Category Archives: Looking back

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

Compo Marina: Then And Now

In the wake of my recent “06880” post about the upcoming Compo Beach marina dredging project — specifically, who should pay for it — plenty of folks weighed in (on both sides of the issue).

The 50-plus comments included several from long-time and once-upon-a-time slip owners. Some recalled an era before permanent docks, when you did not have to wait several years for a mooring permit.

Now, alert reader Matt Murray sends along this fascinating aerial photo:

compo-marina-aerial-1965-rp-lentini

Click on or hover over to enlarge.

The shot — taken by R.P. Lentini in 1965 – shows a much less crowded basin, for sure. And yes, owners had to toot horns to be ferried from their boat to the dock.

But there are some other interesting items too, which you can see clearly if you hover over the photo or click on to enlarge.

Chubby Lane’s concession stand sits where the volleyball courts are today.

To the south of Chubby’s and the pavilion are the old (and very scary) wooden bathhouses.

But what are those two rectangular things in the bottom of the photo, near the west end of the circular drive?

And — most importantly — why was there no one at the beach?

It’s mid-summer; the trees are full. But there are just a couple of cars, and no one on the sand.

It’s hard to tell from the photo. Perhaps it was taken just after a thunderstorm.

Or maybe no one went to Compo in the summer of ’65?

A much more recent shot of the Compo Beach Ned Dimes Marina.

A much more recent shot of the Compo Beach Ned Dimes Marina.

Friday Flashback #22

In the early 1950s, Peter Barlow took this photo:

westnor-diner-1950s-peter-barlow

Here’s the back story. The car-carrying  truck was parked outside the Westnor Diner one evening. The Westnor was on the corner of Post Road West and Sylvan Road North — where J. Pocker and Belmondo are now. The diner’s name comes from its Westport location, near Norwalk — get it?

In those days — before I-95 — all trucks traveled on the Post Road. It was a mess. As much as we loathe the highway, it’s taken tons of traffic off our streets.

Peter — who took this photo with an amateur camera (using a flashbulb) — figures that with all the snow on the truck, the driver was inside “having a leisurely meal.”

This is a serene scene. But directly across the street, a few years earlier — on May 2, 1946 — a truck blew a tire, smashing into a drum filled with vulcanizing cement.

The resulting explosion set off a spectacular blaze. Fire chief Frank Dennert, former fire chief Francis Dunnigan, and 2 other firefighters were killed. Eight people were injured. It was one of the worst disasters in Westport history.

Restaurant Rights Abandoned; Big Changes Ahead For Old Mill Beach

The on-again, off-again, on-again saga of a restaurant near Old Mill Beach is off again.

This time, forever.

When Positano — the latest in a string of restaurants on Hillspoint Road — closed almost exactly 2 years ago, there was speculation the new owners wanted to tear it down, and build a big house right there on the sand.

There was also talk that some neighbors — fearing the loss of their shoreline view, and enjoying the funkiness of a restaurant in the midst of a residential area — were doing what they could to make sure a new restaurant took Positano’s place.

The "Positano property," at Old Mill Beach diagonally across from Elvira's.

The “Positano property,” at Old Mill Beach diagonally across from Elvira’s.

That was somewhat ironic. When Positano applied for patio dining in 2012, neighborhood opposition scuttled the plan. Lack of outdoor seating was one factor leading to Positano’s closing, and its subsequent move to a new location next to the Westport Country Playhouse.

Though a number of residents worked for months to get another restaurant on the site, one neighbor continued to object. She sued.

Now comes news that the owner of the property — an LLC with an office in Nashville, Tennessee — has filed an affidavit with Westport’s Planning and Zoning Department. The owner acknowledges and affirms that “any and all commercial uses of the premises at 233 Hillspoint Road have been irrevocably abandoned and discontinued.”

In other words, any chances for a new restaurant — grandfathered in as a pre-existing condition — has been killed. Now, and in perpetuity.

Before it was Positano, 233 Hillspoint Road was several other restaurants (including, most notably, Cafe de la Plage). But before THAT it was a grocery store. Among its names: Beach Food Mart, and Joe's.

Before it was Positano, 233 Hillspoint Road was several other restaurants (including, most notably, Cafe de la Plage). But before THAT it was a grocery store. Among its names: Beach Food Mart (above), and Joe’s.

So what happens next?

The property is back on the market. It’s listed as “A Generational Waterfront Opportunity.”

Potential buyers have a chance to “build and live directly on Compo Cove Beach’s [sic] most unique [sic] lot with spectacular Long Island Sound views.” The land “is now available for a luxury private home to be built.”

Buyers can enjoy “the most beautiful expansive water views, spectacular sunrises and sunsets” (those sunsets might be tough, since the listing notes it is an “east facing property”, and Compo Hill is a substantial obstruction to the west).

