Bill Ryan moved to Westport 50 years ago this month. Except for 3 years in Paris, he has been here ever since. He and his wife Catherine’s 3 daughters went through the Westport public schools. Two grandsons are in Staples now; 2 small granddaughters enter the school system soon.
Bill spent much of his career with IBM, in corporate finance. He was also VP of internal audit with AmeriCares, then returned to IBM to run a leadership development program for nearly a decade.
Locally he coached softball, and has been active in the Kings Highway North/Wright Street neighborhood association. (“Blame me for the speed humps or stop signs,” he says.)
Bill is also a member of the Historic District Committee. It’s a natural fit: His first home was in what is now the Gorham Historic District. He’s spent 40 years in the Kings Highway North Historic District — which is celebrating its 50th anniversary.
“Westport is losing its New England charm. Too many houses are being torn down!”
While that refrain has been heard a lot over the past few years, it’s not new. It can be traced back at least to the early 1970s.
But back then a group of Westporters decided to do something about it. They formed a committee to explore establishing a local historic district. They hoped that by doing so, one of Westport’s oldest neighborhoods and many of its older structures could be preserved.
The result of their efforts was the Kings Highway North Historic District, created by an RTM ordinance in 1973. Coincident with the creation of the District, per state law, Westport’s Historic District Commission was established. It too has been functioning for 50 years.
Among the homes in the Kings Highway North Historic District: 104 Kings Highway North …
The committee was headed by the late Sylvia Milberg. It included Jacqueline Heneage who shortly after was elected Westport’s first female 1st Selectman.
Also on the committee was local architect Bob Gault, a scion of the long-time Westport family.
He now lives in Maine. But he remembers well the work the committee put in to see the District come to fruition.
“People were getting tired of seeing so many homes falling to the wrecking ball. Many of us were concerned there would be little of Westport’s history retained. The Kings Highway North area was a natural place to focus.” Gault recalls.
The committee zeroed in on Kings Highwa North and Wright Street. Property on Edge Hill Road, two parcels on Wilton Road and one on Old Hill Road were included, totaling 71 properties in all.
… 45 Kings Highway North …
To be approved, at least 75% of the property owners had to agree. While the measure passed handily, Gault recalls it was not without some cajoling. “Nobody in Town Hall is going to be telling you what color to paint your house!” members said.
As part of the process to justify the area as historic, the committee spent nearly 2 years gathering information and filing reports, before culminating in RTM approval.
This researched events that would fortify the position that the District was of historic significance. For example, many of Westport first settlers owned homes within the District, most of which still stand.
While George Washington may never have slept or dined along Kings Highway North, records show that he traveled along the road more than once. So did other historical figures, such as Lafayette.
The road was the prime east-west route before a bridge was established (where the Ruth Steinkraus Cohen Bridge is now located). The road curved to the north, where fording the river was enabled at the current location of the Kings Highway North Bridge.
In addition, the triangle green at the intersection with Old Hill Road was a military drill ground during the French and Indian War.
… and 6 Edge Hill Road.
In 1998 the Kings Highway North Historic District received the added distinction of being included in the National Register of Historic Homes.
In contrast to other neighborhoods, the streetscape in the District is pretty much what it was like 50 years ago. Trees and shrubs come and go, but structures have endured or been enhanced.
Property improvements and alterations do take place, as is very much in evidence on several properties.
But for changes affecting direct sightline from the street, a Certificate of Appropriateness must be presented to and approved by the HDC. The commission and its administrator work closely with property owners to ensure an efficient and effective resolution, in keeping with the history of the property.
A drive through the District today shows that changes do take place, but with an eye on history.
Even better: a walk through the area.
Kings Highway North Historic District walking tour.
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