These Old Houses Earn Historic Honors

Just when you think every old house in Westport has been sacrificed to the teardown gods, you hear this:

The Westport Historical Society recently awarded its 300th house plaque.

And you realize sometimes there is hope.

The WHS historical home plaque program began in 1978. It’s a way for homeowners to honor the heritage of their house (and town). Plaques identify the original owner, and date of construction.

They’re available (for a $300 donation) for any house at least 100 years old; any house within a local historic district (regardless of age), and houses less than a century old if either a special event occurred there, a prominent person lived in it, or it was designed by a noted architect.

53 plaques honor homes that are more than 200 years old. The 1st one dates to the 1680s, marking a structure built by John Osborn. The newest is on a 1941 house owned by famous jazz pianist, lecturer and critic John Mehegan.

The most recent plaque — #300 — goes to an 1803 home at 268 Wilton Road. In 2014 that house was featured on “06880,” as an example of renovation rather than demolition.

Presenting the 300th historical house plaque are (from left): builder Peter Greenberg, Westport Historical Society president Ed Gerber and WHS house historian Bob Weingarten. (Photo/Laurence Untermeyer)

Presenting the 300th historical house plaque are (from left): builder Peter Greenberg, Westport Historical Society president Ed Gerber and WHS house historian Bob Weingarten. (Photo/Larry Untermeyer)

The awarding of that plaque coincides with the opening next Sunday (November 8, 3 p.m.) of a special WHS exhibit. “Window to Westport’s Past and Present: WPA Images of Historic Houses” is a collection of 131 photographs of local homes. Taken in 1935 — during the depth of the Great Depression — they were largely the work of WPA photogapher (and Westport resident) T. O’Conor Sloane.

The WHS show pairs those photos with current images of the same houses. Most were taken by WHS house historian Bob Weingarten.

If the concept sounds familiar: It is. Last spring, “06880” ran a weekly series — “This Old House” — in which readers helped identify some of the structures that are now part of the exhibit.

268 Wilton Road in a 1935 WPA photograph...

268 Wilton Road in a 1935 WPA photograph…

The featured photographs portray a wide range of Westport history. There’s the Kings Highway North residence of Pulitzer Prize winner Van Wyck Brooks, and that of George Hand Wright, a founder of our “arts colony.”

The former homes of Paul Newman and Martha Stewart were photographed for the WPA project — decades before their later owners became famous.

One of the show’s crown jewels is the Wynkoops’ Long Lots Road home. Dating to the mid-1680s, it’s considered Westport’s oldest structure. And yes, 268 Wilton Road — the one with the 300th historical plaque — is in the exhibit too.

So, of course, is 268 Wilton Road — lovingly preserved, restored and renovated (and moved back from the busy street) by Able Construction partner Peter Greenberg.

...and the same home today.

…and the same home today. (Photo/Larry Untermeyer)

There’s much more on the walls of the Westport Historical Society — fittingly, one of Westport’s most treasured old homes itself. As a plaque near the door proudly notes, Bradley-Wheeler House was built in 1795, and remodeled in 1867.

(The Westport Historical Society exhibit opens with a reception this Sunday, November 8, 3-5 p.m. It runs through March 26. For more information, click here.)

13 responses to “These Old Houses Earn Historic Honors

  1. It’s a wonderful connection to history owning an old house.

  2. P.S. WPA stood for Works Progress ??? It was a Depression organization, which put a lot of artists to work. Murals can still be found around the country that were the ONLY source of income for most artists, although not limited to artists. It is interesting that one of the old houses was a photo attributed to WPA.

  3. All of the houses in the WHS exhibit were originally photographed by the local Works Progress Administration photographer T. O’Conor Sloan, Jr. In 1935. Bob Weingarten, exhibit curator, then spent over a year researching those old photos, arranging to duplicate them as they look today, if still standing. Come to WHS this Sunday for the opening at 3 pm, and be amazed at this treasure.

  4. You are spot on, Dan. These homes are indeed Westport’s “crown jewels”.

  5. don l bergmann

    Thanks as always to Dan Woog. Of his many contributions, Dan’s sensitivity to history and the beauty of our Town’s heritage is especially commendable.

