Category Archives: Real estate

Hark! Shakespeare Didst Nearly Come To Stony Point

In many communities, no one wants to live next to the railroad station.

Westport is not “many communities.” Here, Stony Point is one of the most desirable spots in town.

Ann Sheffer — a longtime resident of that winding, riverfront peninsula whose entrance is directly off the train station parking lot — sent along a Westport News clipping that tells the fascinating back story of Stony Point.

Stony Point today (left of the river). The train station and tracks are at top.

Stony Point today (left of the river). The train station and tracks are at top.

Written in 1977 by Shirley Land — who knew everything about everything — it describes a New York banker, his wife and 2 daughters. They lived in a handsome Victorian mansion with “turrets and filigree curlicues.” The grounds included an enormous carriage house, gardener’s cottage, barn and hothouse.

It was the Cockeroft family’s country home, built around 1890. They traveled there by steam launch from New York City, tying up at a Stony Point boathouse.

The Cockerofts’ was one of “the 3 great showplaces” in Westport. The other 2 were the Hockanum mansion on Cross Highway, and the Meads’ estate on Hillspoint.

After the daughters inherited the home, the New York, New Haven & Hartford railroad inquired about purchasing some of the land for a new train station. (The original one was on the other side of the river.)

The sisters agreed, but only if the railroad built a solid brick wall, 1675 feet long, to provide privacy and quiet.

The Stony Point wall today. It separates the peninsula from the train station.

The Stony Point wall today. It separates the peninsula from the train station.

When the 2nd daughter died, she bequeathed the estate to the Hospital for the  Crippled and Ruptured (whose name was later changed, mercifully, to the New York Hospital for Special Surgery).

But the property fell into disuse. Eventually the hospital sold Stony Point to Birmingham and Asti, real estate developers.

Around 1950, Lawrence Langner of the Theatre Guild, Lincoln Kirstein of Lincoln Center and arts patron Joseph Verner Reed tried to build an American Shakespeare Theatre and Academy there. Proximity to the train station was a major piece of the plan.

The price for all 21 acres: $200,000.

But, Land wrote, “the hand of fate and the town fathers combined to defeat the efforts of the theatre people.” Many residents objected. There were also concerns that it would draw audiences away from the Westport Country Playhouse. (Others argued that a Shakespeare Theatre would enhance the town’s reputation as an arts community.)

The theater was never built in Westport. It opened in the aptly named town of Stratford, Connecticut in 1955, and was moderately successful until ceasing operations 30 years later.

In Westport, the Cockeroft estate remained empty.

The entrance to Stony Point.

The entrance to Stony Point.

In 1956 Westporters Leo Nevas and Nat Greenberg, along with Hartford’s Louis Fox, bought the property for residential development. Before they could start, however, vandals attacked the main house. They ripped out bathtubs, hacked up fireplaces, and smashed mirrors and statues. The developers asked the fire department to burn what remained to the ground.

All that remains of the original estate, Land wrote, is “the charming gate house, an immaculate gray and white Victorian structure just inside the gate; a pair of antique marble urns on the site of the old mansion where a newer home now stands; and the fine carriage house-garage, remodeled to be sure, but bearing the visible imprint of bygone grandeur.”

Oh, and a few small doors set into the long brick wall. Once upon a time, they must have provided an amazing view.

Peter Flatow: Assessments, Inspections And The Status Quo

Alert “06880” reader Peter Flatow writes:

Last week I read a news story about the upcoming revaluation of real estate. When I learned that appraisers would enter my home, my reaction was negative. (Not about the revaluation. I agree it needs to be done – periodically).

I told Dan I’d like to research the topic for “06880.” Here’s what I found.

First, I would like to thank the RTM members who responded to my email or spoke with me in person. Also thanks to town assessor Paul Friia for his thoughtful and prompt responses to my questions.

I learned that no one must grant access to their home. It is voluntary. So much for my concern.

Paul reports, “the 2005 revaluation resulted in interior inspections of just under 60% of the properties in Westport.” Reading the enabling legislation (which is almost unreadable) and state reports on the internet, I found what’s required: a statistical assessment every 5 years, and a physical assessment every 10.

Would an interior inspection change the assessed value of this Westport home?

Would an interior inspection change the assessed value of this Westport home?

What is unclear (at least to me) is the rationale to include a voluntary internal inspection as part of the physical inspection. Fairness is inferred: The more data, the more accurate the assessment.

