Category Archives: History

Read This Story. Buy This House.

“06880” has written often — and admiringly — of a handsome old Cross Highway home.

Built in 1728 by Samuel Meeker, it was already half a century old when the British marched past, on their way to Danbury. They took Meeker’s 2 sons prisoners — but not without a fight. A musket ball lodged in the door offered vivid evidence that this house had history.

Today, it’s known as the Schilthuis-Meeker house. (More history: Sally Schilthuis was influential in preventing construction of Merritt Parkway Exit 43 in the area, resulting in the current “No Man’s Land” between Exits 42 and 44).

The saltbox incorporates 3 vernaculars of American architectural history. It almost met the wrecking ball, but owners Mark Yurkiw and Wendy Van Wie spent several years (and a ton of money) restoring it, and ensuring its legal preservation in perpetuity.

The front view of 180 Cross Highway. (Photo/Amy Dolego)

The front view of 188 Cross Highway. (Photo/Amy Dolego)

Next Wednesday, the house will be listed for sale. But Mark and Wendy are offering a unique opportunity to “06880” readers:

You can buy it before it hits the market.

No, I’m not pimping real estate on the side. But I love this house. I’d buy it myself if I had a few hundred thousand dollars floating around.

And because the owners want to find someone as special as the place they’ve worked hard to protect and preserve — someone who appreciates the home’s connection to Westport, US and architectural history — I’m happy to help.

The rear view. (Photo/Amy Dolego)

The rear view.

The listing price is $1,499,000. But if you contact Mark and Wendy before Tuesday afternoon (February 28), they’re willing to work with you. “We can be creative in how it’s sold to the best buyer,” they add.

Timing is everything. If you’re interested, email mark.think3d@gmail.com before next Wednesday.

Just tell ’em your real estate advisor — “06880” — sent you.

The sitting and dining room.

The sitting and dining room.

The living room.

The living room.

Friday Flashback #26

Last month’s Women’s March on Washington was quite an event. It drew dozens of Westporters — some of whom had never participated in anything like it before. They returned home excited, energized and empowered.

Just imagine how the women of the Westport Equal Franchise League felt, when they participated in Suffrage Week activities right here in 1913.

Kathie Motes Bennewitz — the town art curator and amateur historian who unearthed all this information — provides a clipping from the Bridgeport Evening Farmer of November 13 of that year. It says:

A meeting of the Westport Equal Franchise League was held at the home of Mrs. Rose Barrell on Myrtle avenue yesterday afternoon. The final arrangements for the Suffrage Week which will be held next week was made. The first gun of the week will be fired on Sunday evening when the Rev. K. McKenzie will address the gathering at Holy Trinity church at 7:30 o’clock. On Monday a rally and parade will be held which will be followed by addresses.

The parade will form at the corner of Myrtle avenue and Main street and will march to the Square. A brass band has been secured and it is expected that a large number of women will be in line. After the parade a rally will be held at which the following will give addresses: The Wage Earning Women, Mrs. E. Gregory of South Norwalk; The Necessary of Mother’s Vote, Mrs. Robert Fuller; Probation Work by Mrs. D. O. Parker of Greenwich, who at present is probation officer of that town; Taxation Without Representation, Mrs. Rose Barrell. The other speakers of the evening will be Mrs. G. C. Brown, Mrs. Rufus Putney and others.

How did the parade and rally go?

We don’t know. There was no follow-up report.

However, Kathie did find out that the Westport Equal Franchise League — to support women’s right to vote — had been formed a year earlier, in March 1912.

And Kathie learned that the 1913 Suffrage Week events in Westport were part of a national movement, kicked off by a parade in Washington, DC.

The women's suffrage parade marches down Pennsylvania Avenue on March 3, 1913. The National Park Service did not offer a crowd estimate.

The women’s suffrage parade marches down Pennsylvania Avenue on March 3, 1913. The National Park Service did not offer a crowd estimate.

