachers.

In 1936 she began teaching art at Bedford Junior High School (now King’s Highway Elementary).

She moved to Staples (now Saugatuck Elementary) in 1948.

Vivien Testa

Ten years after that, she was part of the new high school campus on North Avenue.  (In fact — having minored in architecture — she helped design the place. She has an enormous slide collection from that time, which she donated to the Westport Library.)

Vivien Testa chaired the art department through the 1970s.

Several years ago, while writing my book Staples High School: 120 Years of A+ Education, I found an interview she recorded for the Westport Historical Society oral history project. Here is an excerpt:

—————————————————–

My family spent summers in Westport, so I knew the town in 1936 when I came to teach art at Bedford Junior High School. It was the Depression, and my father said I was taking a job away from a man who needed one.

In 1936 the school had a place in the life of the community. Teachers knew what they were expected to do and not do. For example, teachers were not supposed to smoke. But the faculty played basketball against the youngsters, and put on plays for them. There was a feeling we were all growing and learning together.

When Mrs. Holden, the arts supervisor, left in 1948, I took over. We had a lovely art room in the building on Riverside Avenue. It was good size, and well lit.  There were 15 to 20 students in a class, and I taught 4 or 5 classes a day. Westport was growing as an arts colony.

The original Staples High School on Riverside Avenue.

The original Staples High School on Riverside Avenue.

I still carried nearly a full teaching load, but I was given one or two afternoons a week to supervise. There were three townwide directors in art, music and physical education. Those were considered special subjects, and the principals were not trained in them. But the Board of Education members and superintendent really knew teachers. They came into the classroom all the time.

Pop Amundsen was the custodian, and his wife ran the cafeteria. They set the tone for Staples. If they saw youngsters doing anything out of line, they let them know. Students respected them just as much as the principal.

Everything was in apple pie order. No one dared mark a desk. We were a small family. Education at that time was a family business. Teachers and students and parents all felt responsible for what was happening. There was no closing eyes to what was going on. Everyone respected what was happening.

We got help from a lot of places. The Westport Women’s Club had a $350 art competition, and when Famous Artists School came in they gave scholarships. Al Dorne [a founder of Famous Schools] always helped. He’d produce booklets for new teachers or students.He underwrote hundreds of dollars.

I was involved in the plans for the North Avenue building. I worked with the architects, Sherwood, Mills and Smith. I minored in architecture, so I was able to lay out my ideas about what I wanted to have. It worked nicely for me, except when they cut this, that and the other thing, and we ended up with just a mishmash. That was kind of too bad. But it was still better than you would find in many places.

The 1st version of the North Avenue campus: 6 separate buildings.

The 1st version of the North Avenue campus: 6 separate buildings.

There were many bugs in the building that had to be taken care of. A 3rd art room was cut out of the original plan, and a wing in the auditorium was cut. We had to put all the crafts stuff – kilns, etc. – in 2 rooms designed for 2-D stuff. Then when they added Building 9 a few years later, they added a 3-D room, and extended the stage.

Before they did that, a ballet company came to use the stage. The stage had only been planned for lectures and assemblies, not theater – there was no room for stage sets. As you face the stage, there was a brick wall on the right, and a passageway and electric panel on the left. A handsome male dancer ran right into the brick wall. Performers had to dress in the art rooms, too. It was quite a mess.

There was one boys’ and one girls’ bathroom – none for the faculty. I learned a great deal about youth by using that bathroom. But we always took an interest in keeping our building beautiful, because art is beauty.