This photo from the real estate listing shows the current footprint of the former restaurant (center). The yellow line shows the property boundaries.

This photo from the real estate listing shows the current footprint of the former restaurant (center). The yellow line shows the property boundaries. Click on or hover over to enlarge.

The listing continues:

Enjoy the ever-changing tides and light, the shore birds, and the tranquility that exists with living right on the beach. With no neighbor to your right,  it’s like having your own front row seat to the best Long Island Sound offers — sunbathing, swimming, fishing boating…

Seize this opportunity to create your own magnificent custom home for the first time ever on this site.

The cost?

A mere $4,500,000.

But wait! There’s more!

Elvira’s — diagonally across Hillspoint from #233 — continues to be on the market too. There’s been no sale yet, but word on the soon-to-drastically-change street is that it may not remain a grocery store/ community center.

All of which is food for thought.

A good place to think about it is at the Sherwood Mill Pond Preserve.

You know — where for nearly a century, Allen’s Clam House used to be.

4 Stony Brook, 5 Golden Rings

It was always a tense moment.

We gathered in the cozy living room of the Bacharachs’ house on Stony Brook Road. We’d caught up on each other’s lives, had a bit of food, sung a few warm-up Christmas carols.

Now it was time for “The 12 Days of Christmas.” Slips of paper would be passed out. Which “day” would you get?

There were a few dozen of us — old and young, relatives and friends, from near and far — but 12 days is a lot. Each of us would have only 3 or 4 other singers to help out.

All ages gathered at the Bacharachs' house for the annual carol sing. This photo is from the early 1970s.

All ages gathered at the Bacharachs’ house for the annual carol sing. This photo is from the 1970s.

If you were a good singer — and many of the Bacharachs and their guests were — you were happy to get the 1st day: “a partridge in a pear tree.” Another prize was “5 golden rings.” You could draw that one out like Enrico Caruso.

I love music. Unfortunately, my voice does not. I always hoped for “12 drummers drumming.” Inevitably, I got “2 turtle doves.”

I thought of all that recently, when a group of former Bacharach carol singers got together. I was with some storied Westport names — Anne Leonard Hardy, Suzanne Sherman Propp — and the more we chatted, the more we realized those holiday gatherings were more than just a fond memory.

They were transformative moments in our lives.

The Bacharachs' library, where generations gathered to sing. (Photo/Robert Colameco)

The Bacharachs’ library, where generations gathered to sing. (Photo/Robert Colameco)

It wasn’t just the warmth of the Bacharachs’ home — a 1796 farmhouse with a 3-sided fireplace in one of the oldest sections of town, that could have come right out of colonial New England central casting.

It wasn’t the warmth of the annual holiday party either, with its cherished traditions: the smiling patriarch Jim Bacharach leading everyone in song; his wife, the equally delightful DoDo, carving up ham and ladling out egg nog; the tree in the same spot every year, unchanging amid the turbulence of the world around.

And it wasn’t the guest list: the Bacharachs’ friends and neighbors; their 5 kids’ friends; girlfriends, boyfriends, college friends — the more the merrier. Jim and DoDo embraced them all.

DoDo Bacharach

DoDo Bacharach

All those memories came flooding back, as Anne and Suzanne and a few others talked. But it was something else that made those particular carol sings such a powerful piece of our past.

Among the folks always in the Bacharachs’ home were adults we knew from Staples High School: teachers we admired and respected. Phil Woodruff, the next door neighbor. Dick Leonard. Dave and Marianne Harrison. All were there, year after year.

At first we were a little intimidated by them. Singing “The 12 Days of Christmas” with the same people who handed out homework and gave us grades was — different. But socializing with those adults in that way made us feel a bit like adults too.

As we grew up, we grew in other ways. We graduated from Staples, and entered college. Returning to the Bacharachs’ for the carol sing, we had new things to talk about. We told them what we were studying. We offered our opinions. We were probably a bit pretentious, but our former teachers listened.

Relating with them on that level validated us. Those adult-type conversations — respectful, honest, about real issues — were some of the first times I felt like an adult myself.

At the same time, as I looked around at the many “kids” there, I saw younger versions of myself. I realized I had once been like them. For the first time I understood what it meant to grow up. I recognized with clarity that at that point, my life was poised between my past and my future.

As we moved on into the “real world” — with real jobs — we kept returning to that carol sing. Now we were the adults. The Bacharachs, Leonards, Shermans and others got married, and started families. And every year, they brought their own children to the annual Christmas party.

The Bacharachs' next door neighbor John Woodruff, with his young daughter Emily.

The Bacharachs’ next door neighbor John Woodruff, with his young daughter Emily at the carol sing.

The Bacharach carol sing is no more. Sadly, the house was torn down, replaced by something far less warm and much less meaningful.