  6. Hi Dan, Thanks for all your great support and PR. You wrote that the opening is Sunday the 6th but it’s the 8th.

    Best, Leigh Gage

  7. Our family has been forwarding the WOOG story on the 268 Wilton Road house, and it stirred the simmer of feelings attached to this home, this homestead, and my need to add on to the record. For over 60 years my family lived and owned 268 Wilton Road; it was the beloved old colonial farmhouse of Hal & Florence James, their 3 kids (Michael, Beau, Melody), many pets (prize winning bantam chickens, alligator, cats, dogs, rabbits, 3 sheep), and a hub-bub of local activities for decades: brownies, cub scouts, Tri-Hi-Y clubs, The Live Wires, the Westport Downshifters, Norwalk Symphony, Staples scholarships, Westport Arts, parties. This house was a place of welcome and friendship for so many.
    Our parents were involved Westporters throughout their lives: PTA presidents, PR committee heads; Fandango at Longshore when it became a public club; our Dad produced the Coleytown Capers, Odetta and other concerts, and in time Broadway shows that earned Tony Awards. Hal gave early and important support to Craig Matheson and Steve Gilbert with the START of the Staples Players. Our Mother Florence co-founded Saugatuck Nursery School on the night Martin Luther King was assassinated. She and a few other women from the Saugatuck Congregational Church–the home of the integrated and open to all nursery school–would drive to Norwalk to recruit and then carpool kids from the neighboring town, with the goal of white and black little people getting an early start at friendship and being educated together.
    When our Dad/HAL JAMES died way-to-young and suddenly Florence learned the IRS had a lean on the house (oh those investments in PLAYS he loved!) our Mom managed to RESCUE the house and to keep it as a homestead for all of us. She fell in love and re-mated with a wonderful artist from Weston, EUCLID SHOOK (SHOOKIE); he came with 3 grown kids and grandchildren to add to our cast of characters. A man from Mississippi, Shook was a gifted gardner; he planted the back half acre every summer and fed “The Village.” More parties, blended families and poker games, then games of “Liverpool” followed. Some weddings, some more losses and Memorials.
    Nothing beat our Mom’s own Jean Kerr stories of life in the suburbs: one of the best “You Can’t Stop a Pigeon Funeral” about arriving home to my brothers Beau & Mike midst a funeral for their pigeons, wrapped in the living room drapes! Mothers back then didn’t say NO to these rituals! And they were helicopters hovering and supervising everything either.
    Many grandchildren enjoyed the house as years passed, with it’s secret back staircase, walk in fire place, Dutch oven, and the clutter of lived life. A couple of grandkids lived episodes of their lives “at Gram’s” too (Jesse, Caitlin, Ashley had their own spaces; so did Grandma Anne and Aunt Harriet). It was a house that had ELASTIC WALLS and could expand when needed. Where is Klaus from Germany? Michael from Uganda? Harry Chin our Fresh Air friend from Chinatown? The rugby team arriving at midnight? The Jolly Jazz-Beaus? The girls who played horses for years?
    Averse to “down sizing” or retirement villages of one-aged people, FLORENCE loved young people. She managed to hold on to the house AND FILL IT– till the end of her life Oct. 26, 2011 (her obituary with photos ran in 06880, an affectionate tribute to woman, family, and house).
    Flo’s daughter and husband tried to buy the house; reverse mortgage woes are painful, specific and legendary (to us!) with threatening messages from a mystery bank delivered almost daily by some poor “soccer mom” as the packing and emptying of the house proceeded in earnest over many months. Material Conditions that helped turn the story? The YMCA had finally won; after 10 years of struggle they got approval to finally build the new community center at the Camp, very near by. During childhood of the 1950s the Camp was a great place for my brothers; I learned to swim out to Moby Dick, as sisters and girls were allowed at the end of the day. The Camp out of season was a handy place to “run away to” if only briefly–through the empty fields, eat the snack, and then make peace and go home –aches of childhood processed.
    Our Mom was part of the neighborhood efforts to keep the Y downtown. But the Y got its approval and “timing is everything;” just when we needed to pay the reverse mortgage, and then sadly accepted we’d have to sell our old house, practically “no real estate person would touch it”. Keeping the old house proved harder than ever, much in need of repairs; SELLING IT even harder. Living in and restoring antique houses, especially in this town, appear to be the work of younger and better off folks, or builders who MIGHT be persuaded to not just remake the dwellings of a town. With enormous sadness Melody, Beau, and Michael James sold the house and THE IDEA to conserve what it was to Peter Greenberg of Able. Once he saw the BONES OF THE HOUSE he was interested. “Our parents always fantasized about moving the house back from the road,” Melody told him. As with most old homes, when travel was by horse and buggy, 268 was right “on the road” which over 200+ years had become a major transport route. The YMCA relocation was only expected to add to the bumper to bumper rush hour problems of getting out of the driveway.
    As history is written by those who write history, I wish to add to the story of 268 Wilton Road. Happy to acknowledge the builder in the pictures, but want to Sqeak or Peep. A family lived in that house for over 60 years; our Dad fell in love with the old fixer-upper; when we moved in there was a water pump in the kitchen, an outhouse in the backyard where we found kittens; our weekends early on were filled with scraping 10 coats of paint from the old fireplace; my Dad and brothers built a terrace; Shook & Florence (with Craig Berger) renovated and opened up the two attics for an artist’s studio. There was so much LIFE and LOVE lived in the home at 268 Wilton Road. I am thrilled the old WPA photo surfaced; I have the older photo from 1802–the father built the house for his son, retained the right to return to pick the pears from his favorite tree each year. Yes, some of that house has been saved and we are glad; at the moment it is unrecognizable but standing as the home we James kids grew up in.
    As my son-in-law said philosophically to assuage my grief, “The house did it’s job; it raised all of you.” It let our family and the extended family flourish in this town from 1949 till 2011. Just like parents now, our parents helped make the town what it is–a vibrant, eclectic place. The New York Bass family owned the 268 house before the James family. The Greenberg’s (Nat & Lee) and then the New Yorkers Maurice and Billie Stone lived next door in what had been the old farmhouse’s BARN–now tall fences divide the properties. In the 40’s a pine tree was planted by the front side of the house for the young daughter of the Bass family; I remember meeting her when I was a child she returned to see the house and tree. Years later an Xmas tree from a “Mad Men” office party (Hal spent years in advertising) was brought home (no doubt with laughter on the Bar Car), the potted tree was given to Melody and around 1951 or 52 planted in the back of the house. Both trees towered over the house when it sold; like many of the other beautiful old trees (the Magnolia planted by British actress Dorthy Tutin and actor husband Derek Waring during the run of Portrait of a Queen on Broadway), these trees have all been cut down and removed.
    One of the hardest and constant lessons in life? All things change.

