Category Archives: Looking back

The Day The KKK Came To Westport

The deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor brought the issue of killings of unarmed Black people into our national consciousness.

It’s been happening for years though — and not just in “other” places.

In 1981, a Meriden, Connecticut policeman shot and killed a Black man suspected of shoplifting. Several dozen Ku Klux Klan members demonstrated at City Hall in support of the officer. A far larger crowd protested the KKK.

But the men in robes — representing a faction called the Invisible Empire of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan — did not remain only in central Connecticut.

A year later, Chandra Niles Folsom was enjoying lunch at Soup’s On in Westport. The Staples High School graduate — a photojournalist who has been published internationally — looked up and saw several men with pointed hoods parading past on Main Street.

Oh my God! she thought. The KKK has come to Westport.

She grabbed her camera, and watched the group turn the corner to Parker Harding Plaza. She headed there the other way, to make sure she faced them as they marched by.

Outside Town Squire restaurant, they came toward her. They wore their intimidating white robes and hoods. But their faces were unmasked.

The KKK in 1982, at Parker Harding Plaza. (Photo copyright/Chandra Niles Folsom)

Chandra asked what they were doing. They strode silently past.

She was sure this was a big deal: The KKK was in town. No other journalists were there.

But, Chandra says, no newspapers or magazines wanted her photos.

In fact, one editor — someone she frequently wrote “society pages” for — said that if she published such a “controversial subject,” she’d be fired.

Chandra Niles Folsom

It took 20 years for Chandra’s photos to see the light of day. They eventually became part of a story she wrote called “Civil Rights and Wrongs,” with a Westport focus.

Her editor had to fight for its inclusion; the publisher said “nobody wants to see this at their cocktail parties.” The story ran — but Chandra says that’s the last time she was asked to write for them.

Chandra was happy to see the turnout for Westport’s recent Black Lives Matter protests.

“Everyone is talking now,” she says.

Unlike nearly 30 years ago, when the KKK marched in Westport.

And no one wanted to notice.

(For more history of the Ku Klux Klan in Connecticut, click here.)

Chandra Niles Folsom, at a Westport Black Lives Matter rally.

Westport Playhouse: A Look Back At 90 Seasons

Today should have been a red-letter day in Westport Country Playhouse history.

The former cow barn opened its doors — and ushered in a golden era of summer theater — on June 29, 1931. Ever since last year, the Playhouse had prepared for a landmark 90th season.

COVID canceled those plans. But “06880” — the blog and the town — can still celebrate.

The building is actually twice as old as the theater. It was built in 1835 by R&H Haight, as a tannery for hatters’ leathers. Apple trees grew nearby.

In 1860 Charles H. Kemper purchased the plant from Henry Haight’s widow.

Kemper tannery, 1860.

Twenty years later, he installed a steam-powered cider mill.

By the winter of 1930, the property — assessed at $14,000 — had been unused for several years. It was bought by Weston residents Lawrence Langner and his wife Armina Marshall Langner, co-founders of the Theatre Guild, a powerful producer of Broadway and touring productions.

The 1930 barn.

The Langners wanted a place to experiment with new plays, and reinterpret old ones. Westport was already home to actors, producers and directors.

On June 29, 1931, the Westport Country Playhouse opened. The very first play — The Streets of New York — starred Dorothy Gish. Its stage was built to Broadway specifications. Remarkably, that first show made it all the way there.

Westport Country Playhouse interior, 1933.

Bert Lahr, Eva LaGallienne, Paul Robeson, Helen Hayes, Ethel Barrymore, Henry Fonda, Tallulah Bankhead and Julie Harris were some of the many big names who appeared on the Playhouse stage.

The early days (Photo/Wells Studio)

The theater went dark for 4 years during World War II, due to gas rationing.

Thornton Wilder received his Equity card in 1946, so he could play the stage manager in his own hit, Our Town.

In the 1940s, the Playhouse began an apprentice program. The legendary list includes Stephen Sondheim, Frank Perry and Sally Jesse Raphael. The educational apprenticeship programs are still running.

An early shot of the Westport Country Playhouse.

Though Oklahoma! has never been performed at the theater, it played a key role in the legendary show’s history. In 1940, Richard Rodgers came from his Fairfield home for Green Grow the Lilacs. Three years later, he produced Oklahoma!, based on what he’d seen.

Roders also saw Gene Kelly that night at Lilacs, and a few months later gave him his big break: the lead in Pal Joey.

In 1959 the Langners turned operation of the Playhouse over to Jim McKenzie. Later named executive producer, he retired in 2000 after 41 years. His tenure was notable for many things — including his efforts in 1985 to purchase the theater and its property, thwarting a takeover by a shopping center complex.

Gloria Swanson arrives, 1961.

