Susan Wynkoop Walks The Talk

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.

The Wynkoops' home: 187 Long Lots Road. (Photo by Larry Untermeyer)

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).

Susan, Katherine and "Dutch" Wynkoop.

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.

An upstairs bedroom in the Wynkoop home. (Photo by Larry Untermeyer)

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.

Downstairs in the Wynkoop home. (Photo by Larry Untermeyer)

31 responses to “Susan Wynkoop Walks The Talk

  1. Dorothy E. Curran, president, Westport Historical Society

    Dan, Thanks for your nice write-up, introducing our next WHS president, Susan Wynkoop. She’s terrific, and we’re lucky to have her. Would like to clarify a couple of things, however…The Westport Historical Society is as much about commemoration and celebration as it is about preservation. Accordingly, EVERYONE in town is eligible to join and take an active role, regardless of the type of home in which you live. As one of our past WHS presidents, Allen Raymond, said: “When you move to Westport, joining the historical society should be like getting your library card–Everyone should do it!” In that spirit, I’d like to invite everyone to this Sunday’s opening reception of our new WHS exhibits, which take a closer look at life in Westport in the 1950s. In the Sheffer Gallery, we’ll have “Next Stop: Westport, The Inspiration for 1950’s TV & Film Writers: Rod Serling, Twilight Zone, etc.; Bob Weiskopf, I Love Lucy; Sloan Wilson, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit; Max Shulman, Rally Round the Flag Boys”. In the Little Gallery, we’ll have “The Cold War in our Backyard: An Archival Film Compilation by Lisa Seidenberg.” Hope you’ll all come by, from 3 to 5 pm on Sunday, see the Exhibit, join or renew your Membership and meet our new president, Susan Wynkoop!

  2. Linda Gramatky Smith

    I am glad to welcome Susan as the new WHS president, but I was a bit surprised at the nasty comment about anyone who lives in a brand-new “McMansion”, Dan. Not your usual lead-in to a fascinating story of Susan’s lovely home (we went there for the WHS house tour a few years ago). Did I misinterpret your comment? I agree that ALL who love Westport will find a real welcome at the Historical Society!

    • In the original post Dan pointed out that the house was made larger in the 1800’s. Do you think the busybodies of that era lamented the change in the house? Did they whine and moan about people buiding a house bigger than theirs? There will always be people who spent too much time meddling into the affairs of others. They are best ignored; unless of course they fall into a position that forces the rest of us to bear the cost of their meddling.

    • Sorry, Linda. I was simply trying to point out that the new Westport Historical Society president lives in a very old home. But phrasing it that way would have been kind of dull, no?

  3. Bobbie Herman

    I’ve driven past this charming house so many times over the years, and was always captivated by it. Now that I’ve had a glimpse of the interior, I’m even more captivated. I hope it will last forever. As a lover of antique houses, and a former owner of one, I am so disappointed at the lack of reverence for historical buildings (and for history in general).

  4. I love all these anonymous posters…those who want to be critical and cynical at the same time. Well, I proudly support historic preservation…walk the walk and am not afraid to let the World and Westport know.

    • I do not want to appear critical and cynical… I support property rights. That includes the Wynkoops’ preservation of their old house and another family’s demolition of their old house.

    • How do you support “historic preservation’? With OPM?

  5. Wendy Crowther

    Thanks, Dan, for giving a nod to another one of Westport’s charming, historic places. Thanks also to the Wynkoops for pursuing the Local Historic Landmark designation. I and others can breath a sigh of relief knowing that it will be saved from a future wrecking ball.

  6. Actually, I have put my own money where my mouth is and I do not hide in the anonymous peanut gallery either.

    • I will tell you why I post Anonymously on this subject. I own one of these older houses in town and I do not want to call attention to me or my house. If I one day decide to exercise my property rights and replace the structure on my land, I want as little attention from the HDC and WestportNow as possible. I have only disdain for those who want to diminish my property rights because they find my old house aesthetically pleasing.

      The HDC needs to focus on saving houses BEFORE the owners have decided to demolish it.

      • I accept your argument on personal rights and freedoms…but unfortunately…so many people come along and take a perfectly good old house that in some cases date back to the Revolutionary War era….and decide to level it instead of finding ways to expand or alter it enough to meet their modern needs. You make the HDC sound like an unreasonable inflexible group…which is far from factual. If you do decide to level your house, assuming it is 50+ years old, you will have to come before the HDC prior to your demolition permit being issued and they will know your name then so…that is a lame argument for your anonymity…but we do live in the land of the free and the home of the brave…so anonymity is your right. We are all entitled to our own opinions so…good luck with your old house.

