If you’re going to lead an organization, you should walk the talk.
The CEO of Ford should not drive a BMW. The Secretary of Education should not send his kids to private school.
And the head of the Westport Historical Society should not live in a brand-new McMansion.
Susan Wynkoop does more than just walk the talk. She sprints it.
Since 1990 the new president — she takes over from Dorothy Curran this Sunday (January 29) — has lived in a house built around 1683. It’s not only the oldest house in Westport — it’s the only pre-1700 structure in the entire town.
Though she’s a native Virginian, Susan is not one of those I-always-wanted-to-live-in-the-past people. As a child, she says, “I visited Williamsburg. But there weren’t a lot of pre-Revolutionary houses where I grew up.”
She worked first for Wachovia, then the FBI. (There’s a connection: While she represented the bank at a recruiting fair, an FBI agent at an adjacent booth convinced her to switch careers.)
Serving in the agency’s New York office, she met her future husband, Morgan (aka “Dutch”). After they were married, he inherited his mother’s home — the oldest structure, at 187 Long Lots Road. He asked Susan if she’d like to live there.
The rest is history (ho ho).
Over the years, she’s become passionate about preservation. “It’s hard not to let an antique home get in your blood,” she says.
Two years ago, the Wynkoops embarked on the long process of gaining WHS “local landmark” certification for their home. As a result, she says, “it can never be torn down.”
Voluminous research by the Historical Society’s Bob Weingarten revealed that the house was nearly a century older than previously thought. The dating process included examination of wood beams (possibly from ships sailing to America), and the foundation. Susan has “no idea how it survived all these years.”
Her mother-in-law bought the house in 1971, saying, “It’s stood for hundreds of years. It won’t come down now.” It’s so well built, in fact, there are almost no water leaks into the basement.
The original home consisted of 2 rooms downstairs, 2 above them. More rooms and baths were added in the 1800s, but the house has remained essentially the same. The Wynkoops have done some work — “you could see daylight through a few beams,” Susan says; they’ve modernized the upstairs, and re-insulated — but the outside looks the same.
Inside, the exposed chestnut beams and original dining room pine flooring look just as they did in 1683.
“It’s not for everyone,” Susan admits. The ceilings are low, the stairs steep. But she wouldn’t live anywhere else.
“It’s been my home for 22 years — longer than anywhere else,” Susan says. “I find it very warm and welcoming. I can’t imagine a new house, where all the lines are straight and everything is perfectly plumb.”
Her involvement with the Westport Historical Society is, however, relatively recent. She’d always been a member, but not until the landmark designation process did she realize how important the organization is.
She went on the 2010 Holiday House tour, met many interesting people, and was drawn in.
Her job as president will involve fundraising and education — including raising awareness of the importance of historical preservation.
Another challenge will be increasing the Historical Society’s membership. There are many new young families in town. The WHS needs to reach them to grow.
Some live in large new homes — built on the sites of torn-down older ones. Susan Wynkoop — owner and proud resident of a 329-year-old home — will gladly invite them in.