Hark! Shakespeare Didst Nearly Come To Stony Point

In many communities, no one wants to live next to the railroad station.

Westport is not “many communities.” Here, Stony Point is one of the most desirable spots in town.

Ann Sheffer — a longtime resident of that winding, riverfront peninsula whose entrance is directly off the train station parking lot — sent along a Westport News clipping that tells the fascinating back story of Stony Point.

Stony Point today (left of the river). The train station and tracks are at top.

Stony Point today (left of the river). The train station and tracks are at top.

Written in 1977 by Shirley Land — who knew everything about everything — it describes a New York banker, his wife and 2 daughters. They lived in a handsome Victorian mansion with “turrets and filigree curlicues.” The grounds included an enormous carriage house, gardener’s cottage, barn and hothouse.

It was the Cockeroft family’s country home, built around 1890. They traveled there by steam launch from New York City, tying up at a Stony Point boathouse.

The Cockerofts’ was one of “the 3 great showplaces” in Westport. The other 2 were the Hockanum mansion on Cross Highway, and the Meads’ estate on Hillspoint.

After the daughters inherited the home, the New York, New Haven & Hartford railroad inquired about purchasing some of the land for a new train station. (The original one was on the other side of the river.)

The sisters agreed, but only if the railroad built a solid brick wall, 1675 feet long, to provide privacy and quiet.

The Stony Point wall today. It separates the peninsula from the train station.

The Stony Point wall today. It separates the peninsula from the train station.

When the 2nd daughter died, she bequeathed the estate to the Hospital for the  Crippled and Ruptured (whose name was later changed, mercifully, to the New York Hospital for Special Surgery).

But the property fell into disuse. Eventually the hospital sold Stony Point to Birmingham and Asti, real estate developers.

Around 1950, Lawrence Langner of the Theatre Guild, Lincoln Kirstein of Lincoln Center and arts patron Joseph Verner Reed tried to build an American Shakespeare Theatre and Academy there. Proximity to the train station was a major piece of the plan.

The price for all 21 acres: $200,000.

But, Land wrote, “the hand of fate and the town fathers combined to defeat the efforts of the theatre people.” Many residents objected. There were also concerns that it would draw audiences away from the Westport Country Playhouse. (Others argued that a Shakespeare Theatre would enhance the town’s reputation as an arts community.)

The theater was never built in Westport. It opened in the aptly named town of Stratford, Connecticut in 1955, and was moderately successful until ceasing operations 30 years later.

In Westport, the Cockeroft estate remained empty.

The entrance to Stony Point.

The entrance to Stony Point.

In 1956 Westporters Leo Nevas and Nat Greenberg, along with Hartford’s Louis Fox, bought the property for residential development. Before they could start, however, vandals attacked the main house. They ripped out bathtubs, hacked up fireplaces, and smashed mirrors and statues. The developers asked the fire department to burn what remained to the ground.

All that remains of the original estate, Land wrote, is “the charming gate house, an immaculate gray and white Victorian structure just inside the gate; a pair of antique marble urns on the site of the old mansion where a newer home now stands; and the fine carriage house-garage, remodeled to be sure, but bearing the visible imprint of bygone grandeur.”

Oh, and a few small doors set into the long brick wall. Once upon a time, they must have provided an amazing view.

18 responses to “Hark! Shakespeare Didst Nearly Come To Stony Point

  1. Thanks. Ann and Dan, for the background on Stony Point. Intriguing story.

  2. Turn to page 174 of Westport…a special place to see a photo of the Cockcroft Mansion in 1922–with the family’s launch pulling up to the dock! Those were the days.

  3. How about the rest of the Stony Point story, involving some wonderful Westport folk? I don’t know it all, and won’t swear to tjese facts, but I know that at the end of the 1950s renowned New Yorker artist and author Nora Benjamin Kubie bought the tip of Stony Point that jutted into Long Island Sound, and had Nat Greenberg build a house for her there. Soon after, Leo Godowsky and his sculptor wife bought the submerged tip of the point, further out into the water, dredged a small hill from Long Island Sound and on it built a Japanese-style modern home with some highly advanced materials on the tip of the point they created. I believe the name of the architect executor of that challenging design was something like “Mike Sochaki” Nora Kubie’s home was then purchased by Ralph Sheffer, father of our great Westport philanthropist Ann Sheffer.

  4. just in case there are people out there who don’t know–Frankie Gershwin Godowsky (a sister of George and Ira Gershwin) was Leo Jr.s wife and Frankie and Leo played tennis with me and Esta Burroughs(Miggs mother)– i was 29 at the beginning of our doubles matches and Esta is now 100 —

  5. Patricia Fairman

    I LIVE IN CLEBURNE, TX READ ALL THE ANNIE MYSTERIES ABOUT STONY POINT, ME AND GREY GABLES. LOVE TO READ ABOUT ME.

  6. When the effort to bring the Shakespeare Theatre to Stony Point failed, Lawrence Langner attempted to make it a reality on Sherwood Island a couple of years later. But obviously that plan did not pan out either.

    http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=2229&dat=19530308&id=uFYmAAAAIBAJ&sjid=DwAGAAAAIBAJ&pg=4936,1941845

  7. Didn’t the brick wall and entrance to Stony Point play a bit role in the original Stepford Wives?

    • Yes – I watched them film Katherine Ross running into Stony Point -which was supposed to be the men’s club. They did a lot of shooting in Westport and Darien. Bryan Forbes’ daughter Sara went to Staples for a year while they were in town.

  8. As a train buff, especially the New York New Haven & Hartford, I am embarrassed not to know the original station was on the east side of the river. Anyone know where??

    • Carl, the station’s location is actually shown on the 1867 (maybe the 1868) town map. Any trace of it would be long gone due to the NYNH & H four-tracking the line. The current eastbound station was built around 1890/1891 according to the records I’ve seen. Kind of the same as the Greens Farm station that used to be a couple hundred yards farther west than it is now – it was moved when they added the 2 extra tracks.

  9. Good point, Carl, I too, was astonished to read that the station was originally on the other side of the river. If true, there might possibly be some telltale site disturbance or other clues along the rail ROW on the east side. Anyone in the general Ferry Lane area seen anything?

  10. Wow, cool historic details here – love reading tidbits like this!
    And the reference to Stepford Wives, also interesting. I recall that one of the scenes was shot over on Main Street, right in front of Achorn’s. I hadn’t made the connection, however, with the brick wall and the Stony Point property used for the institute scenes. Very cool indeed!
    And, funny how Miggs keeps coming up, in all his multitude of Westport roots.
    Great stuff Dan!

  11. I believe Sharon was referring to the comment by Audrey regarding Miggs’ mother Esta.