Thoughts Before The Wrecking Ball

Tom Kretsch is a retired educator, an excellent photographer, and — since 1974 — a resident of Wakeman Place. He and his neighbors, the Burroughs family, have been friends for years.

Sometime soon, the Burroughs’ home will be razed. Tom sent along these thoughts on the impending demolition.

Gazing across the street, my eyes are fixated on the parched land once filled with a seemingly forested landscape of hemlocks, rhododendrons, tall pines and several towering oaks. The trunk of a once mighty oak rests on the back roof, which the final slice of the tree man’s saw sent crashing through what was once the studio and home of Esta and Bernie Burroughs.

Peering through the broken windows in the living room are the bare walls where their collection of funky artifacts (including Bernie’ s paintings) were gathered from art shows and places like United House Wrecking long before this sort of collecting and decorating was in vogue.

Walking along the side of the house and into the backyard brings back memories of the magical place it was.  A small swimming pool that Bernie helped create was the focal point of a garden of statues, shaded trees, a funky gazebo and pathways around the pool that led to gardens of shaded plants along a small stone wall.

The Burroughs' house in 1974 -- the day Miggs was married in the back yard.

The Burroughs’ house in 1974 — the day Miggs was married in the back yard.

The back of the house was adorned with signs like “The Remarkable Bookstore” (where Esta  worked for so many years), “Gentleman’s Clothing” (which Bernie made for a friend), and  “Woodman’s Ice Cream Store” (a sign found at some tag sale).

On summer nights friends seemed to gather nightly for little parties. They were the artists of Westport, as Bernie was a fine illustrator. Their social comings and goings often centered around that community, a vibrant part of Westport in those days. We could hear their laughter and joy as we sat on our screened front porch.

Our houses were actually mirror images of each other, built by the same builder back in 1938. My wife Sandi and I aspired to make our place as artistic as theirs. Following the sign example, we bought one in the Berkshires for $3. It said “Homemade Candies and Cookies.” We thought it would look artsy on the front of our house, but after several knocks on the door from people wanting to purchase cookies and then a call from our insurance company asking whether we had started a business in our home, we moved the sign to a less conspicuous place.

And so the Burroughs home awaits the final wrecking ball, a familiar scenario in this town. A new structure will arise, hopefully a tasteful and graceful one that will fit the contours of the land and melt into the fabric of the street. To the unwary driving by, the house now looks like an eyesore deserving of destruction. But for us there is sadness in seeing a place once of such beauty and style standing naked and broken, with but the memories of what used to be.

The Burroughs' house today. The wrecking crew arrives soon.

The Burroughs’ house today. The wrecking crew arrives soon. (Photo/Tom Kretsch)

Time brings change, and things left to their original being are often difficult to fix and salvage. It is easier to tear them down and start from scratch. Over the last years while she was living there, Esta graciously offered me a few of the signs that adorned the outside of the home. Miggs, her son, gave me the “Gentleman’s Quarters” sign during the final days of the salvaging period. This and the others now adorn our home, and remind us of what an inspiration their classy home was to us.

The morning light dances across the old red house that once stood gloriously on Wakeman Place: not a mansion by today’s standards, but truly a unique home that was cared for and loved by a wonderful couple. Like the place Esta worked in, it was “Remarkable.” It is sad to see it go.

24 responses to “Thoughts Before The Wrecking Ball

  1. A wistful and heartfelt human story. Thank you Mr. Kretsch.

  2. Sandra Cenatiempo

    What a great remembrance! It sounds like a warm wonderful home that was full of happiness.
    It’s a shame what’s happening to these modest homes that are full of charm and character (and neighborhoods) Doesn’t someone in Westport want a modest home??? C’est la vie…..

  3. Mary Ann West

    With each tear-down Westport has lost an opportunity to welcome a family, be it one person or more that may have only been able to afford a more modest home. I’m not saying all tear-downs are bad, some houses really need to go but as a neighborhood changes the change is permanent and it’s not just the house it’s the neighborhood and our town that changes as we knew and loved it.

    Imagine not having a cry-fest when Dan strikes our heart every time something we thought indelible is not as it was. The funny thing is the generation growing up today will be experiencing the same loss a decade from now.

    Sure the tax base with home and neighborhood values continue to rise, pricing out many including those who have lived here forever. The tax revenue is desperately needed and the Burrough’s house may not be the one to take a stand on, so ask yourself: which one will?

  4. Any chance the listing for the towering monster that replaces chez Burroughs will include the phrases “stunning new construction” or “architectural masterpiece”?

    • Nancy Hunter Wilson

      True, realtors will have to compete in order to sell
      this very model of a modern major development,
      magnificent, meticulous, luxurious and egotist…

  5. Lynn Turin Pokorny

    I found this article heart breaking. The house I grew up in and my parents lived in for 40 years is still standing, looking the same as the day my parents sold it several years ago. I drive by every once in a while to see what changes, if any, have been made. Every time I see it looking the same, I am grateful to the new owners for keeping it exactly how I remember it. Strange to me that although I know change is inevitable, I want this part of me to stay the same forever.