Appearing on stage during McKenzie’s time were stars like Alan Alda, Cicely Tyson, Richard Thomas, Jane Powell, Sandy Dennis, and Stiller and Meara.

A teenager earned her Equity card, and earned a standing ovation on opening night in The Fantasticks. Her name was Liza Minnelli.

Prior to renovation, the cramped lobby was filled with posters from past shows.

In 2000, artistic director Joanne Woodward joined an illustrious team including Anne Keefe, Alison Harris and Elisabeth Morten. They brought Gene Wilder, Richard Dreyfuss, Jill Clayburgh and Jane Curtin to the stage.

Woodward’s husband — Paul Newman — also starred at the Playhouse, in the same role Thornton Wilder played 56 years earlier: stage manager, in Our Town. 

Like so many other Playhouse shows, it (with Newman) soon transferred to Broadway.

But the building — still basically a 170-year-old barn — was in physical disrepair.Woodward and company also renovated the Playhouse physically, and revitalized it artistically.

An 18-month, $30.6 million renovation project in 2003 and ’04 brought the Playhouse into the modern era. It closed in 2003 with a revival of its first show, The Streets of New York.

It reopened in 2005 — its 75th season. At Woodward’s suggestion, a piece of the original stage is still there. The Playhouse moved forward, while paying homage to its storied past.

Westport Country Playhouse, after renovation.

The next year saw the world premiere of Thurgood. Since then — under artistic directors Tazewell Thompson and now Mark Lamos — the Westport Country Playhouse has expanded both its scope and its season.

From a tryout and summer stock house focusing mostly on light, entertaining comedies, to its current April-through-November staging of powerful dramas, musicals and exploratory plays, the Westport Country Playhouse has played a key role in American theater.

Several years ago, Lamos noted, “What had a been a leaky, vermin-infested, un-weatherized — albeit beloved — converted barn became a state-of-the-art theater as fine as any in America.”

Like Broadway, the Westport Country Playhouse is closed during this, its 90th season.

But — as its long history shows — the old barn has weathered many ups, and  a few downs. The curtain will rise again next year.

The show must go on!

(Hat tip: Pat Blaufuss)

(Photo/Robert Benson)

Johnny Was: The Why Behind New Westport Store

Growing up, Rob Trauber spent only a couple of years in Westport.

But the town made enough of an impression on him that — more than 40 years later — he decided to open a new store here.

That’s significant. Trauber is not some fledgling shopkeeper. He’s the CEO of Johnny Was.

This Friday (July 3), the 56th store in the women’s California-inspired, women’s clothing and accessories chain debuts at 81 Main Street. It’s the first Johnny Was in Connecticut.

And Trauber’s 1970s youth has a lot to do with this location.

Rob Trauber

The former Kings Highway Elementary School student has fond memories of the riding his bike around town, and taking the minnybus to Longshore and Compo. He bought candy at Carmine’s smoke shop. He remembers those Jimmy Carter-era days as if they were yesterday.

Sure, Trauber’s family moved from Westport long ago. But he has retained his ties. Eight years ago, he built a house on Sturges. His brother-in-law lives here now, as does one of his best friends.

Johnny Was’ collections — one-of-a-kind kimonos, swimwear, denim jackets, pants, blouses and pajamas, along with jewelry, shoes and handbags — are in upscale places like Southampton, Boca Raton and Carmel.

Trauber has wanted to open in Westport. Yet until recently, he says, “rents were out of whack compared to volumes.”

Then a great space opened up, just past Lululemon. “It’s the right street, and the right area of the street,” he says.

Trauber lives now in San Marino. “It’s the closest thing in Los Angeles to Westport,” he says. “The people remind me of Westport.” There are even “East Coast trees,” like 100-foot oaks.

 

Though the retail world has shifted dramatically in recent years, Trauber — who worked for J. Crew when the Westport location was one of its top 5 in the nation — believes firmly in downtown.

The new home of Johnny Was. Opening day is next Friday.

“The irrelevant retailers are gone,” he says. “There’s a place for aspirational, luxury brands that have the feel of boutiques. Customers love to touch and feel things, try them on.”

His neighbors — like one of Anthropologie’s biggest stores, and Serena & Lily — are the types of places Johnny Was enjoys being near.

On his most recent trip “home,” Trauber drove by his old home near Cranbury Road. He put his daughters on a bench overlooking the pond he often skated on. Everything felt right.

Rob Trauber’s daughters Austin and Taylor, at his old Westport pond. They’re the same age now as he was then.

His California executives are not traveling now, due to COVID-19. So the Manhattan-based team (and Trauber’s brother-in-law) will represent him at the July 3 opening.

He’ll miss seeing the bright murals, tile floor, reclaimed wood tables and bronze hardware. But he promises to be here soon.

Until then, he’s doing one special thing for Westport.

