Westport Woman’s Clubs: In 19th-Century Home, Addressing 21st-Century Issues

Bedford Hall — the Westport Woman’s Club‘s newly renovated, recently dedicated event space — is very modern.

Costing $120,000, it includes a state-of-the-art AV/home theater system, recessed and cove LED lighting, new halogen stage lights, and much more. It will be Westport’s go-to space for weddings, bar and bat mitzvahs, art shows, memorial services and much more, for years to come.

But its story begins 108 years ago.

In 1907, a group of Westport women decided to do something about the muddy, horse manure-filled streets of downtown. They put on a fair, raised money, and built sidewalks.

By 1925, the Westport Improvement Association had added sidewalks -- and gotten rid of mud and manure on Main Street. The entrance to what became the Westport Woman's Club (the "Bedford House" portion of the YMCA) is on the right side of this 1925 photo.

By 1925, the Westport Town Improvement Association had added sidewalks — and gotten rid of mud and manure on Main Street. The entrance to what became the Westport Woman’s Club (the “Bedford House” portion of the YMCA) is on the right side in this 1925 photo.

That “sanitary” project led to others: bathrooms at Compo Beach. Hot lunches and vaccinations (!) in the schools. More sidewalks on Compo Road.

A few years later, when E.T. Bedford was building his YMCA, that same group of women — now called the Westport Town Improvement Association — asked what he was doing for the ladies. He modified the Y’s design, giving them a separate entrance on Main Street. It was called “Bedford House.”

That’s where the Westport Woman’s Club — as it was known by the 1930s — held art shows, conducted dental screenings, handed out scholarships and hosted the visiting nurses’ offices.

“It was a very popular club to be in,” says current WWC president Dorothy Curran. “It was also the de facto health department in town.”

WWC logoIn 1945, as men returned from war and new families began moving to Westport, demands on the Y space increased. Bedford’s son Frederick continued his father’s commitment to the Woman’s Club, buying an 1881 house at 44 Imperial Avenue for the organization to use.

It was a beautiful waterfront home, with a big veranda. But it was in disrepair. And because there was no meeting space inside, it sat unused for 5 years.

In 1950, as the Saugatuck Church prepared to move its 1832 meetinghouse from the Post Road/North Compo corner, several hundred feet across US 1 (to its present site near Myrtle Avenue), it put its 1866 Sunday school building on the market for $2,000.

The WWC was interested. It would cost another $18,000 to move it to Imperial Avenue, and renovate the interior. Frederick Bedford agreed to pay half the cost of the purchase, moving and renovation price.

In September 1950 — a couple of weeks after the church made its slow, famous trek across the Post Road — the 2nd, less famous building was cut in half. The 2 sections then made their own journey west.

Photos depicting the Saugatuck Congregational Church's Sunday School building move hang in its current  home on Imperial Avenue.

Photos depicting the Saugatuck Congregational Church’s Sunday School building move hang in its current home on Imperial Avenue.

When the Sunday school building was reassembled and joined to the Imperial Avenue house, the clapboard matched. “It was meant to be!” Curran says.

A kitchen was added. Dedicated the following June, the hall was used for the WWC’s active theater club, and rented to outside groups.

Over the years, the room grew old. Rental income dropped.

The gazebo and gardens are a lot lovelier in spring, summer and fall.

The gazebo and gardens are a lot lovelier in spring, summer and fall.

But the space is great. It’s centrally located. There’s a garden with a gazebo, for wedding photos ops. And so much parking! In 1955 the WWC granted the town 2 acres of riparian rights. The land was filled in, and now the club has 100 parking spaces to use in perpetuity.

Westport is one of only 2 Woman’s Clubs in the state with their own clubhouse. (The other is in Greenwich.) They share space with 2 tenants: Connecticut Braille Association, and the Westport Young Woman’s League.

The WYWL was formed in 1956, when a group of younger Woman’s Club members realized they were doing much of the group’s work, but had no representation on the board. The split made the New York Times.

Westport Woman's Club president Dorothy Curran stands proudly outside the organization's Imperial Avenue home.