  6. Houses often become the repository for our memories. Around here that’s known as living dangerously.

  7. The summer in 1971 we were living in New York City and Carol persuaded me that a one month stay in the country was just what the doctor ordered. So we hitched a ride with our friends the Fellers, who were looking around Westport. The broker took us around and showed us the Burroughs home, which was available for rental for thirty days. And that was our initial exposure to Westport. The following summer we decided to make it for two months so again we rented the Burroughs home and a second one around the corner. After one more summer here, this time for two months in one home, we committed to Crooked Mile, Julian Brodie’s home. Our 50th year coming up July 3rd next year.:.

  8. Miggs may remember when, in the late 50s and 60s, we had many nice parties at Bernie and Esta’s with their other, non-artist, friends. The story was doubly sad for me to read, as my parents had a lovely little 50s ranch on Brooklawn Drive. It was a lovely little neighborhood of similar sized (small) and aged homes. On a trip back to Westport four or five year ago, I was saddened to see a new, not-so-charming neighborhood of ugly McMansions. I learned that first one went, then another, until . . . . This, in the name progress.

    • Hi, Gary,
      Not sure if you’ll read this but I grew up in the neighborhood where your parents lived and knew them slightly as I was just a kid. I think your aunt Sally Jacobsen was a friend of my mother’s, did she and her husband Sherm own Gray’s Drug Store?
      Yes, the neighborhood has several large houses now, but there are a few from the “olden days” still standing. I moved back into our” lovely little ranch house” after my mother died and plan to stay here for, well, a good long while, I hope. I don’t know most of my neighbors any more, it’s different from the 1950s and 60s but I have some sweet memories of this little block and am happy I knew it way back when.

  9. Nancy Hunter Wilson

    Oxford, Webster, etc. may soon have to re-define both “character” and “progress”. Not to mention “historic”. Can’t save everything, but can be progressive by saving historic character, in any shape or form.

  10. Nancy Hunter Wilson

    p.s. Be happy that the street names remain the same.

  11. Well put, Nancy. Around here if your neighborhood is older and it isn’t in a Local Historic District, its got a target on it back. If you really want to rule from the grave it’s hard to beat creating one of those districts. Kinda like having a your own forcefield.

  12. The street names sometimes change too. Recently: Smicap Lane had a neat backstory but was deemed by a builder who tore down a little cape on that street to be too…something. Now it’s called Winslow Lane, I think.

  13. The private road previously known as Smicap Lane was owned by two men – Smith and Capasse (Ed), if I recall correctly. I’m not sure if they are the ones who built the original houses on the lane but they arrived at the (awkward but meaningful) name by combining theirs.

    • Thanks — I never knew that. I’m sure with a bit more time they could have come up with something less awkward.      

    • Wendy Crowther

      Morley is correct.

      The applicant for the name change was a developer who had just purchased a small Cape-ish house on Smicap and was tearing it down to build a spec house. I knew the name Smicap was an amalgam of the names Smith and Capasse, both of whom were the first owners of the two original houses on this small road. I also knew that the name change was a slick, marketing attempt by the developer to create a sexier, more appealing name for the road in order to increase the value and sound of the address.

      The SMI in Smicap stood for John and Agnes Smith. He was a mason and they went on to live on the property for 29 years. The CAP in Smicap stood for Ed and Esther Capasse. Ed was the son of Westport Police Captain Ed Capasse who descended from the Saugatuck Capasses who owned a market on Franklin Street for decades. Agnes was also a lifelong resident and a Westport school teacher for 32 years.

      All it took to wipe out that history was the signature of the developer who then prompted the owners of the two other houses on the street to agree to sign. Therefore, proper procedures were followed and signatures were gained to create this change. There was no wrongdoing procedurally,

      However, in the process (which is surprisingly easy) the REAL history behind the road name was lost in order to give it a FAKE historical name (referencing nearby Winslow Park) to help a developer sell a spec house.

      So…yes…sadly, you CAN change the name of a road, and you can lose the historical context of that name in a flash of marketing propaganda.

      Also, there is no town body that provides any historical oversight to watchdog this sort of thing. It’s not within the purview of the Historical Society or the Westport Historic District Commission. Perhaps is should be.

      I miss the quirky, clunky name of Smicap. I miss what it stood for and the tale it told in the neighborhood. Winslow Lane sounds romantic, and it slides off my tongue with ease, but it leaves a sour taste in mouth.

  14. Wendy Crowther

    Last sentence of second to last paragraph should read, “Perhaps IT should be.”

  15. Wendy, I knew you’d have the goods on Smicap, thanks for fleshing it out properly!

  16. Nancy Hunter Wilson

    While on the subject of people and street names, did Bette Davis really live on my old street, Hitchcock Road? Friends and family here in the west are dazzled by Westport’s notoriety (I mean history!)

  17. Betty Davis lived on the corner of Crooked Mile Rd. probably early 70s. She came here to be near her daughter in Weston.

  18. Nancy, I’m reasonably certain your road was named for the noted journalist and gardener, Nevada DAVIS Hitchcock – whose 18th century summer house on Cross Highway really was an architectural masterpiece. At the end of the summer she would walk to her little winter house at, I think, 81 Myrtle.

  19. Nancy Hunter Wilson

    Thank you, Mr. Boyd, for this information. My mother remembers a beautiful white house there, on the corner (but why can’t I?).
    This is good news, as I grew up always assuming that the road was named after a different, less pleasant, Hitchcock!