When he rode his bike into town for candy, Trauber sometimes did not have enough money. Carmine let him buy it “on account,” or gave it to him free.

To pay homage, for a limited time Johnny Was will provide free vintage candy to customers.

The Westport location has not even opened. But already we’re way cooler than Southampton, Boca Raton and Carmel.

BONUS FACTOID: The name of the chain comes from an old Bob Marley song, “Johnny Was a Good Man.”

Robert Augustyn Maps Westport

Many Westporters have seen the H. Bailey map of Westport.

Drawn in 1878, it’s an “aerial” view of the town. Every house, shop and church is shown, precisely where it was. It’s a fascinating view of a thriving village. Every time I see it, I learn something new — about the Westport of nearly 150 years ago, and how we got where we are today.

The 1878 map.

Robert Augustyn is an antique map dealer. He’s spent most of his professional life examining maps like these.

He’d planned to spend his life teaching English. But in the late 1970s, a job with a New York dealer he thought would be temporary turned into his passion.

Eventually he owned Martayan Lan, a New York City hub for collectors of maps, atlases, rare books and manuscripts from the 16th to 19th centuries.

But the market softened. When the lease ended last summer, Augustyn closed the gallery.

Robert Augustyn

He and his wife Katie have lived here for 25 years. She’s a very involved civic volunteer.

Now he had time to join the Y’s Men, mentor young people, and teach tennis through Bridgeport’s First Serve program.

Slowly too he developed his own antique map and fine prints business here. He built up inventory, created a website, and began selling online.

But it’s hardly impersonal. Just as he did in New York, Augustyn enjoys showing maps to clients, taking them through the many stories of each particular item.

After decades in the business, he still finds maps he never thought he’d see. One of his favorites — an early 18th century plan of New York City — is the first to show a synagogue. Only 3 such maps exist.

Fifteen years ago, Augustyn found an 1837 map. Drawn just 2 years after the official founding of our town, he believes it’s the first to show our “new” borders. It hangs in his study (and is available for purchase).

The 1837 map. Note the spelling of Cockenoe Island.

He’s also got the first printed map of Connecticut. It dates to 1758, when it appeared in an English magazine.

Among Augustyn’s prints: an engraving of Henry Richard Winslow’s “Compo House.” It was Westport’s first mansion (on the site of the park that now bears the owner’s name).

Richard Winslow’s Compo House.

He’s always on the lookout for “good Westport material.” It’s not easy to come by, he says.

His job is not easy, either. Which is why he’s a “rare” map and print dealer indeed.

Virginia Wong Supports Arnie’s Place

Virginia Wong

Virginia Wong has enjoyed a wonderful career in fashion.

Today she manages digital strategy and local emerging markets for Louis Vuitton Americas. She also spent 5 years on the advisory strategy team for L Brands’ CEO.

Growing up though, she felt surrounded by social pressures. Even her main hobby — tennis — was competitive.

She found solace at Arnie’s Place. The video game arcade — it’s Ulta today, next to Balducci’s — offered a “true, pressure-free escape.” Virginia roamed the vast space without supervision or worry. The lights and noises were “transporting.” Everyone was having a great time playing games; there was little social friction.

Arnie’s Place, 1984.

She was more into Skee-Ball, Ms. Pac-Man and the claw machine than true video games, but it was a fantastic time anyway. She finds it hard to imagine kids having a similar experience today.

Later, whenever she returned to Connecticut, she decompressed by driving around. She’d go to the beach, get a hot dog at Rawley’s, cruise past the Athena Diner. Those rituals felt “right.”

Every time Viriginia drove by what was then Anthropologie, she thought of Arnie’s.

When she did that recently, she remembered Arnie Kaye’s fight against “the power.” Parents worried that a video arcade would somehow corrupt their kids. Politicians followed their lead.

Arnie Kaye, in 1994.

During his battle to open, Arnie hired someone to dress as Pac-Man, and hand out money to anyone wearing an “I support Arnie’s Place” t-shirt.

A popular pro-Arnie’s bumper sticker.

Virginia wanted to memorialize it. And she still had an Arnie’s Place t-shirt, with cut-off sleeves.

She decided to make a couple of new ones. A friend who is head of graphics for American Eagle helped her get the design right — including the back with a very ’80s-style design, and Arnie’s iconic “token” logo on the front.

Screen printed on Gildan heavy cotton in small batches, they’re available through Virginia’s Instagram and Etsy accounts. She’s branded those pages “Class Trip,” a tribute to the significant backdrops of her youth.

As anyone who grew up at Arnie’s Place in its heyday knows: It was quite a trip!

Main Street At An Inflection Point: An “06880” Call To Action

A recent “06880” post on the future of Main Street got readers thinking.

65 people commented. Thoughtfully, insightfully and civilly, they offered suggestions.

