Westport’s School Daze

Earlier this month, I gave a tour of Staples High School to the 50th reunion class of 1964.

Dozens of Social Security recipients — many of whom looked like they could still fit into their varsity letter jackets or cheerleading skirts — wandered wide-eyed through a 3-story building filled with Wi-Fi, whiteboards, and enough flat-screen TVs to make Best Buy go gaga.

The address was familiar: 70 North Avenue. But in the half-century since they graduated, the school underwent several major changes. Besides athletic fields, the auditorium and the JFK “Ask not…” plaque — a gift of that class to the school — there’s little they recognized.

Staples is an extreme example. But nearly every Westport school has been renovated — or at least reconfigured — since it was built.

In honor of the 1st week of school, here’s a look back at how our 8 schools got where they are.

The original Staples High School on Riverside Avenue.

The original Staples High School on Riverside Avenue.

Staples High School. The first classes were held in the National Hall building — the red brick structure across the Post Road bridge from downtown — because Horace Staples’ Riverside Avenue school was not yet ready. That structure — located approximately where the Saugatuck Elementary School auditorium is today — opened on October 31, 1884.

In 1937, a 2nd building opened just north of the 1st. It’s now the central unit of Saugatuck El (minus the gym and cafeteria wing). That 2nd addition was added in 1948.

The "modern" Staples -- now Saugatuck Elementary School.

The “modern” Staples — now Saugatuck Elementary School.

Ten years later, Staples moved to its present North Avenue site. The sparkling new school included 7 buildings, connected only by open-air walkways. Three more buildings were constructed 5 years later. It was great in the early fall and late spring, not so smart the rest of the year.

The 1st version of the North Avenue campus: 6 separate buildings.

The 1st version of the North Avenue campus: 7 separate buildings.

Later, in a 3-year project ending beginning in 1978, the 9 separate buildings were connected. That version of Staples lasted until 2005, when the $74 million current school — built while the old one was being demolished — opened for business.

Bedford Middle School. For 42 years starting in 1884, 7th through 9th graders attended the same small original Staples on Riverside Avenue. In 1926 they moved across Doubleday Field to a new “Bedford Junior High” (now Kings Highway Elementary School). In 1958, BJHS took over the recently vacated Staples on Riverside Avenue. It was renamed Bedford Middle School in 1983, when Staples became a 4-year high school. Then, in the 1990s, it too moved all the way across town. A sparkling new Bedford rose just north of Staples, on the site of a former Nike missile base. The only connection it has to the 1st school is a bust of its original namesake, Edward T. Bedford.

Coleytown Middle School. First opened in 1965 as Westport’s 3rd junior high school, Coleytown looked like the most futuristic school imaginable. Debates raged for years as to whether the circular design worked or not. (Architect Joseph Salerno’s building was, however, selected for a national exhibition on school design.) It became a middle school in 1983, and more than a decade later underwent a substantial renovation.

Coleytown Junior High (Photo/Fred Cantor)

Coleytown Junior High (Photo/Fred Cantor)

Coleytown Elementary School. Despite one renovation, this school has not changed much since it opened in the early 1950s. It’s got its original bones — and it’s always been an elementary school.

Green’s Farms Elementary School. It looks like it’s been there on South Morningside forever. Though it has, the current building is much larger than the original. And it was on hiatus for a while in the 1980s and ’90s, when our school population dipped substantially. In those years, the building served as home to the Westport Arts Center.

Kings Highway Elementary School. Until 1958, this building was the site of Bedford Junior High. That year, it became an elementary school. If you look closely, you can still see the “Bedford” name over the front door.

Long Lots Elementary School. Opened in 1955 as Westport’s 2nd junior high, it has undergone numerous renovations and changes. It’s morphed from a junior high to a K-8 school, and now it’s just an elementary school. The northernmost wing burned to the ground in 1974, in a fire set by an 8th grader.

Long Lots, when it was junior high.

Long Lots, when it was a junior high.

Saugatuck Elementary School. Riverside Avenue — home of the old Staples High and Bedford Junior/Middle School — is the 2nd location for Saugatuck El. For nearly a century it sat on Bridge Street, where the Saugatuck elderly housing complex is now. Its original name was the Bridge Street School.

In memoriam:  

Bedford Elementary School. A handsome building on Myrtle Avenue near the center of town, it was repurposed 30 or so years ago as Town Hall.