The Westport Equal Franchise League kept going. The participated in the Hartford Suffrage Parade on May 2, 1914.

Six years later, the 19th Amendment — giving women the vote — became the law of the land.

A poster for the Hartford suffrage event. Westport women participated.

A poster for a Hartford suffrage event.

Ben Franklin Meets Beechwood

Last week, Beechwood Arts & Innovation held its 1st-ever Ben Franklin Dinner.

Modeled after the Junto — a club Franklin created for “mutual improvement” of the self, the community and society — BFDs draw together a dozen or so guests from a diverse cross-section of cultures and generations, with a mix of professions from the arts, science, business, civics and education.

Ben Franklin

Ben Franklin

Each Ben Franklin Dinner begins with a toast and a bite to eat. After a short artistic or music performance comes dinner. A guided conversation ensues, around that evening’s topic.

One of the attendees at Beechwood Arts was Alicia Cobb. She says:

Last week I attended a dinner with 12 other people. I knew the hosts but most of the others I had never met, or only in passing.

When I arrived I quickly realized I was completely different than everyone. I felt out of place for the first 10 minutes or so. A woman sitting next to me struck up a conversation. We talked for 10 minutes, before the facilitator got our attention.

The topic of the dinner discussion was empathy. As you read this, take a moment to define empathy for yourself. What does it mean to you?

We were asked to do this. Every answer was different, but similar. Each person had a different point of view, but we all took the time to really think about them.

After 2 hours of discussion, I realized I wasn’t that different. We all had very diverse backgrounds, but were brought into the room for a reason. That was the whole point.

Attendees at Beechwood's first Ben Franklin Day dinner. Alicia Cobb is in the bottom row, 2nd from right. Hosts Jeanine Esposito and Frederic Chiu are in the middle row, center and far right.

Attendees at Beechwood’s first Ben Franklin Day dinner. Alicia Cobb is in the bottom row, 2nd from right. Hosts Jeanine Esposito and Frederic Chiu are in the middle row, center and far right.

One of these people was a 91-year-old woman with many stories. I was intrigued by her essence; her independence, and how much pride she took in every word she said and every step she made.

I saw myself in this woman. I imagine that if I am blessed enough to make it to 91, I’ll be something like her.

I’m not the social butterfly that most people might think I am. I am sometimes socially awkward, and often struggle meeting new people. This is a challenge I’ve been working to overcome my entire life. Being around that table with this particular group struck a chord in me. I know I will never be the same again.

The point is: You belong. We all belong here or we wouldn’t be here. You may often feel out of place, but you deserve to be here.

beechwood-logoI’ll practice the art of empathy more actively now. I’ll strike up conversations with strangers and go places I’ve never been because I want to, because I need to. The world needs more of this — the ability to be different yet the same. Thank you to our hosts who challenged us in such a way.

Go have conversation with people you think you have nothing in common with. Go places you’ve never been. Find some kind of common ground with someone you are totally opposed to. Practice empathy; put yourself in another person’s shoes and really feel what they are feeling.

You can’t grow in your comfort zone. Get out of there. Let the healing begin.

In 1727 — the year Ben Franklin held his 1st dinner — a copper beech tree on Weston Road  was just a sapling.

Eighty years later, the home that is now Beechwood was built.

Two centuries after that, Frederic Chiu and Jeanine Esposito own and love Beechwood. 

Beechwood House, with its magnificent copper beech tree.

Beechwood House, with its magnificent copper beech tree.

They share it with wonderfully diverse people, through their Beechwood Arts & Innovation program. Now they’ve added Ben Franklin Dinners to it.

Franklin started them decades before we became a country. Today, we need them more than ever.

(Click here to read more about Beechwood Arts’ 1st Ben Franklin Dinner.)

Granted, That Wedding Was A Long Time Ago

I went all through elementary, junior and high school with Wendy Grant.

But until I read a story about the 1st-ever wedding announcement in the New York Times, I had no idea she was related to Ulysses S. Grant.