Your flood of reactions got me thinking.

As a native Westporter — someone who remembers the Remarkable Book Shop, Klein’s department store, the African Room, World Affairs Center, movie theaters, Mark’s Place music club, Oscar’s, Dorain’s Drug Store — I know the kind of life that can pulse on Main Street.

A classic 1960s Main Street photo.

But I also realize that we can’t simply wish for that kind of street again. The world is far different today.

For a long time, I thought a few tweaks would bring downtown back to life. I nodded as stakeholders assured me that once the flood-proofing and renovation projects were done, and empty storefronts filled up again, all would be well again.

After reading the comments, and talking to a broad array of sharp, committed Westporters, I no longer believe that’s true.

Main Street is no longer — and perhaps never again will be — our “main street.” It’s simply a short stretch off the Post Road near the Saugatuck River. It’s lined with commercial buildings, connecting one side of town with another.

To think of it as our “main street” is to live in the 20th century — or even the 19th.

Main Street — particularly the business district — is not very long. You can barely see it here, in Larry Untermeyer’s aerial shot.

But boy, does it have potential.

The problem is, “potential” implies re-imagining the future. And re-designing the present.

We can’t simply tweak the Post Road. We need to (almost) blow it up, and start again.

The possibilities are endless.

Main Street could be a car-less, pedestrian-friendly piazza/promenade lined with trees, tables and benches; upscale and family restaurants and cafes, including outside dining (with space heaters for winter); food carts and artists’ kiosks; independent businesses like a general store, bookstore and ice cream shop (joining the special Savvy + Grace-type places already there).

It could be filled with cultural and arts events; food festivals, and something at Christmas; music on weekends, plus waterfront access, with paddleboat and kayak rentals. In the winter, we could flood part of it for a skating rink.

And more: The Farmers’ Market could relocate there. We could add offices for non-profits, and co-working spaces. Apartments could be build on 2nd and 3rd floors.

This was Main Street, during the 2014 Art About Town festival.

Downtown is at an inflection point.

The decisions we make now are as important as the ones we made 70 years ago. That’s when town officials decided — and citizens agreed — to fill in the Saugatuck River, behind the stores on the west side of Main Street.

The result — a parking lot named for selectman Emerson Parker and Daybreak Nursery owner Evan Harding — may have been the right idea then.

But today we need a new downtown. And the change can’t be incremental. It must be big, bright and bold.

Bigger, brighter and bolder, even, than Parker Harding Plaza was then.

The time for consultants is past. They, and the Downtown Plan Implementation  Committee, have generated some good ideas. Now we must seize the initiative.

Who is “we”?

All of us. Everyone in Westport. We all have a stake in a vibrant, exciting, innovative, walkable, livable, enjoyable downtown. A downtown that will draw us all in again — and many others, from around the area.

Our town already offers so much: excellent schools, the transformed library, beaches, Longshore, Levitt Pavilion, Senior Center, Playhouse, Wakeman Town Farm, YMCA, Earthplace and tons more.

We often take these jewels for granted. For too long, we’ve taken the idea that Main Street “must” be a shopping-only street for granted too.

Look at the river. Look at Church Lane. Look at Main Street. Imagine the possibilities. (Drone photo by John Videler/Videler Photography)

I said it before: Downtown is at an inflection point. We have the opportunity to create something truly dynamic and visionary.

How do we do it?

Let’s start with a town meeting (of course, in the Library Forum). Let’s talk about the most exciting new Main Street we can imagine. Then let’s figure out how to make it happen.

Emerson Parker and Evan Harding were great civic volunteers. But look at their sorry legacy.

This is our chance to leave a legacy, for at least the next 70 years.

Who wants to step up and lead us forward?

A.E. Hotchner: Westport Till The Cows Come Home

A.E. Hotchner — the author and philanthropist who died on Saturday at 102 — was a true Westporter. He moved here in 1953, and — with fellow resident Paul Newman — helped create both Newman’s Own foundation and the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp. Many Westporters knew him through his other passion: tennis. 

In 1986, he wrote a piece about our town for the New York Times. “06880” reader Dick Seclow received it from a friend, and sent it along. Thirty-three years ago, Hotchner said:

WHEN I first came to Westport in the 50’s, it was referred to as ”going to the country.” I rented a primitive little cabin for $300 for the summer, and as far as I was concerned, confined as I had been for most of my young life to the unforgiving streets of St. Louis and New York, Westport was indeed ”country.”

There were shops run by stonemasons and welders and old-fashioned hardware stores with bins of nails that were sold by the scoopful. Greenberg’s on Main Street sold ”notions” (a wonderful word that has gone the way of the pterodactyl), and on Main Street, too, there was a butcher shop where sides of beef hung on hooks and the butcher wore a straw boater, and a fish store that sold fish that had been unloaded from fishing boats that very morning. There was even a blacksmith who would make a grate for you in his forge that would precisely fit your fireplace.