Burr Farms Elementary School (approximately 1958-83). Perhaps the cheapest, most hastily built school in the history of education. Made of steel (perhaps tin), it was nonetheless a great place (and, not coincidentally, my alma mater). Today it is the site of homes and athletic fields, near the start of Burr School Road off Long Lots.

Burr Farms Elementary School (computer image by Steve Katz)

Burr Farms Elementary School (computer image by Steve Katz)

Hillspoint (approximately 1960-85). Some brainiac had the idea of putting the gym in the center of a circular building. Noise problems, anyone? Today it’s a childcare center on Hillspoint Road.

(Got any good — or bad — memories of your Westport school building? Click “Comments” below. Please include your real name — and graduation date.)

 

 

58 responses to “Westport’s School Daze

  1. Coleytown El had a huge addition at some point and almost got knocked down but we protested. And, I bet the fresh air was good for us walking from building to building at Staples back in the day, even in the winter. The courtyard was great..and the student lounge was a great place to play poker and listen to the radio station. “Westport Junior High” (kings highway el) had landscaping designed by Frederick Law Olmsted. I would love to know what that was like! It’s registered w library of congress and there is a file somewhere.. possibly in Boston at the FLO national historic site.

  2. Don Willmott

    The project to connect the buildings at Staples certainly didn’t end in 1978. I think you meant to say it began in 1978. I know because I lived through it day by dusty, noisy, dirty day.

    • Correct, Don. I’ve changed the text. My apologies to the classes that lived through the dust, noise and dirt (and mud) (and smell from the tar on the roof).

    • Suzanne (Wheatall) Casey

      The Staples renovation had just been completed when I arrived in the fall of 1981. Hi to Don Willmott – you and my sister were good friends. I remember the snow sculptures your dad made in your front yard.
      Thanks for the interesting article, Mr Woog.

  3. With all the changes made to our schools over the years, there must have been very few classes that were lucky enough to avoid the dust and constuction.
    I remember one of my brother’s Bedford Junior semester’s was spent 1/2 days at Coloytown Jr. The construction required that the kids move out. School started for him at 12:00 noon, when the Coloytown students finished their day, and ran until 5:00.
    Our daughter never went to school here, (in all of her k-12), where construction wasn’t taking place. Long Lots with it’s new gym, library plus other, all 4 years at Colytown Middle with its massive re-do, and then again all 4 years she spent at Staples. Yes. The class of 2005 bore the brunt of all the town’s schools changes like no other.
    What are the planners thinking comes next with our schools? I hear staples is quickly running out of space.

    • I went to Long Lots Junior High when Coleytown and Bedford were on double sessions. We were insanely jealous that we had a full day of school, and they all had half-days. Plus kids there were getting nice new schools, while we were stuck in a metal box. In retrospect, of course, Long Lots was a fantastic school, with excellent teachers. We survived.

  4. Jo Ann Davidson

    Hillspoint is a three cornered, triangular building, not circular. It was designed by the same architect as the Unitarian Church.
    I remember that the plan tried to avoid the “wasted space” of hallways, so the art room, the library and the cafeteria were the main passageways to the central gym. Every classroom opened to the outdoors.
    My 3 kids went through Hillspoint and I was a perennial “Class Mother”.
    Irv Pike was a fine Principal.
    I loved the space of the gym and the kids felt like they were inside a whale, with those huge beams like ribs. Hillspoint’s mascot/symbol was the whale.
    Jo Ann Davidson

    • Luigi Nimkoff

      I didn’t remember any noise issues, but I certainly remember Mr. Pike, who was a good guy, and his assistant, Mrs. Stillaha

  5. Would LOVE to hear more about the circumstances surrounding the Long Lots fire and the 8th grader who set it. All three of my kids went through Long Lots and I’ve never heard that before.

    • Bob Stalling

      I remember it well. Walked up the path behind the school as I did every morning only to find fireman on the rooftop. I was surprised at how sad I actually was…you would think a kid would be happy to have school cancelled, but it was a very sad feeling for everyone as far as I can remember. I won’t mention the names of those involved…but as I recall it wasn’t accidental.
      Part of the school remained open but there was a shortage of space for the students….we had to be bussed to makeshift classes at St. Lukes Church. There are many stories to tell with the bus rides alone…including an occasional smoke bomb being set off on a bus…. again, by names that won’t be mentioned…

      • David Schaffer

        At least one of those names is infamous for another. much more terrible incident that occurred a few years later.