That’s just one fascinating tidbit, in a piece filled with them.

Lois Smith Brady — the Times‘ longtime Sunday Styles “Vows” columnist — writes about an 1851, 1-sentence announcement describing the marriage of John Grant and Sarah Mullett. He grew up on a farm in Vermont, the oldest of 13 children. He taught himself law, became a New York Supreme Court justice, and was a cousin of the Army lieutenant who went on to become a Civil War hero and US president.

The wedding announcement of John Grant and Sarah Mullett.

The September 18, 1851 wedding announcement of John Grant and Sarah Mullett.

Today, portraits of John and Sarah hang in Wendy’s New Haven home. She’s a psychotherapist, with a 21st-century story her famous ancestors could never have conceived.

Wendy’s brother, David Marshall Grant, graduated from Staples in 1973. A Players actor who went on to the Yale School of Drama, he earned fame with credits like “thirtysomething,” “The Devil Wears Prada” and “Angels in America” (Tony nomination).

Every Christmas, the Grant family gathers at Wendy’s home. They take a family photo, underneath John and Sarah’s portraits.

Wendy Grant took his photo of her husband, Marshal Mandelkern (top left), brother David Marshall Grant (lower left), her 3 sons and their partners, and her granddaughter, all under the stern eyes of John and Sarah Grant.

Wendy Grant took this photo of her husband, Marshal Mandelkern (top left), brother David Marshall Grant (lower left), her 3 sons and their partners, and her granddaughter, all under the stern eyes of John and Sarah Grant.

The Times photo showed everyone wearing decidedly un-1851 tie-dyed scarves and shirts. David Marshall Grant was there with his husband, and their 6-year-old daughter.

They were joined by Wendy’s 3 sons. All are gay — and all posed joyfully with their partners.

John and Sarah look dour — though not because so many descendants are gay.

“It was a less joyful time,” David Marshall Grant told the Times. “I’m sure there were struggles just to get by. I can’t imagine what it was like just to make breakfast.

“I’m angry when there’s a line at Starbucks.”

(To read the entire Times story, click here. Hat tip: Ann Sheffer)

Remembering Bill Buckley

Bill Buckley — a pioneering, award-winning filmmaker with a lifelong commitment to social justice and activism — died Friday. The longtime Westporter was 89.

Buckley’s “day job” was making legal videos for a company he owned, B&B Productions. But he was best known for his more than half century of collaboration with fellow Westporter Tracy Sugarman. Their civil rights documentaries are regarded as classics — and national treasures.

Bill Buckley

Bill Buckley, in a typical pose.

In 1969, the duo — with their wives, June Sugarman and Ellie Buckley — formed Rediscovery. The mission was to honor the contributions of black men and women to American society, in areas like medicine, science, politics and the arts.

It was an “integrated” company. The films they produced with African American artists were groundbreaking, and staples of public television for many years.

A charter member of the Director’s Guild of America, Buckley helped create campaign films for John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. He also worked with Harry Truman on the award-winning television series “Years of Decision.”

I wish had more details of Buckley’s remarkable life. He was a humble man who has not left an internet trail worthy of his work. Suffice it to say that — with Sugarman — his work has affected countless Americans, and motivated many to work for human rights of all kinds.

Buckley’s wife Judy Hamer and family will receive visitors at their home — 2325 Meadow Ridge in Redding — today and tomorrow (Sunday and Monday, January 22 and 23), from 2 to 5 p.m.

A memorial service — filled with jazz music — will be planned in the future.

(To see a sample from Buckley’s video “The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer: Never Turn Back,” click here.)

Teens: What Do You Think Of White Privilege?

Since its founding in 2003, TEAM Westport has tackled some of society’s — and Westport’s — most intractable problems.

Now the town’s multicultural committee is asking teenagers to join them — and write about it.