Main Street in 1962 — nearly a decade after A.E. Hotchner moved to Westport.

On the Post Road was Rippe’s vegetable stand, bins heaped with vegetables grown on farmland behind the stand, and crisp apples picked from Rippe’s own orchards. In fact, Rippe operated an old-fashioned cider mill in full view, and the foamy, amber juice that spilled down the trough was sold to the customers right on the spot. I once bought a wooden barrel full of Rippe’s cider, deceived by the barrel’s compact shape into severely underestimating the quantity of its contents. As Thanksgiving gave way to the wintry gusts of December, the spigot of the barrel unceasingly yielded its golden contents that imperceptibly matured, climaxing in a drunken Christmas revel.

After a few years, I forsook my cabin (with some regret) for a grand, Normandy house that I couldn’t afford and still can’t afford. It was straddled by a wheat field on one side and a meadow on the other that yielded fraises de bois if you were willing to crawl along the ground, searching for the tiny, red fruit hidden under the leaves of the plant. I did, on the conviction that whatever you had to do to obtain a bowl of freshly picked fraises de bois was well worth the crawling.

But of all the country pleasures of Westport, none for me was greater than watching the vast herd of black and white Guernsey cows grazing on the emerald pastures of the Nyala Farm, which was located in the Greens Farms section of town, adjacent to the turnpike exit, so that as I arrived on Friday, the woes of the past New York week clinging to me, the first thing I saw as I hit Westport was this Turner landscape filled with magnificent Guernsey cattle.

Nyala Farm (Robert Vickrey painting, courtesy of Paul Ehrismann)

The farmhouse, constructed of old New England stone, strongly evoked an English countryside in the cows’ native Guernsey. And every morning, Mike Ferris of the Ferris Dairy delivered a couple of quarts of Guernsey milk, a thick layer of cream extending all the way down the neck and into the shoulder of the bottle. No milk ever tasted like that before or since.

I can’t tell you precisely when the country started to go out of Westport. It didn’t happen just like that, but one after the other, Greenberg’s notions, the authentic hardware stores, the shop of the stonemason, the smithy, the butcher shop and the fishmonger were replaced by Ann Taylor, Laura Ashley, Aca Joe and the Banana Republic. Rippe’s vegetable stand and the fertile, verdant fields that had grown the cauliflower, tomatoes, corn and strawberries, became a packed enclave of condominiums.

But the day I knew the country had irrevocably gone out of Westport was when I made that turn off the turnpike from New York, expecting as always to be solaced by the balming sight of that lovely Guernsey herd, but the herd had vanished – not a single Guernsey cow, a herd that had been grazing that lush, hilly meadow only a week before. Nyala Farms had been bought out by the Stouffer [sic — Stauffer] Chemical Company, and the building where once the Guernseys had been quartered and milked and calved was now occupied by people engaged in the business of dispensing chemicals, many of them, I was sure, antipathetic to the very meadows where the Guernseys once roamed. And, of course, Mike Ferris never came to our door again.

The Nyala Farm office complex. Its 2020 tenants include the Bridgewater hedge fund.

In what I can only think of now as a gesture of angry defiance, I plowed under my wheat field and built a tennis court on the meadow that had nurtured the shy fraises de bois. It was all over, wasn’t it, so why not the coup de grace? The hell with it. Westport had become an extension of New York. Main Street was riddled with Madison Avenue shops. Burger King, Beefsteak Charlie’s, Shoe Town, Waldenbooks, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Hallmark Cards, Sam Goody – name it, it was here or on the way. Real-estate developers outnumbered the gypsy moths.

I never again referred to Westport as ”going to the country.”

Never, that is, until Murray McMurray came into my life. I don’t know who suggested that he get in touch with me, but I am forever indebted to my anonymous benefactor. Murray McMurray sent me a letter and a brochure from his hatchery in Webster City, Iowa. On the cover of the brochure were two of the most exotic chickens I had ever laid eyes on, identified as Dark Brahmas, and on the inside cover was a picture of Murray himself, with a Black Giant hen sitting on his shoulder.

Until that moment, apart from a restaurant menu, I had never thought much about chickens, one way or another. But as I marveled over the grace and beauty of what Murray called his Rarest of Rare Breeds -huge, plump Cochins with thick feathers all the way down their legs and feet to the ground, Crevecoeurs native to Normandy, Silver Gray Dorkings bred by the Romans and brought by them to Britain, Phoenix and Yokohamas, ancient breeds that roam Japan’s Imperial Gardens, graceful, long-tailed Sumatras indigenous to the island of Sumatra, cinnamon-colored Cubalayas from Cuba, a very rare breed, La Fleche, from France, Chanteclers, natives of Quebec – page after page of beauties that I’m sure Frank Perdue wouldn’t recognize.