      • How did they catch the culprit? Was it the same guy who murdered a little girl near Greens Farms El in 1978?

        • David Schaffer

          I’ve heard two different people named “the one who set the fire” but it’s pretty evident both people were involved to some degree (and at least one other purported to be pretty reliably, the three were a “posse” that year). One of the people was later convicted for committing what is generally considered the town’s most horrible crime.

    • Luigi Nimkoff

      I was just starting Long Lots (7th grade) when the fire happened, and we spent the whole year taking a bus on the afternoon to St. Luke’s church classrooms to take English and.. Math? But I am pretty sure they rebuilt the whole wing during that school year. I think it had funky colored lockers inside. Orange and yellow?

      • David Schaffer

        Hey Luigi, yes it was English and Math at St. Lukes but the shuttle continued the following year. I was at LL only for 9th grade and it was a full year of back-and-forth.

  6. We were the first Class to go through and graduate from the New Staples on North Ave. 1958 we started as Sophs and graduated in 1961. Great times there…Great teachers, great clubs and team sports…great principal etc.

  7. Chou Chou Merrill

    There is nothing like a post or blog or column by Dan Woog. I realized I was rubbing my hands in excitement when I saw you had posted this. Every time you write I learn something new about our beloved Town.

  8. Nick Thiemann

    I have always been amused by the fact that neither Saugatuck El was in Saugatuck

    • On some old naps the Compo beach area was called Saugatuck..which was thought more socially cool a hundred years ago…Schlaet’s point at Compo was repeatedly called Saugatuck. .it surprised the heck out of me when I saw it.

  9. Eric William Buchroeder SHS '70

    I was in 9th grade at BJHS in ’66-’67 and totally enjoyed the double sessions at CJHS. We would go to the beach/waterskiing in the AM and still attend school in the afternoon. I don’t remember any problems with that arrangement at all.

  10. Anne Rowlands

    I was in the Coleytown district and in the first 7th grade into Coleytown Jr. High. Among many other things I recall (but am I remembering correctly?) there were white chalkboards instead of green chalkboards, and black chalk (charcoal??) was used to write on them, creating quite a mess. We seemed in a perpetual state of double sessions as all the new schools were built. My husband Will went to Greens Farms and Hillspoint (the roof collapsed I think) and Long Lots. So many memories…

    • Almost immediately after Hillspoint opened (1960?), some high interior windows (maybe only one?) fell into a classroom. The school was closed for a while, and students were shipped back to Green’s Farms and Burr Farms, where they were previously, until the problem was fixed.

    • Anne, I too was in the first 7th-grade class attending the new Coleytown Jr High. I think you are right about the white chalkboards (although I don’t remember problems with the chalk). What I also remember that was unusual was that it was the first time I ever had classes in an interior room with no windows. (But we did have air conditioning, which was also unusual for a school back then.)

      There were double sessions with Bedford for one year or one semester–I forget which–but I recall enjoying getting out early. (On the other hand, I have probably blocked out the problems I undoubtedly had having to wake up earlier.) Other than for that double session, I don’t recall the Staples class of ’71 members who went through Coleytown El and Coleytown Jr High having to deal with any issues related to school construction over the years. I guess we were fortunate.

      • Nancy W Hunter

        Yes, classrooms without windows is a memory of Coleytown JH… not a great idea. A spiral-like ramp, too, where monitors stood and watched (for what? skateboarders?). Both the gym and field were exceptional.

    • Hi Anne, remember the CJHS auditorium that was able to be closed off for extra lecture hall or classroom space? I wonder if those partitions are still used or the fact that there is so much more space now, they don’t have to be.
      I think the blackboards were tan and there was a different color chalk.. maybe dark green or black.. it was supposed to be easier on the eyes. In retrospect, it seems like a Jetson’s school.. the ramp is gone now.. which was my favorite part of the school.

      • Anne Rowlands

        Oh my gosh I had forgotten that about the assembly area. Our son Graham went through the Coleytown school district and Staples (class of 2013). Bizarre to return as a mom, and it probably helped to confuse my own school memories.

  11. A beautifully done anthology, Dan; thank you. I went to Saugatuck Elementary on Bridge Street and rowed to school at Bedford Junior High during the construction until the shutdown and split days with Coleytown Junior High. I still have a brick from the teardown of the Old Staples building next door. I graduated from the old ‘9 building Staples’, back when it was an open campus and the drinking age was 18. I remember far more about the (Ye Olde) Bridge Grille than I do about my days at Staples.