        • The Dude Abides

          Who actually empowers the WHS?? What ordinance or law allows to have a say so in what a person does with their property. I am curious.

          • The HDC, not the WHS, has the power to delay demolitions on all structures that are more than 50 years old. In August of 2008, the RTM passed an ordinance (Chapter 14, Article II) that expanded the delay window from 90 days to the current 180 days.

            The HDC is a appointed town board and Carol Leahy is its Coordinator. The full list of its member used to be available on the town website, but I can not find it now.

            If you apply for a demolition on a 50+ year-old house, expect that Dave Matlow will feature it on WestportNow (possibly with some historical information). The demolition process then includes a hearing with the HDC to determine whether the structure is historically significant enough to warrant a delay in the demolition process. This delay is meant to allow interested parties the time to convince the owner not to destroy the structure.

            • So a group of unelected officials has the power to deny individuals the right to use their property as they see fit. What a great idea ! How are these patronage jobs doled out? What are the quailfications necessary to be among the lucky few with the power to destroy property values?

              • Bobbie Herman

                These “patronage jobs” are given to unpaid volunteers, people who care about their community and want to preserve its history and culture, much of which has been destroyed in the name of “profit.” Most of the teardowns have been done by developers who have no interest in the property other than construction of McMansions after which they move on to the next project.

                I, personally, don’t care if 1950’s split levels and raised ranches are demolished for McMansions, but in the case of Antique houses I’m on the side of preservation.

                • So buy the houses you think should be preserved and save them. They are still patronage jobs, and the HDC destroys economic value based upon nothing more than its whim. It is nice that you think you “care” about the community, but so do others who are looking forward not backward.

          • Dude, I forgot an important detail about the demolition of 50+ year-old houses… The permit application states that you must allow the HDC access to the structure. The ordinance does not state this as a requirement, so an owner with a lawyer could probably challenge the site visit.

            • The Dude Abides

              Thanks for the enlightenment. I also have qualms about unelected officials deciding the fate of my property but I assume they are well-meaning. On the legal point, when an individual BUYS an antique house, are these “restrictions” spelled out to them by ordinance as well???? Basically it amounts to a deed restriction by HDC, yes?

              • If you buy a house that is 48 years old and live in it for 3 years, you might have no inkling of the restrictions until the HDC comes knocking as you try to add a new bathroom. BTW the original post states that the house was expanded in the 1800’s. If there were an HDC at that time, the expansion might never have taken place.

                • The Dude Abides

                  Hell, I live in a split level that is 50 years old this year. From what my lady realtor tells me, however, is that HDC has little power but to give you a hard time about permits, etc. The only real force is if the house comes under the national registry and then it really is restricted. Coming from Houston where deed restrictions replace any zoning, I can appreciate some advance notice, however. To be candid, deed restrictions are far more stringent than zoning here on what you can and can not do to your house.

                • Bobbie Herman

                  There only are restrictions if the house has been declared a Historic Property. Otherwise the regulations set out by the P&Z prevail. If adding a new bathroom increases coverage over the legal limit, you would have to make an application to the Zoning Board of Appeals. Otherwise, you would go through the normal building permit process.

                • The Dude Abides

                  I have decided to have a little white sign made for my house. “Built in 1962”

  7. I was able to track down (not easily) some info on the HDC members. There are 5 members and all own homes in Westport. Their residences were built in 1820, 1985 (condo), 1930 (historic district), 1987, and 1887. It is interesting that only one of the members actually lives in a historic district and only three have homes that are more than 50 years old. Don’t you think that everyone on the HDC should have skin in the game?

    • The Dude Abides

      Maybe but not necessarily. It could be argued that they should not all have a vested interest in the game. I do wish, however, that since an ordinance gives them power that we townspeople had some input as to their selection i.e elected office.

  8. I have no interest in joining the fray about historic preservation and property rights; I opened the comments link just to say what a lovely home the Wynkoops have! Absolutely one of my favorite houses in town, and I too was pleased to get a glimpse of the beautiful interior thanks to Dan’s post. I can’t help smiling whenever I drive by this charming home. Thank you for ensuring that this house will stay standing “in perpetuity”!