A Westport chicken coop — though not A.E. Hotchner’s.

A local carpenter built a little henhouse for me and I sent away for the Sears Farm Catalogue, from which I ordered a cluster of nest units in which my rarest of rare could lay their eggs, a feeder, a waterer, buckets, scoops and all the other wonderful paraphernalia that a chicken fancier needs. I sent my order to Murray McMurray and awaited the arrival of my day-old chicks.

Murray McMurray has indeed put the country back into Westport for me. Those baby chicks have grown into the most wondrous creatures you can imagine. What do I care if Roy Rogers is building a wretched, fast-food outlet on the nearby Post Road, when I can go out in the henhouse in the morning and take a couple of warm eggs from under an obliging Lakenvelder or Dominique for my breakfast? Last Easter, my son didn’t have to dye any eggs because the Araucanas lay turquoise, blue and green eggs. And for the information of misguided jokers, the Polish hens are not dumb clucks but very austere ladies who wear large round bonnets of feathers.

I wake in the morning now to the muted sound of a Cochin rooster’s strutful cry. I know I’m in the country. No mistaking it.

(Click here for the link to the story in the Times‘ archives.)

Hail To The Chiefs!

No, not the ones from Kansas City.

I’m talking about our nation’s presidents. You know, the guys — and yeah, they’re all men — who we celebrate today in the usual manner: with special sales, no mail delivery, and absolutely no thought given to Zachary Taylor, Benjamin Harrison or Gerald Ford, let alone actual presidents like Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and (the big one) William Howard Taft.

Westport — a national leader in areas like hedge funds, education and nannies — would seem to be a natural for presidents too.

We’re not.

Besides passing through on the railroad or highway, our town has few connections with our commanders-in-chief.

George Washington, of course, slept here — he slept everywhere. In 1780 he is said to have discussed war strategy with the Marquis de Lafayette and Comte de  Rochambeau at the Disbrow Tavern (where Christ & Holy Trinity Church is today). He returned twice in 1789 as president, coming and going on an inspection tour of the Northeast. He spent 1 night at the Marvin Tavern — located on the Post Road, opposite King’s Highway South — but did not have a bang-up time. In his diary, he called it “not a good house.”

 

This may be the only time Millard Fillmore appears in my blog. Or any blog.

Millard Fillmore was a guest at Richard Winslow’s “Compo House” mansion on the North Compo/Post Road corner (it later became a sanitarium, then was torn down before tear-downs became fashionable). But that was here 6 years after he left office.

Abraham Lincoln supposedly stayed at Hockanum, Morris Ketchum’s Cross Highway estate near Roseville Road, during his presidency. Woody Klein‘s history of Westport says only that Salmon P. Chase — Lincoln’s Secretary of the Treasury — was a frequent guest. Hockanum still stands; there is a “Lincoln bedroom” upstairs, and the deed states that no changes can be made to that room.

Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke on the steps of the YMCA’s Bedford Building during his re-election campaign of 1936. He was the 1st sitting president to definitively visit since George Washington. In addition, FDR’s grandson David lived here for several years in the 1990s. And FDR’s wife, Eleanor, often visited Lillian Wald’s South Compo “Pond House.” I know, I’m stretching here…

Hey hey, LBJ…

Lyndon Johnson was friendly with Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas — so friendly that that helped scuttle Fortas’ nomination to be Chief Justice in 1968. Fortas had a summer home on Minuteman Hill, and some beach residents say that Johnson was an occasional guest.

Bill Clinton trolled here for money, before and during his presidency. As president he attended fundraisers at the Inn at National Hall, and a private home on Saugatuck Avenue. Both were low-key affairs, if you don’t count the 25-car motorcades, sharpshooters on top of buildings and helicopters whirling overhead.

And, of course, in 2012 Barack Obama flew in for a fundraiser at the Beachside Avenue home of not-yet-disgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein. I’m sure the former president would like a do-over on that one.

The presidential motorcade at Harvey Weinstein’s Beachsdie Avenue house, in 2012. (Photo/White House pool, courtesy of WestportNow)

Westport has had better luck with presidential candidates. Like Bill (and Hillary) Clinton, in recent years many made their way here — more for fund-raising than actual vote-seeking. Who knows?  Soon, Amy Klobuchar or Elizabeth Warren — or one of the guys — may come to town.

Though I’m guessing — for different reasons — we’ll see neither #45, nor Mike Bloomberg.

Friday Flashback #180

I’ve written about this before.

But every so often, a reader discovers a 35-year-old video about Westport. And sends it to me, as if I’ve never seen it.

If you lived here in 1985 — as I did — you know it well.

That year, the Marketing Corporation of America gave the town a 150th- anniversary: a 30-minute film.