  12. James – I remember seeing you row across the river to school! I always thought that must have been fun. I remember a lot of time at the Bridge Grille, too. I also remember being a walker from BJHS and needing to cross the bridge when the water was just coming over the sides during a flood. Must have been “fun” rowing back home during that.

    • At one point we had about 5 kids (John Morrow, Bruce and Doug Cromack, my brother Peter and I) in that little 8′ dinghy the Morrows owned. Later, Brian McGeady and I co-owned a hydroplane that I’d fire up and take across the river. The owner of Westport Marine, Turner (“Duck”) Blanchard, used to hate for leaving our boats tied up at his side dock all day.

  13. When Hillspoint opened I was transferred from Greens Farms and started third grade there in Mrs. Tracy’s class. From Ellery Lane the bunch of us walked a mile to school each day. Shortly thereafter came the shattering collapse of one of the upper glass partitions between a classroom and the “central space” that enclosed the cafeteria and gym. We then rode a bus to Saugautck for “split sessions” with the regular students for a long time. Thus, I got to go to 3 grade schools w/out ever having to move.

  14. Marcy Anson Fralick

    Nancy Powers Conklin and I (LLJS and Staples alumni both) were having lunch a couple of weeks ago here in Tucson, and this was one of our topics of conversation over Crab Cake Salads at Firebird’s. “What happened to all the schools in Westport? It seems like they’ve played musical schools.” We wondered, “Do the kids who used to go to Burr Farms now go to Long Lots Elementary, and the kids who went to Long Lots Jr Hi now go to the “new” Bedford Elementary?” We were trying to figure out which elementary schools filtered into which Junior Highs that all filtered into Staples. So, your column couldn’t have been more timely and answered all of our questions! The old Bedford, Kings Highway, Long Lots, the new Bedford, Staples and so on.

    Thank you for a wonderful history lesson and for reading Nancy’s and my minds.

  15. Barbara Guyaz Estep

    My sisters and I represented the 3rd generation of Staples grads. My grandmother, Esther Johnson, graduated in 1926 with a class of 16, my mother, Muriel Eliason, graduated in 1948. My sisters, Kathy graduated in 1969 and Linda, in 1972. I followed in 1975 and then Abby graduated in 1981 (I think). Unfortunately, there won’t be any more Guyaz’s that graduate from Staples but I think we were well represented!

  16. Sharon Hauser (nee Sherry Nelson)

    Though I was born in Palo Alto, CA and now live happily in San Jose (Silicon Valley), I have fond memories of Staples: 1960-1963. We lived just under two miles away on Long Lots Road, so I “had to” walk to and from. Those before- and after-school walks were the high points of my days — exhilarating and beautiful all the school year. I can’t imagine a better all-around education/experience than my three-years of living in Westport.

  17. I started kindergarten at Saugatuck School in 1952. The “new wing” had just been completed and we watched from our classroom as brand new playground equipment was being installed. By 1956, just four years later, the school had become so overcrowded, that the middle entry hall, between the new and old wings, was cordoned off and made into a classroom. The library was transformed into another classroom and a makeshift library was set up ON THE AUDITORIUM STAGE! But by 1957, many of us were transferred to Greens Farms, which we shared with the not-quite-finished Burr Farms in a split session. Mr. Matellits (sp?), who taught fifth grand at Saugatuck became the first principal at Burr Farms. (And I was there for the dedication ceremony!)

  18. Scott Brodie (Staples '70)

    Dan,
    Great piece — But how do you count the original 1958 layout at Staples as only 6 buildings? Even if you count the more or less contiguous Gym (II) and the Cafeteria (III) as one building, there were still buildings I (Shops), IV (music, art, auditorium), V (“business” and languages), VI (English, Home Ec) , VII (Sciences), and VIII (Administration, Guidance, and Library). That makes 7 separate buildings. [Building I may look contiguous with the Gym on your drawing, but it was not — I walked to homeroom there though the drips from the canopy over the open walkway often enough!]

  19. I’ve never forgotten Bedford Elementary.
    Spooky, serious, dank, and a dark cafeteria in the downstairs “dungeon”. I can still smell the paint. I can still see my stern teachers, teachers I learned more from than any others. I was never more afraid in my life!
    Then again, there were the high ceilings and big, beautiful windows, and also what seemed to be an enormous auditorium, perfect for a young orchestra.
    It’s where we learned the “Grand March” for graduation day, and danced with our parents.

