Westport Law School

It’s close. But one of the few things Westport has more of than entitled drivers is lawyers.

law degreeWe’ve got corporate lawyers, real estate lawyers, defense lawyers, patent lawyers and environmental lawyers.

We’ve got partners in huge New York firms, and folks who practice out of their homes.

We’ve got attorneys  whose careers have nothing to do with law. We’ve got our share of disbarred lawyers too.

Their degrees come from Harvard and Texas, UConn and Hastings, and every school in between.

But what no Westport lawyer has is a degree from Westport Law School.

Once upon a time — people did.

Local realtor/amateur historian Mary Palmieri Gai has unearthed a fantastic nugget: Westport once had a law school. It is mentioned in books that list law schools, which she found while researching nearby property.

It was located at what is now 29 Ferry Lane East, off South Compo. The post-and-beam house — which dates to at least 1811 — has ceilings that are higher than usual for that era. Mary says such construction “suggests a law school.”

Originally a saltbox or vernacular colonial, it has been expanded several times since.

29 East Ferry Lane today.

29 East Ferry Lane today.

There is not much more in any archives about Westport’s Law School. There is a rumor that the house served as a staging area for the 1912 train accident mentioned recently in “06880” (details of which Mary also unearthed).

Mary’s love of history began 30 years ago, when she learned that her husband is cousins of the Burritts (of Burritts Landing fame). Interestingly, Mr. Burritt ran the Saugatuck River ferry that gave its name to Ferry Lane.

That has nothing to do with Westport’s law school — whose existence, including its actual name, has been lost to the ages.

But the weekend weather forecast is for rain. Perhaps one of our town’s many attorneys — one who particularly likes doing detailed research — can spend some time digging into the days when Westport had fewer lawyers than today.

But one more law school.

14 responses to “Westport Law School

  1. Fred Cantor

    Mary, great find!

    The first law school in America was founded in Litchfield in the 1780s and it attracted students from other parts of the country so maybe the Westport Law School did the same.

    • Terry Vance

      Litchfield Law School’s first student was Aaron Burr and its graduates held multiple House, Senate, Supreme Court, and Cabinet positions, with at least 2 graduates becoming Vice President (Burr and Calhoun). Many of today’s prominent law schools were founded by Litchfield graduates. It does not appear that Westport achieved quite the same prominence, although you probably don’t want Burr and Calhoum to be your most (in)famous alumni.

      • Another piece of cool Westport History is that we had an INN called the Arron Burr Inn. Supposedly his brother or cousin ran it. Burrs in America started right here. The Inn was moved.. It was where La Chambord was (I know, I am dating myself) And it was moved to a property in Greens Farms. I want to respect the owner’s privacy and not reveal the street, but I have contacted them because I’d really love to see it. Burr was born in NJ but I don’t think he was too many generations removed from here.. maybe his grandparents’s homestead was in the area. I would think that Aaron wouldn’t have wanted to be so close to “home” and went to Litchfield instead. But I still don’t know when and for how long it was operational. I would love to find out some reference to it. It’s obviously got to be in the historical records in Fairfield. But we do know it wasn’t a law school any longer by 1829.

  2. Jacques Voris

    Is there anymore information about the house? That might give us a clue about the school. Who owned it? When?

    • Elizabeth Thibault

      There was an estate sale there last year – it was beautiful in some ways, like a gorgeous sweeping main staircase (mahogany?) in a paneled foyer, but then also needed major TLC in other areas like the small, dated kitchen, really cramped upper stories with small closed off rooms, and upkeep issues throughout. I’m sure the latest owners were educated and moved in cultured social circles, because the clothes for sale were from elite designers, (albeit from the Studio 64 days,) and there was a full library with books that ran the gamut, covering the medical field, biology, and also about Judaism, Jewish heritage, and the Jewish diaspora.
      There had been a sale sign that disappeared a while ago, but there doesn’t look to have been any work being done on the house since then – it could have been sold or taken off the market. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

  3. When driving up to it, the setting feels institutional. Originally 35 acres on Compo Road, with a commanding view of the river, the Clark map shows several outbuildings which could have been dormitories. The scale of the older part of the house feels institutional, with high ceilings and large rooms. Moses Kent is the first owner I found evidence of (from the history of Fairfield), but it probably had previous owners. I’d have to do a title search to find earlier details. Kent sold to Hedenberg in 1829 and the Hedenberg family owned it until 1907. The Williams family bought it and owned it until the 50s.

    The house is off the radar screen of the WHS because the it’s pretty much “buried” inside the bigger house and does not at all suggest its actual period from the facade. It is a post and beam building with great chestnut floors but not much else suggests the possible 1700s structure that the assessor records say was built in 1896! The Williams family expanded it to the 22 rooms it was when sold in the 50s.

    The history of the law school may be lost because that part of town, and all east of the river, was Fairfield until 1835, the year Westport was incorporated. Moses Kent went off the radar screen from this area too, I think he moved Northern CT which is a typical migration pattern. There’s one very long, online source that talks about Moses Kent and a school but I couldn’t find it within the document. A trip to the Fairfield Historical Society is probably next in order, but not anytime soon for me, unfortunately. If anyone wants to take up the search, I would be most happy to share my sources. There is so much history to Westport discover!! I do the research for every old house I list or sell. This bit of history I did as a favor for a friend. This bank-owned listing is going to a firm in Greenwich (!?!)

  4. Brad French

    Good job Mary. It’s fun rediscovering the lost history. 35 acres would have been a beautiful property. I’m sure there would have been a great apple orchard.

  5. oops.. forgot to say that a 1954 article in Westport Town Crier revealed that it was once “one of the oldest laws schools in the country” 🙂

  6. So I am probably wrong about the old border lines for Norwalk and Fairfield. I think this place was once Norwalk, Not Fairfield. It makes sense since the border is right near there just a few hundred yards away. An Isaac Sturges studied there, I read. I may have been wrong about Moses Kent, too.. it’s probably Moss Kent. He was one of the first lawyers to teach law and he married Mary Hazard, John Hazard’s widow. Pretty Cool. All of the law history books need to be changed.. that school.. (the name of which, if it had one, I still don’t know) Is a part of Law history in the USA.

    • Jacques Voris

      It was always my understanding that the Saugatuck River was the border, and thus Ferry Lane East would have been in Fairfield.

  7. Jacquesvoris…I’ve seen that this part of Westport was often called Saugautck back in the day. So was Compo Beach area even into the 20th century by residents. Norwalk always had much more prominence in the day (the train accident was reported nationwide as Norwalk). Since schoolhouses often served more than one town, perhaps borders were casual and maybe there were no property tax back in the day? Schools were tuition bases and church backed if I’m remembering correctly. So town borders may have been a bit variable and confusing.

    • Amazingly — and for the first time — I got a piece of mail 2 days ago delivered to me addressed “Saugatuck, CT 06880.” And I am NOT served by the old Saugatuck post office!

      • Ha!! And as a tip for my fine researching friends, embrace Saugatuck (and Grrens Farms) in your searches. Schleat, for instance, called his estate at Compo …as Saugatuck. And so did the people who owned the estate when applying for a passport!!

  8. “Owned the estate before him” *