MCA is no longer around. Westport is no longer the “marketing capital of America.”

But after 3 1/2 decades, “Westport’s Got It All” is the gift that keeps on giving.

The video is filled with celebrities who lived here. Strangely — or, perhaps, understatedly and on purpose — none are named. Jim McKay reads a newspaper by the river. Harry Reasoner sits near a tennis court. Joanne Woodward has a cameo.

ABC's "Wide World of Sports" anchor Jim McKay sits on the banks of the Saugatuck River, in the town he called home.

ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” anchor Jim McKay sits on the banks of the Saugatuck River, in the town he called home.

Okay, so Rodney Dangerfield cracks, “The town of Westport has my respect.” But that’s the closest anyone comes to identifying him or herself.

The video opens with a cheesy, “Westport’s Got It All” song (including the line “Kids hanging out at the Dairy Queen…”). It’s sung by former Westporter Dara Sedaka — Neil’s daughter.

But the pace quickens. There are shots of Main Street, the Playhouse, Staples, Compo, the downtown art show, Longshore, Cockenoe, the Levitt and the Memorial Day parade (ending at Jesup Green).

Most look pretty much the same today. But there are plenty of other places and things that are long gone: Remarkable Book Shop. The White Barn Theater. Mohonk House. Hay Day (in its original location, opposite Carvel). MCA.

And, of course, restaurants: Manero’s, Chez Pierre, Ships, Peppermill, Three Bears, Allen’s Clam House, Connolly’s … and on and on.

I found the voiceovers fascinating. Mason Adams, Alan Parsell, Herb Baldwin, Claire Gold, Julie Belaga, Dick Leonard, Cary Pierce — I recognized the voices of so many former politicians, educators, students and others.

Crusty Yankee Alan Parsell was 83 years old when he was interviewed for the 150th-anniversary video.

Crusty Yankee Alan Parsell was 83 years old when he was interviewed for the 150th-anniversary video.

Here are some of the things they said:

  • “Nothing goes on here that people aren’t concerned about. For every issue, there are at least 10 sides.”
  • “I’m worried the town is losing its mix of a variety of people.”
  • “Westporters have extraordinary aspirations for their children. And they’re willing to pay for it.”
  • “I work 2 jobs, 90 hours a week, to keep my head above water here.”
  • “Westport has the sophistication of New York, the exuberance of a California town, the quaintness of New England — and a sense of humor.”
  • “We do have latchkey children, as more and more parents go off to work.”
George Weigle conducts the Staples Orphenians. They sound great in the video.

George Weigle conducts the Staples Orphenians. They sound great in the video.

  • “It’s a very loving community, in many ways.”
  • “We draw people into town, to go to the theater and movies.”
  • “The Post Road is a disaster. But every town has its Post Road. This one looks better than many.”
  • “Commercialization has really changed this town. It’s been good and bad.”
  • “It’s a generous, gregarious, outgoing town. You can dress any way you like. You can be anyone you want to be. That’s the uniqueness of the community.”

That was Westport, 1985. Thanks to MCA, we’ve got a video record — promotional, but still pretty honest — of who we were.

What’s happened in the past 35 years? Are we better, worse, just different — or the same — as we were back in the days when big cars roamed Main Street, the Church Lane YMCA was still new, and people came from out of town for the movies?

Click on the video below (then wait 10 seconds to begin). Then click “Comments.”

Westport History Museum Removes Historic Name

Ann Sheffer is a native Westporter. The Staples High School Class of 1966 graduate’s family arrived here nearly a century ago.

Her father Ralph served on the RTM for 16 years, 10 as moderator. He chaired the Nike Site Committee, which managed the difficult task of bringing two military facilities to town, on North Avenue and Bayberry Lane. As chief fundraiser for the Westport Library, he helped spearhead the move from the Post Road to its present location.

Ann’s mother Betty was an active town volunteer. After her death at a young age, the Betty R. Sheffer Foundation provided major funding for arts, education, health care and history projects.

Ann Sheffer

Ann has carried on the family tradition. She is involved in literally dozens of town committees and events, including arts, education, history and culture.

For many years, the main exhibition space at the Westport Historical Society was called the Sheffer Gallery.

The institution’s name change — it is now the Westport Museum for History & Culture — as well as new leadership has brought many changes. Among them: The Sheffer Gallery will now be called the Daniel E. Offutt III Exhibition Hall.

A number of Westporters who were long associated with the WHS have expressed dismay at the changes — including the renaming of the Sheffer Gallery. Ann Sheffer is among them. She sent this open letter to the Westport History Museum:

Last week I drove by Wheeler House. I was pleased to see that the bricks that I bought to commemorate my family’s tenure in Westport are still there (and my husband Bill’s name is now spelled correctly), as are Miss Liberty and Uncle Sam, who have graced the porch or lawn of the house since we donated them in 2000 as part of the Millennium celebration.

