The Saugatuck: A Cooperative Thrives On Bridge Street

Westport does not have a nickname. But if we did, we might be called “The Land of Lawsuits.”

Westporters like to sue. The town won a lawsuit to prohibit construction of a nuclear power plant on Cockenoe Island (yay!). Neighbors lost a suit to prohibit construction of the Compo Beach playground (yay!).

Neighbors also threatened to prohibit Positano restaurant from putting a few tables on an outdoor patio near Old Mill Beach. As a result, the restaurant moved. A private home now rises in its place (boo!).

Lost in the mists of time is another lawsuit. In 1985, 64 residents of Bridge Street and nearby roads sued to prevent the conversion of what was then Saugatuck Elementary School into multi-unit housing.

Three years later, a settlement was reached. The agreement limited the project to 36 owner-occupied, age-restricted units.

(Photo courtesy of SmartMLS Inc.)

Today, The Saugatuck is a true success story. One of Westport’s most affordable residences lies a short walk from thriving Saugatuck Center and train station, and not much further from Compo Beach.

The attractively renovated red brick building graces Bridge Street between South Compo and Imperial Avenue.

Residents have formed a tight-knit, active community. It’s hard to imagine the neighborhood without it, in fact.

None of that could have been predicted in 1984. Westport’s school population was declining. Burr Farms Elementary was torn down. Hillspoint Elementary turned into daycare. Bedford El became Town Hall. Greens Farms Elementary School housed the Westport Arts Center.

When the lawsuit was settled, plans were drawn up to convert the school that generations of Saugatuck residents attended. It dated back to the early 20th century, when the original wooden building was called the Bridge Street School.

It took several years, but 17 1-bedroom and 19 2-bedroom apartments were built in what were once classrooms, the library and auditorium. Because Saugatuck had been a classic elementary school, each unit features large windows and high ceilings.

Units at The Saugatuck feature large windows.

Those surroundings are familiar to at least one current resident — and several others in the past. They attended Saugatuck El as kids. Living there now is very different — but also quite familiar.

Joe Veno has lived in The Saugatuck for more than 20 years. As a youngster, he walked to the school from his Franklin Street home. He played basketball in the playground — now a parking lot — and baseball in what is now a quiet back yard.

The Saugatuck is a cooperative. The Town of Westport owns the land, and holds a 99-year lease on the property. But the Cooperative owns the building.

Members must be at last 62 years old (at least one, in the case of married couples), able to live independently, and their income must be below the Connecticut Housing Finance Authority’s guidelines for homeowners at 80% of area median income. Importantly, there are no limits or restrictions on assets.

To ensure affordability, the resale price is linked to the average increase in income for individuals living in the area.

Three units are currently for sale. A 2-bedroom, 1 bath apartment is listed at $222,282; 2 1-bedroom units have listing prices of $179,800 and $168,300. (Inquiries can be directed to the property manager: 203-226-1570.)

Those are far below other Westport prices, because of the original affordable housing prices implemented in the 1990s, and the strict resale cap/formula that limits how high prices can climb.

A view of The Saugatuck’s back yard.

A cooperative’s rules are are more stringent than in a condo, particularly in areas like rentals. Saugatuck units must be their owner’s primary residence.

One of the great perks of The Saugatuck is Shaun Cullen, a part-time super.

Residents include longtime Westporters who have downsized, and no longer want the responsibilities of a home and yard.

Other residents have moved to The Saugatuck from elsewhere, to be close to their children and grandchildren in Westport.

Most Saugatuck residents are retired, from careers including Wall Street, Madison Avenue, refuse collection and tile installation. At least 2 — an accountant and a contractor — are currently working.

The vibe is friendly. Neighbors chat easily, in the community room, mail room and hallways.

The cooperative is governed by an executive board. They and other residents organize a variety of activities: movie nights, supper at the beach, a jazz keyboardist and Labor Day picnic.

A recent party in the community room.

It’s hard to imagine Westport today without the Compo Beach playground — or to visualize the town, had a nuclear power plant been built on Cockenoe.

It’s just as hard to imagine what Bridge Street would be like without The Saugatuck. How great that the neighbors who sued more than 30 years ago cooperated in a settlement that led to a co-op.

FUN FACTS: 1) During the Depression, the WPA commissioned Westport artist Robert Lambdin to paint a 7-foot high, 20-foot long mural: “Pageant of Juvenile Literature.” For years, it hung just inside the main entrance to Saugatuck Elementary School.