As anyone who analyzes data will tell you, accuracy (and fairness) diminish when samples are not equally drawn and consistent. Assessments are to some degree subjective because no two homes are exactly alike, so adding the variable of some homes having both internal and external assessments, and some not, would in my opinion make them less alike (less fair). While this all started as a feeling of invasion of privacy, it has turned into a question about whether our elected officials question what they are being asked to approve. Are they in a “maintain the status quo” mentality?

I asked Paul if, when the reappraisal RFP went out, he asked for the cost of just an exterior reassessment.

He said he did not, “because that wasn’t part of the scope of services that we were looking for.  I have always been under the opinion that the better the data that we have, the better chance we have at being fair and accurate.” I totally agree with the last sentence.

This is not critical of Paul. He is doing what has been done, and he is expected to do. But what if we began to question the status quo? What if we ask, “does this still make sense?” What would the town save if only an external (all that is required by law) “physical inspection” were conducted?

Every corporation I have ever worked with continually looks for ways to save money (improve profits) by changing or stopping unnecessary practices. What if all levels of government did the same thing?

“Suddenly, A Teardown Doesn’t Sound So Bad”

When it comes to real estate agents, the glass is never half, or even completely, full. It’s always overflowing.

A walk-in closet becomes a “unique home office.” The train tracks in your backyard are transformed into “walk to the station!” I actually saw an Old Hill Road property that touted “beach access.” Sure — buy your sticker, like everyone else.

But a recent mailing from KMS Partners caught my eye. The principals — experienced professionals all, and longtime Westport residents — did what realtors seldom do: They addressed a continuing land-use debate head on.

Impressed by their willingness to confront the issue of teardowns, I asked if I could reprint their message on “06880.” I warned them that our commenters can be a frothy bunch, and there might be some criticism.

Go ahead, KMS said. We welcome the discussion. So read what they had to say — and feel free to add comments at the end. Real names, please!

In any town in Fairfield County, the topic of new construction homes creates a lively discussion. At KMS Partners, we have found you either love it or hate it. But no matter what your opinion is, new construction is the hottest market niche in the majority of towns across Fairfield County.

Many buyers want new homes, like this one.

Many buyers want new homes, like this one.

What makes new construction so popular? Buyers’ behaviors, plain and simple. Today’s buyer wants ease of transition: the latest trends in amenities, the most efficient systems, design teams to help select decor and finishes, top-of-the-line appliances, builders’ warranties, smart home technology, low maintenance, fresh paint and gleaming finished floors — for starters.

What happened to the “fixer-upper buyers”? They are the minority these days.

With all this demand for new homes, across various price points, builders naturally search out properties to meet the demands of their clients. The result is increased competition for land. That drives up land values, to the point where land is sometimes more valuable than the house the land sits on.

A charming 50-year-old colonial, lovingly lived in yet in need of updates,will not attract an end-user buyer as much as a builder (assuming the land is suitable for a new construction home). Yep, your house could be worth more as a teardown.

Some houses -- like this at the beach -- are worth more as a teardown.

Some houses — like this at the beach — are worth more as a teardown.

While these are broad statements, it is best to consult an experienced agent to ascertain the full potential of your property.

For those who loathe another “teardown of the day,” consider this scenario. An agent or builder approaches a homeowner with a legitimate offer to purchase the property. Cash, “as is” or with minimal contingencies, closing at your convenience and an attractive purchase price for the property.

The house is tired, in need of repairs and not appealing to buyers today. This is your nest egg. You are ready to move on to the next chapter of your life. It’s an easy sale. Suddenly a “teardown” doesn’t sound so bad.

But what about the character of our towns? And who will be able to afford to live here? There must be some balance to this phenomenon.

The oldest home in Westport -- located on Long Lots Road -- took years to restore. (Photo by Larry Untermeyer)

The oldest home in Westport — located on Long Lots Road — took years to restore. (Photo by Larry Untermeyer)

We agree. We work with clients who have strong opinions on all these points. For our sellers, we honestly advise how they can maximize the potential of their property. Not every “resale house” is a teardown. To the surprise of many of our resale clients, their homes are attractive to today’s buyers.

For our buyer clients who do want new construction, we are always in search of land and will navigate them through this process. When builders ask our opinions, we are not shy to express them.

We love our towns and the characteristics unique to them. We encourage builders to strike the balance of new and New England when creating their projects. We also encourage our new construction buyers to do the same. We would love to hear your opinion on this topic.

Kemper-Gunn House Moves One Step Closer To Move

Historic Church Lane is nearing its new look.