Bricks bought by Ann Sheffer and her husband Bill Scheffler, honoring the extended Sheffer family.

As the bricks note, my family has been part of Westport since 1930, and also very involved with the Westport Historical Society. I don’t want to recite all of the volunteer positions we’ve held, contributions to the archives we’ve made, and most significantly, the major contribution to the expansion of the building, which resulted in the naming of the Exhibition Hall in honor of my parents.

So I was dismayed to receive a letter from your board president, Sara Krasne, with the following vague, disingenuous “notice” that the Westport History Museum had received “a significant donation for the purpose of upgrading the exhibition hall to a modern, state-of-the-art standard in return for naming the hall after the donor.”

First, it’s very unprofessional of you to send me a letter rather than speaking to me in person — and trying to understate the fact that you are taking my parents’ names off of the Exhibition Hall. I’m disappointed that you don’t value our history of support for the organization enough to be honest about what you are doing.

Second, it is a fairly serious breach of faith and fiduciary responsibility to remove a donor’s name from a building without having the courtesy to ask their permission.

“Uncle Sam” and “Miss Liberty” — donated to the Westport Historical Society in 2000 by Ann Sheffer and Bill Scheffler — were almost sold last year. They still remain at what is now the Westport Museum for History & Culture. (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

I would note that my family’s contributions are recognized by a number of other cultural organizations in town, most notably the Westport Library — whose director, Bill Harmer, called me as soon as the plans for the recent renovation were announced, to discuss how we would like our family’s name to be displayed in the new design.  Not only were we delighted to be consulted, but his approach resulted in our making additional contributions.

I’m very disappointed that an organization that is ostensibly dedicated to preserving and celebrating the history of Westport would be so insensitive and dismissive of the historical contributions that have insured their existence.

I have no interest in any further discussion with you. But I sincerely hope that you will not treat other donors in such a dismissive fashion, and that you will make an effort to honor the founding principles of the Westport Historical Society despite your name change.

Westport is, as we often say, a special place, with a long history worth celebrating — and the Westport History Museum has a responsibility to preserve that history in an ethical and professional manner.

 I asked executive director Ramin Ganeshram to respond. She emailed back: “Please find the official press release regarding the exciting opportunity to upgrade the Exhibition Hall in order to continue the Museum’s transformative path toward excellence in providing world class exhibits in the tradition of our award-winning ‘Remembered: The History of African Americans in Westport.'”

Here is that press release, dated Friday, January 10 but suddenly sent yesterday morning:

Westport Museum (formerly Westport Historical Society) is honored to announce that it will be naming its main exhibit hall after local philanthropist Daniel E. Offutt, III following a significant donation from the Daniel E. Offutt, III Charitable Trust. Mr. Offutt, who lived in Weston, was a generous donor to many local nonprofits both during his lifetime and via his estate.

The gift is the largest single donation ever received by the Museum. The main exhibit hall was formerly named after Ralph & Betty Sheffer, longtime supporters of the Museum who provided the major funding to complete the space in 2002.

“We are thrilled to be able to name this significant cultural resource after Mr. Offutt who was a generous and active member in the local community. His interest and support has helped many cultural organizations here and around the nation,” says Ramin Ganeshram, Executive Director of Westport Museum. “I only wish Mr. Offutt were with us to see the value his good work will bring to this and surrounding communities.”

Daniel Offutt had a lifetime interest in history and in art as both a collector and an artist. A self-described “farmer,” he was more aptly described as a “Renaissance Man”: a tennis player, traveler, sailor, metal sculptor, wood worker, fixer of anything, collector of everything, lover of projects, stock market investor, and a good friend. Mr. Offutt lived for more than 30 years in Weston, Connecticut in a house that he built himself.

The gift from Mr. Offutt’s Trust will enable Westport Museum to make much needed upgrades to its main exhibit hall, in keeping with national museum standards to provide quality experiences with universal access to the widest audience. The goal of upgrading exhibit spaces at the Museum is part of a multi-year strategic initiative to create a world class regional Museum in Westport.

“As Trustee, I am pleased to support the growth and improvement envisioned for the Museum,” said Richard H. Orenstein. “Working with Ramin has been an easy and creative endeavor.”

“Thanks to this significant gift we will be able to create our next ground-breaking exhibit with the highest standards in mind,” said Ganeshram. The first exhibit to open in the newly remodeled space will be in late 2020 about Westport’s indigenous people who inhabited the town and surrounds for 7500 years before European colonization.

While the name change is effective immediately, a plaque will be formally installed to rename the gallery “The Daniel E. Offutt III Exhibition Hall at Westport Museum” at a ceremony to take place at the opening of the 2020 indigenous people’s exhibit in November.