TEAM Westport’s 4th annual essay contest focuses on the hot-button issue of white privilege. In 1,000 words or less, students are asked to describe the term; reflect on the extent to which they think white privilege exists, and address the impact it has had on their life — whatever their own racial or ethnic identity — and in our broader society.

TEAM WestportTEAM Westport chair Harold Bailey says, “A primary focus and concern of our organization since its inception has been the impact of the town’s relatively low levels of racial and ethnic diversity on our children. This year’s essay topic provides our young people an opportunity to reflect upon that impact, and make their personal statements about it in very meaningful ways.”

The 1st place winner will receive $1,000. Second prize is $750; 3rd is $500.

All students in grades 9 through 12 who attend Staples High School or another school in Westport, or who live in Westport but attend school elsewhere, are eligible.

That’s a somewhat diverse group. And if past essay contests are any indication, this contest will spur diverse reactions — and plenty of insightful essays.

TEAM Westport’s acronym stands for Together Effectively Achieving Multiculturalism. In many discussions of multiculturalism, the default identity of whiteness is simply assumed. That can be particularly true in Westport.

Let’s hear what today’s teenagers — tomorrow’s leaders, in an increasingly multicultural society — think.

The winning essays will be published on “06880,”

(Click here for contest applications. Essays are due February 27. To help sponsor the contest, click here or email info@teamwestport.org.) 

MLK

This story has become a Martin Luther King Day tradition on “06880.”

Today is Martin Luther King Day. Westporters will celebrate with a day off from school or work.  Some will sleep in; others will ski, or take part in a Staples basketball clinic for younger players. Few will give any thought to Martin Luther King.

Twice, though, his life intersected this town in important ways.

Martin Luther KingThe first was Friday night, May 22, 1964. According to Woody Klein’s book Westport, Connecticut, King had been invited to speak at Temple Israel by synagogue member Jerry Kaiser.

King arrived in the afternoon. Kaiser and his wife Roslyn sat on their porch that afternoon, and talked with King and 2 of his aides. She was impressed with his “sincerity, warmth, intelligence and genuine concern for those about him — our children, for instance. He seemed very young to bear such a burden of leadership.”

King’s sermon — to a packed audience — was titled “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution.” He analogized his America to the time of Rip Van Winkle — who also “slept through a revolution. The greatest liability of history is that people fail to see a revolution taking place in our world today.  We must support the social movement of the Negro.”

Westport artist Roe Halper presented King with 3 woodcarvings, representing the civil rights struggle. He hung them proudly in the front hallway of his Atlanta home.

Artist Roe Harper (left) presents Coretta Scott King with civil rights-themed wood carvings.

Within a month Temple Israel’s rabbi, Byron Rubenstein, traveled south to take place in a nonviolent march. He was arrested — along with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King.

In jail, the rabbi said, “I came to know the greatness of Dr. King. I never heard a word of hate or bitterness from that man, only worship of faith, joy and determination.”

King touched Westport again less than 4 years later. On April 5, 1968 — the day after the civil rights leader’s assassination in Memphis — 600 Staples students gathered for a lunchtime vigil in the courtyard. Nearby, the flag flew at half-staff.

A small portion of the large crowd listens intently to Fermino Spencer, in the Staples courtyard.

A small portion of the large crowd listens intently to Fermino Spencer, in the Staples courtyard.

Vice principal Fermino Spencer addressed the crowd. Movingly, he spoke about  his own experience as an African American. Hearing the words “my people” made a deep impression on the almost all-white audience. For many, it was the 1st time they had heard a black perspective on white America.

No one knew what lay ahead for their country. But student Jim Sadler spoke for many when he said: “I’m really frightened. Something is going to happen.”

Something did — and it was good. A few hundred students soon met in the cafeteria. Urged by a minister and several anti-poverty workers to help bridge the chasm between Westport and nearby cities, Staples teachers and students vowed to create a camp.

Within 2 months, it was a reality. That summer 120 elementary and junior high youngsters from Westport, Weston, Norwalk and Bridgeport participated in the Intercommunity Camp. Led by over 100 Staples students and many teachers, they enjoyed swimming, gymnastics, dance, sports, field trips, overnight camping, creative writing, filmmaking, photography, art and reading.