Earlier today, a notice was posted in the Baldwin parking lot. It announces a hearing next Wednesday (August 13, 8:30 a.m., Town Hall Room 309) regarding a .13-acre lease in the lot. The board of selectmen will be asked to approve a lease, to accommodate the relocation of the Kemper-Gunn House from across Elm Street.

That vacated property will then become part of the retail/residential development that replaces the soon-to-be-vacated Westport Family Y.

The Baldwin parking lot lease, which has already been approved by the Board of Finance and Planning & Zoning Commission, awaits final Board of Selectmen action.

The meeting announcement sign, in the Baldwin parking lot.

The meeting announcement sign, in the Baldwin parking lot.

According to 3rd Selectman Helen Garten — a member of the Kemper-Gunn Advisory Group — “the lease creates a unique public-private partnership that not only will ensure the preservation of a historic downtown structure, but also will return the building to productive commercial use as a home for small, independent businesses.”

Major components of the plan include rental of the Baldwin lot land by the town to DC Kemper-Gunn LLC for 50 years, with renewal options up to 98 years.

DC Kemper-Gunn LLC will own the house and pay for all site work, relocation expenses, renovation and ongoing maintenance and repairs. The town will incur no operating expenses.

An old door and lock, in the Kemper-Gunn house. (Photo/Wendy Crowther)

An old door and lock, in the Kemper-Gunn house. (Photo/Wendy Crowther)

DC Kemper-Gunn LLC has agreed to preserve any original exterior features of the house that are in good condition, or replace them with original materials.  Garten hopes that some interior architectural features can be reused or donated to the Westport Historical Society.

The plan calls for refitting the interior for commercial use. The lease requires all tenants to be small, independent, preferably locally owned businesses — no chain stores. Garten says, “Our aim is to add to the diversity and vibrancy of our downtown business offerings.”

The town will receive taxes on the building and improvements, as well as rent and — eventually — a share of net profits generated by the commercial rental operation.

“Since we are receiving no income now, this is a net gain to the town financially,” Garten notes. “But the real reward for Westport is how this venture will help restore a sense of place to our downtown.”

The actual relocation is tentatively set for November. A giant Elm Street block party may accompany the move.

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 is moved to the Baldwin parking lot.

 

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.

 

 

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.)

 

Hope Langer: “Those Trees Were Part Of My Roots”

Hope Klein Langer is an “06880” fan. She likes the stories of “experiences that resonate with all generations of Westporters,” and the “healthy dialogue about community issues” that follows.

Hope has a community issue of her own. It concerns trees: those on private property, which affect neighbors and neighborhoods. She writes:

The beauty of Westport is that it is a place where people come to plant their roots and build their family. Unlike many towns, people come back year after year because there is a community feel that simply can’t be matched or replaced.

Both of my daughters are Staples graduates. I became a grandmother to a baby boy just a few months ago. There are little things that I look forward to doing with my grandson: playing at Compo Beach, walking along Main Street, and taking him for a milkshake at the Sherwood Diner!

Trees once framed Hope Langer's back yard -- a view she loved. (Photo/Granite Studios)

Trees once framed Hope Langer’s back yard — a view she loved. (Photo/Granite Studios)

However, there is no ignoring the many changes that our beautiful little town has faced throughout the years—for better and worse.

A few weeks ago, without any prior notice, the developer of property next door to my home ripped out all of the trees that divided our properties for 50 years.   These evergreens stood probably 40-50 feet tall. and were there long before we arrived 23 years ago. There were at least 25 to 35 of them.

The view now, after the trees were removed.

The view now, after the trees were removed.

Yes, these trees are technically on the developer’s land (by mere inches). And yes, they are just trees.

But having lived in this home at 163 Bayberry Lane for over 20 years, these trees and this home are part of my roots. I am devastated to see them torn down, with little regard for the way it might affect me and my family.

The trees were almost on my property line. Taking into consideration the setback laws, they were not in the developer’s’ building envelope. Though not important to him, they contributed greatly to our privacy and sense of security.

When I called the builder, his response was, “I don’t really care about your property. I am here to make money.” I have been a Realtor in this town for 23 years, but I am appalled at his disregard for our neighborhood and my home.

All that remains of the trees on Hope Langer's property line.

All that remains of the trees on Hope Langer’s property line.

It’s hard to ignore the silent tug-of-war between the new Westport and the old. If nothing else, I hope my story will plant a seed of compassion in those who are in the business of overhauling our sweet town. I hope we can find a way to meet in the middle, and preserve the community that has been such a magnificent place to call home. For example, our laws should be discussed and re-evaluated before Westport loses all of its charm and beautiful mature trees.

