Did every old structure in Westport start somewhere else?
Saugatuck Congregational Church, the Birchwood Country Club clubhouse and Bedford Hall at the Westport Woman’s Club are 3 examples.
This coming Monday (May 1, 3 p.m.), Project Return takes the spotlight.
The North Compo Road home — a converted 8-bed farmhouse that since 1983 has housed scores of girls and young women from Westport and surrounding towns — will receive a historic significance plaque.
Turns out the building — sitting handsomely but unobtrusively between Little League fields and the Town Farm tennis courts — has quite a history.
It started out in what is now Playhouse Square, nearly 200 years ago.
In 1901 it became the town “poor house.”
More than a century later, it still serves folks in need.
Bob Weingarten — WHS house history chair — says the structure was built in 1824. A decade after that, it became part of the Kemper tannery. In 1930, that land became the Westport Country Playhouse.
In 1864, Charles Kemper Sr. moved it to property he bought from Samuel Gorham on North Compo.
The town of Westport purchased it in 1901, for use as an almshouse. At that point, by renting space in individual homes, we were spending more money on indigents than surrounding towns. Buying the entire farm, including the house of 13 rooms, for $2,750 could save us at least $1,000 a year.
In 1927, a man named Alfred Violet — the same person who gave his name to the road off Myrtle Avenue? — found sanitary conditions there “absolutely unbelievable.” Chimneys were crumbling; windows furnished “practically no protection at all against the weather … and the grounds have been used for the past years as a garbage dump.” Approximately 15 children lived there.
It’s uncertain how long the “town farm” operated as a poorhouse. The site was considered for a town garage. From 1975-83 it was rented to James Drought, a noted writer.
After he died, the house deteriorated. Kate McGraw — assistant superintendent of special education for the Westport school system — had the idea to use it as a residence for girls whose parents could not keep them at home.
Renovation $100,000. Many local organizations and individuals contributed funds, labor, materials and furniture.
1st Selectman Bill Seiden championed Project Return. 2nd Selectman Barbara Butler — later named town human services director — helped negotiate a $1-a-year lease.
That contract is still in effect. Project Return pays for all interior and exterior maintenance, and utilities. The town pays for tuition of each girl, while parents pay residential costs.
The safe, nurturing home has helped over 160 girls rebuild their lives. Project Return has evolved with the times — most recently last year, when the state stopped funding group homes for youth. Homes With Hope merged with the organization, ensuring a seamless transition.
Monday’s plaque presentation will include representatives of the town of Westport, Project Return and Homes With Hope, plus Kate McGraw’s daughter Sarah and 2 of James Drought’s children, Hank and Sarah.
It will be a fitting tribute to an important town structure — one that, like so many others, has ended up in a very different place than it began.