It wasn’t easy — some in Westport opposed bringing underprivileged children to their town — but for over a decade the Intercommunity Camp flourished.

Eventually, enthusiasm for and interest in the camp waned. Fewer Staples students and staff members wanted to devote their summer to such a project.  The number of Westporters willing to donate their pools dwindled. Today the Intercommunity Camp is a long-forgotten memory.

Sort of like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. Even on his birthday.

MLK speech

What Would Martin Do?

Looking for a way to honor Martin Luther King?

Excited — or frightened — about the presidential inauguration?

Westport’s 11th annual Martin Luther King Day Celebration fills both bills.

This Sunday (January 15, 3 p.m., Westport Country Playhouse), check out an intriguing talk. It’s called “WWMD: What Would Martin Do in the Era of Post-Race Racism?”

Professor Tricia Rose

Professor Tricia Rose

The keynote speaker is Dr. Tricia Rose. She’s a Brown University professor of Africana studies, director of its Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America, and a well-respected scholar of post-civil rights and black US culture.

Rose — who has been featured on PBS, CNN, NPR and many other media outlets — will talk about race in the current political environment, from the perspective of King’s philosophy. A Q-and-A session follows.

There’s also music from the Men’s Community Gospel Chorus of Norwalk; a spoken word piece based on King’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” presented by students from Trumbull’s Regional Center for the Arts, and refreshments.

The event — co-sponsored by the Playhouse, Westport/Weston Interfaith Council and TEAM Westport — is free. The Westport Weston Family YMCA will provide childcare and activities.

For more information on “WWMD: What Would Martin Do?” click here. For highlights of last year’s Martin Luther King Day celebration, click the video below.

 

A Westporter Says Goodbye To John Glenn

Jo Ann Miller — a longtime Westporter and resident and realtor here — is in Columbus, Ohio this weekend to say goodbye to her godfather, John Glenn. The astronaut/senator/American hero died last week, at 95.

John Glenn and his goddaughter, Jo Ann Miller.

John Glenn and his wife, Annie.

Jo Ann’s late father, Lt. Gen. Thomas Miller, went to flight school with Glenn at the outbreak of World War II.  They flew together at Midway, and several years later in the same squadron in Korea (along with baseball great Ted Williams).  Glenn and Miller grew as tight as brothers, and built identical houses next to each other in Arlington, Virginia in 1958. Their combined brood of 5 children became great friends.

In 1962, when Glenn made his historic orbits around the eaerth, Jo Ann served coffee and donuts to the press in Arlington.

Despite the scenes in the movie “The Right Stuff,” Vice President Lyndon Johnson never visited the house. Jo Ann’s “Aunt Annie” — Glenn’s wife of 73 years — was not afraid of anyone, Jo Ann says. “Especially LBJ.”

Jo Ann attended the 1980 Democratic Convention, when Glenn gave the keynote address, and in 1984 when he attempted to gain the nomination for President.

She and her father were at Cape Canaveral in 1997, providing commentary for NBC News, when Glenn returned to space at 77 years old.

Jo Ann Miller and John Glenn at Ohio State University.

Jo Ann Miller and John Glenn at Ohio State University.

Jo Ann also watched Glenn give the commencement address at Ohio State University in 2009, where the school of public affairs is named for him. Her “Uncle Johnny” shook hands with over 8,000 graduates — and had his picture taken with every one.

“John Glenn was a great American patriot who served his country for 47 years,” Jo Ann says. “He was a courageous hero who believed in God, family and country.

“But I knew him as a man of kindness, humility and compassion. Those are the traits I will remember him by.”

Glenn will be memorialized at Ohio State today by Vice President Joe Biden, and over 3,000 guests. He will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery on April 6th — his wedding anniversary.

(Hat tip: Carl Addison Swanson)