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The film’s 2 best lines: “The Merritt Parkway is outdated — in the best possible way.”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