    The perfect school to spend one year!

    Thanks, Dan, for this “back to school” experience.

  20. Cathy Smith Barnett SHS '66

    Thank you for this article Dan. My older sister Stephanie Smith SHS ’63 and my husband John Barnett (attended SHS one year, graduated Milford Academy in ’63) both attended Bedford Jr. High when it was in the Kings Hwy. school building. John told me that when Bedford Jr. High moved to Riverside Avenue, the whole school got involved. He recalls walking boxes of science lab equipment and audio visual reels across the field. I went to Bedford when there was the “main building,” Old Staples, and a classroom annex between the two. I had classes in all three buildings. The Staples where I graduated in ’66 was all covered walkways and leaky roofs. My younger sister Sarah Smith went to the new Hillspoint School and Long Lots Jr. Hi while I went to Saugatuck El and Bedford Jr. Hi. Dan, do you remember exactly when Saugatuck El closed? How long did it sit vacant before it became a senior housing complex? Thanks again for sharing this Westport school history. It was fun to be part of it while growing up here.

  21. Todd Webster

    Staples ’81… What about Bayberry Kindergarten? It was (as I remember it from 45 years ago) at a re-purposed military base… Were there other temporary schools like this (and burr farms, my alma mater as well :)?

  22. Miranda (Gamsu) Thorpe

    And don’t forget Riverview Kindergarten, the little red building next to Bedford middle school. 2 toons and a playground on the side. I was there in 1969-1970.
    Bedford Elementary was such a beautiful school with a grand stage (by 6 year old standards), wood cubbies throughout the halls and a wonderful art room on the bottom level. What a controversy (Bedford El Forever sweatshirts) when the town wanted to close it.

  23. Ah, collegiate Staples High School.
    A powerful place. Having the separate buildings was brilliant.
    Having to walk outside in all weather to the next class (time to vent and think), to sit on the grass or benches with friends in good weather. Plenty of space to escape to, as well. Pretty nice.
    Why the change?

    • Because the weather in New England is not always good.

      • Yes, having to keep the pathways clear would be time-consuming and expensive at Staples. Yet, I have no recollection of bad weather interrupting classroom changes between the buildings.
        Did we have cloakrooms, or did we just hang out jackets and sweaters on the back of our chairs to drip onto the classroom floor?

        It’s funny that here, in the “rainforest” few bother with umbrellas.
        Anyway, it’s all small potatoes.

  24. Loretta Santella Hallock

    Thanks for a great article. Love all the replies. Great memories.
    Staples class of 62. Still here!!

  25. Less fresh air is important, for sure. And stopping that feeling of freedom between classes is also key. ( but not sarcastic is this…it really is a lovely school now..well run, the kids are happy and it still feels like a college)

  26. Britt E Anderson

    Attended Hillspoint K-6 – Never remember noise being a problem. There weren’t that many classrooms that actually went out to the gym. One whole side was the lunchroom. Front was the stage (behind the stage was the art room) and on the other end were the locker rooms and behind that the library. I loved it. Irving Pike was a great principal, but the best teacher I had, and she still ranks in the top three in all my life (K-12, college, masters, jd) was Pat Bonardi. (closely followed by Diane Carriera (Long Lots) and Frank Wiener (Staples).

  27. Scott Brodie (Staples '70)

    Dan,
    Back in our days at Staples, there were small, cubical lockers in the corridors, and open hooks for coats in the spaces between them, which went essentially unused. We generally carried all our books and coats with us throughout the school day.

    After they closed in the walkways (whenever it was!) did this practice continue, or did students put away their coats on arrival, and pick them up on the way home? How do they do it these days, in the newer, much more compact school building?

    Scott.

    • After the 1981 renovation, the lockers were bigger, and generally used for books. I too remember hauling everything around all day. Those lockers were tiny. And no one used backpacks!

      Today, the lockers are huge. But the building is NOT “compact” at all. It is enormous, and very spread out. So most lockers are not conveniently located. Most kids end up tossing their backpacks and athletic bags in corners of the cafeteria. Unsightly, but it works for them.

      • No backpacks! How did we lug our binders, books and instruments home after missing the bus? Strong arms.
        A friend at Staples came to school one day with a laundry bag filled with his books. I believe he also whistled that Old Spice tune.

  28. How many of us remember civics, mechanical drawing, geometry and wood shop in the 1884 building… ?? Noel 1955