Westport Woman’s Club president Dorothy Curran stands proudly outside the organization’s Imperial Avenue home.

At the time, the Young Woman’s upper age limit was 35. It became 40, then 50. Now there is no limit at all.

Today, the median age of Woman’s Club members is “a bit older” than the Young Woman’s group, Curran says. But in many ways the 2 clubs are similar.

The WWYL organizes the Minute Man Race and CraftWestport, and awards many grants.

The WWC runs the Yankee Doodle Fair, art shows, the Nutcracker Tea, Curio Cottage, Westport food pantry — and donates to many of the same organizations as the WWYL.

Which brings us back to the new Bedford Hall. The $120,000 project — funded mostly by Lea Ruegg and her son Erhart, and completed in January with a stage, Steinway baby grand piano, maple floors, crown moldings and seating for over 100 people — will be the site this Wednesday (March 18, 12-1:30 pm) of the 1st-ever event co-sponsored by the Westport Woman’s Club and Westport Young Woman’s League.

A Steinway piano and modern lighting are just 2 features of the new Bedford Hall stage.

A Steinway piano and modern lighting are just 2 features of the new Bedford Hall stage.

It’s a panel, breakout discussion and brown bag lunch on the topic: “What is the role of women’s volunteer service organizations in the 21st century?” The public is welcome.

After so much help from 2 philanthropic Bedfords, it’s fitting that 44 Imperial Avenue finally has a “Bedford Hall.”

And fitting too, that a pair of well-run, very generous women’s organizations — both born in the 20th century — are joining forces in their shared 19th-century home, to address 21st-century women’s issues.

(For information on renting Bedford Hall, contact Susan Loselle: 203-227-4240 or 203-246-9258; westportwomansclub@sbcglobal.net or seloselle@gmail.com)

The handsome, 19th-century interior leads into the modern Bedford Hall (rear).

A handsome, 19th-century interior leads into the modern Bedford Hall (rear).

10 responses to “Westport Woman’s Clubs: In 19th-Century Home, Addressing 21st-Century Issues

  1. What I really want to know is why it’s the “Woman’s Club” (singular) and not the “Women’s Club” (plural).

  2. Roberta tager

    Again, Dan, ….extraordinary reporting!
    My own career, as alternative Healing Therapist was begun from an informal lecture at the Women’s Club in the 80s.
    Volunteering there has always been gratifying.
    Mostly I am out of the area…..my first agenda will be the Women’s Club when I return.
    Thank you for keeping me connected😊.

  3. What a superb story, Dan. Love the historic image of the move – I would kill for that truck!This organization stepped up when no else would to make much needed improvements to our town. I’m glad that more people will now learn about its history. Thank you.

  4. Wendy Crowther

    Great story about an important institution in Westport’s history. I’m amazed to see this story come up today. I’ve been doing some recent research on Catherine MacDonall (artist Angus MacDonall’s wife) and Mary Coley Staples. They were next-door neighbors on South Compo where Golden Shadows and the bank on the corner of So. Compo and the Post Rd. sit today. Mary Staples was the first president of the WTIA, and Catherine was a charter member. I’ve read many old accounts of the events that the WTIA put on to raise money and/or improve town conditions. Good stuff.

  5. Fascinating story, Dan, great reporting. It’s probably a little know fact that the Westport Community Theatre got its start on the stage of the Woman’s Club. In 1956 the group moved to Bedford (now Town Hall) where it produced it’s first several productions in the Bedord gym, just below where its permanent home has been for several years.

  6. this is an amazing picture of downtown Westport! thank you for posting it

  7. I love the Westport Woman’s Club. Dorothy Curran is right. Time was they were Westport’s health dept. I know my family remains indebted to its generous underwriting of what used to be called the town nurse position.

  8. Margaret Hart Rynshall

    Such an interesting history and story, Dan. It has served my family well for a long time including charm school, a wedding reception, 75th birthday party, Orphenian performances and a memorial celebration. Learning it’s unique background makes it even more special.

  9. sandy johnson

    Thanks, Dan for a wonderful history lesson!!!