I am passionate about the preservation of this incredible town. I will make changing the town’s regulations one of my daily jobs. Laws must be put into place to prevent builders from cutting down mature greenery that has nothing to do with construction of the next soulless McMansion.

Many towns have such rules. It’s high time for our government to protect the character of our neighborhoods — and for developers to display common respect, before clear-cutting nature out of what we hold dear.

Hope Langer now sees the street from her house. And passersby can see her house from the road.

Hope Langer now sees the street from her back yard. And passersby see her property from the road.

54 North Avenue: The End Of The Mills Family Legacy

Though they may not know it, Westporters are very familiar with 54 North Avenue.The brown wooden house stands a few feet from the southern entrance to Staples High School. It’s more than a century old.

54 North Avenue

54 North Avenue

But that’s not why 54 North Avenue rates an “06880” story. More significant is that later this month its owner, William B. Mills, will sell his home. And that will end more than 200 years in which the Mills family has lived on North Avenue.

The oldest house on North Avenue between Long Lots and Cross Highway is #29. Built by Revolutionary War veteran John Mills (1760-1829) for his daughter Charity and her new husband Hezekiah Mills (a cousin), it was constructed in the right of way — without title to land. In fact, John seemed to have no claim to the spot whatsoever. Nevertheless, John set up a blacksmith shop for his daughter and son-in-law.

29 North Avenue

The saltbox at 29 North Avenue.

19 North Avenue was built by John’s grandson Charles Mills (1833-1909). Longtime Westporters know the property as “Rippe’s Farm” — now Greystone Farm Lane — but the Rippes bought it later.

Charles was a master mason who built the foundation for the original Staples High School (1884) on Riverside Avenue. When it was torn down in 1967, Charles’ great-grandson recycled the bricks to build his chimney. Charles — who represented Westport in the state legislature (1885-86) — sold off most of the Mills’ farmland on North Avenue. Legend has it he got $50 an acre — a good sum in those days. But he gave each of his 4 sons 4 acres of property up the road from the house: #54, 58, 62 and 66.

54 North Avenue — the one being sold this month — was built by Charles Mills (1857-1945) on land he got from his father. Charles planted the beautiful red maple in front that is now a local landmark. Williams Mills — Charles’ grandson — is only the 2nd owner.

A red maple frames 54 North Avenue.

A red maple frames 54 North Avenue.

48 North Avenue — built by Homer Mills (1898-1981) — was built in 1943. The road was still rural; there were no side streets, and few houses. Homer attended Adams Academy on nearby Morningside North, but left school after 8th grade. He never got to Staples — which his father helped build. As did many Westport boys, he went to work on a farm. He later became a mason, like his father and grandfather.

Other long-lived Westport families have schools or parks named for them. The Mills family does not.

But they truly built this town. Their monuments are the countless stone walls, sea walls and foundations that exist to this day.

What will happen to 54 North Avenue after it passes from the Mills family? Well, a demolition sign hangs prominently near the front steps.

(Hat tip to Jacques Voris – William Mills’ nephew — for much of this fascinating historical information and insight.)

Tear Down These Walls! (Updated Info)

On Thursday, an alert “06880” reader was golfing at Longshore.

I say alert because — while concentrating at the 2nd green — he noticed a house directly adjacent being torn down.

14 Manitou Road

The reason he was so intrigued — and snapped a photo — is because he believes the house is less than 1000 days old. He says the recently demolished house replaced an older home, which itself was a teardown.

Turns out he’s wrong. The house was built in 1965. Last year the owner removed all the trees from the back of the property toward the golf course — so some people thought it was a new house. In fact, it had been there 50 years.

At any rate, here’s a Google Maps view of the most recent house, before the wrecking ball:

14 Manitou - Google

Meanwhile, not far away — in the Compo Beach neighborhood — a smaller, older home will soon be torn down too.

Beach demolition

But despite the large “Demolition” sign on the outside wall, the owners seem to be enjoying themselves. Between the hammock, easy chair and twin lion statues with Uncle Sam hats, all’s right with the world.

This Is A Teardown

We see impending teardowns often, on “06880” and WestportNow.

We see the end results — first in the form of vacant lots; later, as much larger structures.

But we seldom see a teardown in progress.

This afternoon, I was driving down Turkey Hill North. Here’s what I saw:

Enjoying a steak dinner is far different from watching a cow get killed. Just as watching a house demolition is not at all like seeing a McMansion rise quickly on empty land.