Salzburg On The Saugatuck?

Westporters are proud of our protests.

The Nike missile site, a nuclear power plant on Cockenoe Island, moving the Y from downtown — win or lose, we love to fight.

And we did it long before Westport became a baby boom ‘burb. Alert “06880” reader Mary Palmieri Gai has unearthed 2 fascinating Time magazine stories from 1938. Had a group of protesters not prevailed, Westport might look very different today.

On March 28, 1938 Time reported that Westport was bidding to become the next Salzburg, Austria — a world musical capital.

In this “arty village lying on the sluggish River Saugatuck,” Hendrik van Loon’s Connecticut Society of Friends of Music announced plans for 6 summer concerts.

While this would still leave Westport “trailing in competition with such established U. S. summer festivals as the Berkshire, Hollywood Bowl, St. Louis Municipal Opera, and Manhattan Lewisohn Stadium,” Time said, “such Westporters as van Loon, Grace Moore and Lawrence Tibbett hope for glamorous future expansion, to help keep American music lovers from stumping off to Europe every summer.”

Westporter Patrick A. Powers — “an enterprising Irishman, onetime backer of Walt Disney,” and organizer of a forerunner of RKO, had already purchased a 200-acre estate, where he built the Longshore Country Club. In mid-March he “promised Westporters a great gift: he would build a $100,000 ‘marine stadium’ at Westport” — presumably Longshore — and lease it to Friends of Music for $1 a year.

Longshore Country Club, back in its private days.

Longshore Country Club, back in the day. What a perfect site for a “marine stadium”!

It did not take long for Westporters to howl. The following week, Time reported:

200 embattled citizens of arty Westport, Conn, nearly shattered the rafters of their Town Hall with furious protests against the plan to make Westport a “Salzburg on the Saugatuck”…. Following the meeting, Westport’s Board of Zoning Appeals refused to grant Millionaire Patrick A. Powers a permit to continue construction on his $100,000 “Dream Stadium.”

Protesting Westporters, preferring rural quiet to culture and glory, feared that their “simple” village would be turned into a Connecticut Coney Island instead of an American Salzburg. “We don’t want to be the Salzburg of America,” declared one anxious Westporter. “We want to die in peace.”

So did those protesters exactly 75 years ago get it right? Or would it be pretty cool if today Westport was known worldwide as “Salzburg on the Saugatuck”?

Raise your voices. Hit “Comments” to join the debate.

14 responses to “Salzburg On The Saugatuck?

  1. Dear Dan,

    I’m sure that you get more than your fair share of brickbats (what an interesting word — brick bats!) but I hope that you get MUCH MORE praise. Both Harriet and I delight each day to read your fascinating unearthings about Westport. A GREAT BIG THANK YOU!!!

    Bob Selverstone

  2. I think if you look around the world, the towns that have sponsored classical music festivals have been enhanced, not destroyed by them. Last week I was at a fund-raiser for the Wexford, Ireland opera festival. Friends who have been there (they come to Wexford from all over) describe an enchanting experience listening to opera in a small but state of the art opera house, located in a bucolic town with a population of less than 19,000 situated by the water.

  3. Considering what Westport has turned into, (an outdoor shopping mall, hundred of McMansions, etc.) it is far from the “Simple village” abounding in rural glory. It’s too bad the outdoor “Dream Stadium” wasn’t approved. Today, it might be the only place where one might find peace and serenity.

  4. Good find by Mary. As for becoming the Salzburg on the Saugatuck, I guess it would have depended on the size of the proposed “stadium” or amphitheater because, with limited access roads into that section of town, I don’t know how much traffic could realistically be accommodated on six summer nights. (Just think of the traffic situation for the July 4th fireworks.). I very much like the concept though.

  5. Matthew Mandell

    Love it. We would not be the place we are today if residents didn’t come out then and say we like the town the way it is and we don’t want it changed. We must continue to honor this and them by continuing to look to preserve what we have while we prudently move forward.

    The saving of the Kemper-Gunn house is all part of parcel of doing this.

    • Dick Lowenstein

      I am for stronger firearms control and I cannot support saving the Kemper Gun house. We have to control guns not save them! Gunn? Oh, never mind.

  6. If it were an opera house and not, say, a Hollywood Bowl-type structure, Westport could have been the center of culture for southwestern Connecticut — which would have brought a lot of joy, not to mention income, into the town and the surrounding areas.

  7. Nancy Hunter Wilson

    Sounds more like Cannes than Conn.

  8. Brings to mind the American Shakespeare Festival Theatre in Stratford, which has been closed for many years (although there is now an effort underway to restore it). Westport would have been “Salzburg” for a short time until the economic realties set in.

  9. Would we get Mozart II?

  10. Where did u find that print of Longshore – beautiful! where can we find a reproduction?

  11. I just saw this, Dan. I was so surprised to find this in Time Magazine and so glad you wrote this about Westport’s forgotten past. There are other reports out there to unearth about Powers going ahead with the project without permission. The foundation was in already at the Powers property that he bought in 1929 from Frederick C. Lewis. I am assuming that the Victorian that was demolished a few years back that was near the half way house was not only the Lewis’ house but the Powers house as well. I would love to know where that foundation was. The town officials served him with a cease and desist order. I wonder if Powers Court is named after him? But I also think it’s rather interesting that Powers isn’t part of the Westport Lore? Maybe after this he will be!