But the memories remain, as strong as ever. It was a joy to share those memories the other day, with good friends who remember those great days.

Something else is strong too: My sense of self, nurtured so lovingly by those adults years ago, when I was a teenager trying to figure the world out.

Over ham, over egg nog — and yes, over the dreaded “12 Days of Christmas” — I tasted Westport at its best.

Friday Flashback #19

This is one of our most intriguing Friday Flashbacks ever. It’s a great 1920s-era photo. It shows a place I’ve never heard of — and one I sure can’t identify.

(Photo courtesy of Seth Schachter)

Click on or hover over to enlarge. (Photo courtesy of Seth Schachter)

The caption says “Flambeau Tea Room.” There’s another word after “Flambeau,” but I can’t make it out. It might be “Salon,” or it might be another name. Click on or hover over the photo in case your eyes are better than mine.

At first glance, the building on the left resembles the Westport Country Playhouse. The one on the right looks like what’s now Positano restaurant.

But in the ’20s, the current Playhouse was a tannery that had fallen into disuse. And if you look closely, you’ll see a tall white structure behind the building on the right.

So who was Flambeau? What was his or her tea room? And where was it? If you know, click “Comments” below.

Meanwhile: It sure looks like an interesting place!

It’s A Wonderful Bridge

Alert — and historic-minded — “06880” reader Wendy Crowther sent along this perfect holiday/Westport piece. She writes:

A few days ago, my TV remote dropped me into the last half of the 1946 holiday classic, It’s a Wonderful Life. I entered the story just as George Bailey ran onto the Bedford Falls Bridge and contemplated suicide. Luckily George’s guardian angel, Clarence, showed up just in time to help George see the value of his life, and its impact on his town and loved ones.

Though I’ve seen the movie a bazillion times, this time I noticed something I hadn’t seen before. George Bailey’s bridge was very similar to our own Saugatuck swing bridge (the William F. Cribari Bridge).

George Bailey on the Bedford Falls bridge (1946).

George Bailey on the Bedford Falls bridge (1946).

Due to my involvement over the last year and a half in efforts to not only document the history of our 132-year old span, but also save it from the impending doom of the state Department of Transportation’s scrap heap, I’ve become  sensitized to old bridges in general — particularly truss bridges like ours (and George’s).

Seeing the movie from this new perspective, I became intrigued by the film’s use of the bridge as a symbol. Sixty years ago, when It’s a Wonderful Life was first released, plenty of small truss bridges still existed. Clearly, it was one of many elements used by the filmmakers to convey the quaint, homey feel of a small, American town — towns like Westport, and thousands of others across the country.

George Bailey’s bridge, set in fictional Bedford Falls, plays a pivotal role in the story. The 2 most transformative moments occur as George stands upon it:  the first as he prepares to jump from it, the second when he returns to the bridge and desperately pleads, “I want to live.”

It’s believed that the town of Seneca Falls, New York was director Frank Capra’s inspiration for It’s a Wonderful Life. He supposedly visited Seneca Falls during the time the screenplay was being developed. Seneca Falls has a real bridge that looks much like the one depicted in the movie.

It also looks a lot like our Saugatuck swing bridge.

George Bailey on the Bedford Falls bridge (left); the actual Seneca Falls bridge (right). (Photos/Ottawarewind.com)

George Bailey on the Bedford Falls bridge (left); the actual Seneca Falls bridge (right). (Photos/Ottawarewind.com)

Though the Seneca Falls bridge and Westport’s are similar in many ways, Seneca’s can’t hold a candle to our own.

Our bridge, built in 1884, is 132 years old — the oldest active bridge of its type in the nation.  Seneca’s, built in 1915, is a mere 101. Both are truss bridges, though ours is longer and made of iron; theirs is made of steel. Our bridge swings open for boat traffic; theirs doesn’t. The roads over both bridges are known as Bridge Street — but ours has the additional honor of being designated a State Scenic Road.

Our bridge crosses the Saugatuck River; theirs crosses the Seneca. Both bridges are still in use and open to traffic. Neither is tall enough to allow semi-tractor trailers to cross.

But here’s where Seneca’s bridge has it over ours. It was rehabilitated in 1997.  Ours may meet the wrecking ball within the next few years — if the State has its druthers. DOT wants to make room for big rigs.

Original plans for the 1884 Saugatuck River bridge. (Image courtesy of Westport Historical Society)

Original plans for the 1884 Saugatuck River bridge. (Image courtesy of Westport Historical Society)

In the fictional town of Bedford Falls, and in the real-life towns of Seneca Falls and Westport, bridges are iconic symbols that tell a story, provide a sense of place, and teach us about our history. They span rivers and time. They connect what separates us, and they can deter what we prefer to fend off.

