The Road Taken

Who knew so many people cared about the Merritt Parkway?

An overflow crowd braved last night’s cold rain to pack the Westport Public Library for a film about a road.  Lisa Seidenberg showed her 35-minute documentary, “The Road Taken: The Merritt Parkway,” to an appreciative audience — only some of whom remember it being built in the 1930s.

I’ve driven the Merritt thousands of times.  But I learned plenty about it last night — and was reminded of more I once knew, but forgot as quickly as the memory of tollbooths in Greenwich.  For example:

  • The road was named for Schuyler Merritt, a 4-term congressman from Stamford who championed its construction.
  • The Merritt was not a federal WPA project.  It was funded entirely by the State of Connecticut.
  • There’s a reason it’s called a “parkway.”  It was envisioned as a long, narrow park with a road slicing through it. And that road?  It was designed for “motoring” — not “driving.”  The difference:  Folks sought pleasure, not a destination.

Merritt Parkway motoring

  • All land was bought on the open market.  Back in the day, the state could not condemn property just to build a road.
  • The current metal signs with hideous-looking, painted-on sharp edges are meant to evoke the original wooden signs — which really did jut dangerously out.
  • Merritt Parkway bridgeThough each bridge is different, with unique, fascinating artwork, they all were designed by the same man.  Nowadays, the only time you notice the bridgework is when you’re stuck in traffic.
  • The most twisting part of the parkway — in Greenwich — is not topography-related.  Those turns were the only way to get around enormous estates.
  • Similarly, “no man’s land” — the Exit 43-less stretch in Westport and Fairfield — came about when Greenfield Hill residents refused to allow an off-ramp in their backyard.
  • Thayer Chase, who oversaw the tree work, planted them in clumps — not rows — to make them seem more natural.  His plan worked.  Today we imagine the trees were always there.  They weren’t.
  • Not everyone loves the trees.  Former Department of Transportation commissioner (and Westport resident) Emil Frankel said:  “Whenever you cut one branch, you’re inundated with phone calls.”
  • When he wanted to think, John Lennon would rent a car and drive up the Merritt, then back to New York.  He said the parkway gave him “peace.”
  • The tollbooths — removed in 1988 — live on in an exhibit at Boothe Memorial Park in Stratford.  Now, they’re free.

The film’s 2 best lines:  “The Merritt Parkway is outdated — in the best possible way.”

And:  “Many postcards featured the Merritt.  None showed I-95.”

Merritt Parkway sign

5 responses to “The Road Taken

  1. Luisa Francoeur

    Thanks for a wonderful piece and trip down Memory Lane. On my next trip I will “motor” along the Merritt and enjoy the trees.
    Does anyone else remember the period of time when there used to be chipped bark berms in the median strip?

    • Be careful how you motor, Luisa. Non-motorists — in other words, drivers — may zoom by, forcing you into the median strip that now features not chipped bark berms, but metal barriers. Ah, progress.

  2. For those growing up off Clinton Ave. near Fillow Flowers, the Merritt was a destination for young fun. As elementary students we would ride our bikes to the bridge on Clinton and wave incessantly at speeding cars to see if we could get a response. A little older, we tramped through the woods to a site opposite Camp Mahackeno to ride the rope swing that hung from the bridge over the Saugatuck. Great swimming hole.
    The Merritt paid the ultimate kindness to me as a senior at Staples. On a snowy morning in December I was returning from dropping off my Dad at LaGuardia when I lost control, bounced off the inside of the East Rocks Road overpass and after a few 360’s was stopped by a tree off to the side of the road. I was fine, the car was totaled. For the dozens of subsequent Merritt trips over the years I too motor gently.

  3. There’s also a Merritt Parkway tollbooth–from the Greenwich tolls, specifically–in the (fantastic) Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich. I did a doubletake when I saw it there a few years ago–it couldn’t possibly be from anywhere else!

    The homogenized, modernized Merritt–including those stupid faux-jagged-edge signs–doesn’t come close to the beauty of the decades-old version.

  4. Robin Babbin

    I am so glad to know the inspiration behind the unique signs on the Merritt. Thanks for including the photo. I like the rustic quality but even better that it’s a reference to the past.