    • Thanks, Melody, for a beautiful tribute to your house and family. Here’s the story on your mom that you mentioned: http://06880danwoog.com/2011/12/06/remembering-florence-james-shook/

      • Deb Holliday Kintigh,

        Dan, what Melody has said is SO VERY TRUE! Having met Mel and her family through school and worship and youth activities at Saugatuck Congregational Church, it was soon evident that all who entered the James home were enveloped in the family’s warm embrace.

        So many sweet memories of a very special time – 268 may look different, but I pray its legacy lives on.

  8. I think in my long tribute to my family and the unmentioned people who lived at 268 Wilton Road for 60+ years is the reality that there was a large family for decades who had kept and improved the old house. Houses, much less HOMES, do not stay standing for hundreds of years on their OWN. Hal & Florence James in the early 1950’s, then Florence and Shookie from 1973-74 onward saw the old farmhouse for the promise it held (and affordable price tag back then). They moved into it, lived in it, maintained and improved it, messed it up with all the kids, grandkids and friends so welcomed, but ultimately a family loved and CARED FOR this historic treasure. They made it through the tough times, the travails of work, illness, births and deaths. Now new people, and we hope a new family will bring it to life and care for its heritage. 268 Wilton Road is one of the original ONION FARMS, near the Saugatuck River (perfect to float the onions down toward commerce) that helped build Westport into a thriving town hundreds of years ago. By the 30’s-40’s Westport housed–became the HOME of the young James couple and their offspring in a town becoming known as an “artists colony”, friendly to New York artists and creative people who came in the 40’s, wanting more space for their children.

  9. Melody, I love you and your brothers (Michael and Beau) and this tribute to your home and your family really made my day! We moved to Westport in 1946 across from what had been an onion farm, and here we are 69 years later. Hugs to my favorite actress! Linda (also the daughter of two artists, Hardie and Doppy Gramatky)

    • Love you too Linda! Such fun these years of getting to know each other around local events and OUR AFFECTION FOR our roots. Truly feel the architecture of the town is something to note and treasure, but have found it ODD and A-HISTORICAL to talk primarily about the buildings and not along with the families who inhabited–and KEPT UP AND APPRECIATED–the old homes of Westport, now that they are DISAPPEARING, being replaced with today’s TASTES, economic symbols of success and what the YOUNG Westport family wants NOW. So interesting to watch builders go to the edge of property lines, build grandeur…backyards used to be free space, well used, improvisational “playgrounds.” Everything was not organized sports. Interesting how things change…and always glad so many interesting, smart, creative, community minded people made their way to Westport & Weston!