In 1992, when the town finally began to convert the old Saugatuck El to senior housing, the mural was slated for demolition.

A group of art-lovers — including Mollie Donovan, Eve Potts and Judy Gault Sterling — set out to save the work. Within a month they raised $40,000. That was enough to remove the mural, conserve it, and reinstall it at its new home: The Westport Library. 

It stayed there for more than 2 decades. When the transformation project was announced, and a suitable spot could not be found for the work, Westport arts curator Kathy Motes Bennewitz and members of the Westport Public Art Collection searched for a large wall, with plenty of foot traffic.

They — with architect Scott  Springer — found it, at Staples High School. Now, the enormous, eye-catching mural hangs proudly near the auditorium lobby, just a few feet from the Staples library.

2) When Saugatuck was an elementary school, Pete Seeger — at the time, blacklisted as a folk singer — performed on its auditorium stage. 

14 responses to “The Saugatuck: A Cooperative Thrives On Bridge Street

  1. Great success story and housing for seniors. Thanks for the shout out to Joe Veno, one of the best Sextons Christ & Holy Trinity church ever had and one of the most caring people I know.

  2. I have fond memories of attending school at Saugatuck Elementary from kindergarten through 6th grade. I remember the mural well and was so happy that it was saved. I became an art teacher and actually subbed at Saugatuck and was able to be with some of my former teachers.

  3. My Grandmother, Marion Wakeman Jacob and her brother Burritt Wakeman and my Dad, Don Kellogg, attended the Bridge Street School. My Uncle Bill Kellogg attended the new school bldg. Miss King, my kindergarten teacher also taught my dad. My grandmother, Edythe Kellogg, was instrumental in setting up the school lunch program at Saugatuck School. The day will come when I’ll need to return to CT to be closer to the kids. I can envision an apt at The Saugatuck. (If I’m lucky.)

  4. Great article. Thanks Dan for such informative articles. I think I remember that mural at Staples when you did the Staples tour for our 40th HS reunion in June.

    • Thanks, Diana. And yes, I end the reunion tours underneath that mural. It’s a perfect combination of yesterday and today.

  5. Jack Backiel

    If Westport had a nickname, it would be called Woogport!

  6. Peter W Grieves

    I attend Saugatuck until 1955, when I went to BJHS. Wonderful to see
    what they have done with the building. I have many great memories
    of those days!!!!!

  7. Werner Liepolt

    The Saugatuck is indeed a success story: Westport’s only housing for elderly, a historically significant building crowning a neighborhood of more than twenty in the Bridge Street Neighborhood a nationally recognized historic district, home to energetic and active residents that complement and complete a neighborhood of young and middle-aged.

    But let’s not let the mists of time cloud its origin. The lawsuit the 64 neighbors filed (I was one.) was to stop a town plan to raze the building and construct 90 units of rental housing. The lawsuit was initiated when neighbors realized that their concerns about density, loss of open space, and the transformation of their neighborhood of historic homes were going unheard by elected officials.

    The lawsuit, in fact, proposed a maximum of 36 units. While the neighbors cooperated, the town did not. Then Selectman Seiden stalled the development for more than three years and—spitefully—halted maintenance allowing the empty building to moulder and become rat-infested.

    The settlement allowed Reverend Ted Hoskins and a committee which included neighbors to engage a non-profit, the New Samaritan Corporation, to develop and manage the property. It was this committee’s efforts that lay the foundation for the admirable community asset The Saugatuck is today.

    • Werner – Great clarification; the lawsuit Dan referred to actually helped shape The Saugatuck into the success story (for all) it turned into. Activism by Westport residents most-often has a positive result or influence.

  8. Tom Duquette, SHS '75

    Many, many fond memories of attending Saugatuck Elementary from K thru 6 back in the 60’s. An easy walk or bike ride from my Valley Road home . I remember those big windows and murals too. It was fun to be able to go to school with many of the same people from kindergarten to BJHS and later graduate together at Staples. So glad it’s been re-purposed instead of being demolished- I wouldn’t mind living there.

  9. Luisa Francoeur

    The only downside that I am aware of is the lack of a parking garage. These residents, by design over age 62, are responsible for removing the snow from and around their cars.

  10. Those beautiful windows we were so privileged to look out of every day. I remember them well. I remember every hallway and the smells of the lunchroom entrance across from the library and steps down to the gym. I remember the Christmas caroling on the white front steps in the winter and the square dances on the back playground in the spring. Saugatuck was a great elementary school. So glad the building survived the lawsuits!