In It’s a Wonderful Life, the critical moment occurs as George stands for the 2nd time on the Bedford Falls Bridge and begs to have his old life back again. Suddenly, snow begins to fall. He is transported from his alternate reality and returned to the present. His gratitude sends him jubilantly running through the streets of Bedford Falls, shouting greetings to all the buildings and friends he cherishes.

As the film ends, all is well in Bedford Falls. Goodness triumphs over selfishness and greed, bells ring and the angel Clarence gets his wings.

The William Cribari (Saugatuck River) Bridge, Christmas Eve 2015. (Photo/Wendy Crowther)

The William Cribari (Saugatuck River) Bridge, Christmas Eve 2015. (Photo/Wendy Crowther)

Having newly seen It’s a Wonderful Life from the bridge’s perspective, I realize that it offers Westporters valuable insights and inspiration.

Will we fight hard to keep what many of us cherish — our Saugatuck swing bridge? What powerful forces will try to overcome valiant efforts to keep it just the way it is? What changes to the bridge could transform (or devastate) portions of our community forever? If we lose it, will we wish we had better understood the wisdom of its ways?

The film ends with 4 important words. The entire cast sings “Auld Lang Syne.”  Loosely translated from Scottish, the phrase means “for the sake of old times.”  Let’s remember those words.

(Wendy is a founding member of the Westport Preservation Alliance. For more information about the history of the Saugatuck Swing Bridge and the efforts to save it, click here.)

Photo Challenge #102

Old-timers call it “Needle Park.” Newcomers refer to it as “the place at the corner of the Post Road and Main Street, near the Calypso store.”

Either way, it was the answer to last week’s photo challenge. There’s a large concrete urn (perhaps a planter?) there now, which fits in with the drab, gray surroundings.

Once it was a vibrant park next to what was then the Westport Library. It attracted its share of “hippies” — hence the derogatory “Needle Park” — along with many others.

It was supposed to remain a park in perpetuity. Well, they paved paradise and — you know the rest. (Click here to see last week’s photo; click here for an “06880” story on Needle Park.)

Congratulations to Shirlee Gordon, Joyce Barnhart, Bob Grant, Dan Herman, Anthony Palmer and J. Wagner, all of whom knew where to find the photo — whatever they called it.

As for this week’s photo challenge: No, it didn’t snow here last week. But Lynn U. Miller found this mound anyway. If you know where in Westport she took this shot, click “Comments” below.

(Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

(Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

Boathouse Beached

Yesterday’s “Friday Flashback” featured the Godillot property — several buildings located on Jesup Road, near the police station.

One of the properties shown in the painting is no longer there. A red boathouse on the banks of Deadman’s Brook was relocated in the 1950s.

Turns out it’s been hiding in plain sight ever since. In the back yard of a house at 244 Greens Farms Road, it’s easily visible from the street.

244-greens-farms-road-boathouse-moved-from-godillot-property

(Photo/Peggy Lehn)

I have no idea how or why a boathouse ended up on dry land like this. But I’m sure at least one of our history-minded “06880” readers does.

The Greens Farms Road home is up for sale. I’m guessing the boathouse goes with it.

The boathouse -- then painted red -- is in the lower right corner of this painting.

The boathouse — then painted red — is in the lower right corner of this painting.

(Hat tip: Seth Goltzer)

Friday Flashback #18

For over 60 years the Tri-Town Teachers Federal Credit Union has served educators in Westport, Weston and Wilton, plus many other Westport town employees.

Most recently, the credit union has been housed in the historic Godillot Carriage House. It’s on Jesup Road near Imperial Avenue — catty-corner from the police station.

The credit union is proud of their home — and the entire neighborhood. So they recently commissioned a painting of it circa 1882, when it was built.

Artist Jack Conti did plenty of research, to make sure he got the details right.

godillot-house-credit-union

Alexis Godillot was an importer of French foods. He and his wife Julia expanded and improved his property, making it a showplace of the community.

Conti’s painting shows the property looking north across Deadman’s Brook, from Imperial Avenue.

The main house (yellow) sat on a knoll. Originally built in 1804 in Victorian stick style, by 1882 it had an attached greenhouse. The building is now occupied by the Smith Richardson Foundation.

The credit union is now housed in the carriage house — the red building next to the main house. It once included a stable.

The white cottage housed servants. It too had a greenhouse. The building — once the offices of the Westport Board of Education — is now occupied by the Sherwood & Garlick law firm.

The boathouse (red structure on the brook) served as a place to store small recreational boats. It was relocated elsewhere in Westport in the 1950s.

The Jesup Road neighborhood is now on the National Register of Historic Places. It looks much the same today.

godillot-house-and-credit-union-john-coniglio

Still, the credit union — the building in the center, in the photo above — is not stuck in the past.

On its roof now are solar panels.

And gone are the stables. They’ve been replaced by free charging stations, for drivers with electric vehicles.

(Hat tip: John Coniglio)