Category Archives: Looking back

Famous Westport Building Bites The Dust

First it was world headquarters for the Famous Artists School. Joined later by Famous Writers and Famous Photographers Schools, it made Westport known all over the globe — on matchbox covers and magazine ads — as the place to send your artwork, writing and photos to become, well, famous.

Not.

Later it served as world headquarters for Save the Children.

Today, alert “06880” reader (and locally famous photographer) Chip Stephens was across the Saugatuck River, when the 60-year-old Wilton Road building was demolished.

The long view …

The site is being developed by David Waldman into a retail, restaurant and residential complex.

… and a closeup. (Photos/Chip Stephens)

Soups (And More) On In Georgetown

Westporters of a certain age remember Soup’s On with love.

Much about the small Main Street restaurant with the big heart can’t be recaptured: its casual, homey atmosphere and before-its-time emphasis on healthful food, for example.

But more than 30 years after it closed, Soup’s On lives — in  Georgetown.

The country kitchen opened in 1978. Peter Fine — owner Sue Fine’s son — grew up in a house that was “all about food.” He watched proudly as his mother “moved heaven and earth” to serve grateful customers wonderful dishes, made with fresh, local ingredients.

Sue Fine (center) had a great relationship with her loyal employees.

Though Fine spent most of his professional life in real estate, the Soup’s On experience lingered. And because he focused on the restaurant and  hospitality sector, he always dreamed of recreating Soup’s On essence.

He tried to find a spot in Westport that would work. But when he heard the Lumberyard Pub sports bar had closed in Georgetown, he realized that neighborhood — where Weston, Wilton, Redding and Ridgefield meet — was perfect.

The result is Milestone. Since opening in late summer, it’s earned raves from diners far beyond the tiny — but funky — Georgetown neighborhood.

Peter Fine and his mother Sue, outside his new restaurant.

Fine installed a Forza Forni brick oven. Reaching 700 degrees, it produces superb, made-from-scratch pizzas and succulent fish.

There’s a great meatball dish, excellent salads, crispy chicken, skirt steak — “something for everyone,” Fine says. “Delicious, simple, without fussy flavorings.”

That made Soup’s On special too. And though he can’t recreate its magic, Fine has resurrected a couple of his mom’s recipes — exactly as they were.

He served her gazpacho. As the weather turns colder, he’s adding her onion soup and chili to the menu.

Peter Fine’s restaurant may be called Milestone. But in Georgetown — as it was in Westport — Sue Fine’s soup’s on.

Westport Pizzeria Parties Like It’s 1968

In October 1968, Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey battled it out for the presidency. Tommie Smith and John Carlos gave glove-and-fist black power salutes on the medal stand at the Mexico City Olympics. “Hey Jude” sat atop the record charts.

And on October 12, 1968 — its opening day of business — Westport Pizzeria sold a slice for 25 cents.

Joe and Mel Mioli, with a wai tress and customers in the early days.

In October 2018, we all know what happened after Nixon became president. We’ve seen how far our country’s race relations have progressed — and how much further we have to go. “Hey Jude” is still a great song.

It costs quite a bit more than a quarter to buy a slice these days. Westport Pizzeria is no longer an anchor on Main Street.

Westport Pizzera on Main Street. This photo could have been taken in 1968, or 2008.

But it hasn’t gone far — just around the corner, on Post Road East. And the special, basic-but-so-good recipe has never changed.

This Friday (October 12) the pizza place celebrates its 50th anniversary with a special deal: They’ll sell slices for 25 cents. Sodas are even cheaper: 15 cents.

In 1968, Westport Pizzeria was the only game in town. Now there’s competition everywhere, from thick-crust Planet and gourmet Tarry Lodge to train station Romanacci.

But the Mioli family — the founders and still the only owners of Westport Pizzeria — must be doing something right. A restaurant doesn’t last 50 years here on luck alone.

Some don’t even last 50 days.

Some things never change.

Preserving — And Honoring — Westport’s Past

Homeowners who put time, money, energy and love into preserving old homes don’t do it for a prize, or even praise.

They do it because they love Westport’s past. They want to honor and keep it.

But it doesn’t hurt to say “thanks.”

Next Monday (October 15, 7 p.m., town Hall auditorium), 1st Selectman Jim Marpe, Historic District Commission chair Francis Henkels and members of his committee will present the 2018 Historic Preservation Awards.

The properties can be found all over town. They represent a variety of architectural styles. We should all be grateful, for all of them.

17 Canal Street

Street Keeler House, c. 1830
Federal Style
Rehabilitation
Jocelyn and Addison Armstrong

When the Braxton Armstrongs purchased 17 Canal Street in 2002, they wanted to “honor the past while making the home comfortable for the future.” They kept all original windows, including the elaborate lunette windows on the gable ends, doors and clapboard visible from the street.

They replaced all aluminum gutters with copper, and reinstalled a wooden shingle roof. They used antique knives to cut trim to match existing and lost trim on the façade, reused doors restored by soda blasting them, and reused hardware miraculously found in the basement.

Throughout the project, they remained committed to the original architectural elements.  While the property is not a locally designated landmark, the owners consistently demonstrated their sensitivity to historic preservation and maintaining the integrity of this significant structure.

27 Long Lots Road

Site Rehabilitation
William Nash House, c.1812
Federal
Susan and Stuart Adam

This house was built in 1812, after William Nash bought the property from Daniel C. Banks. It remained in the Nash family until the death of Polly Nash, when the property was sold to Samuel Elwood. James Godfrey and Albert Fresenius owned the house in the 1920s. 

It has retained many of its original historic features, and evolved with sympathetic and modest side additions. The current owners, who have lived in the house for just over a year, restored portions and carefully rehabilitated the front area of the house by removing obstructing vegetation and trees, and building a stone wall. Now the beauty of the original Federal style house can once again be admired.

75 Kings Highway North

Helen Muller Preservation Award
Francis Converse House, c. 1922
Colonial Revival
Kathryn and Brian McGarvey

This award is given in recognition of a significant contribution to the maintenance, preservation and conservation of the Kings Highway North Local Historic District in honor of one of Westport’s most prominent preservation advocates, Helen Muller.

When the McGarveys purchased this prominent house in 2015, it came with an impressive history.  It is thought to have been designed by one of Westport’s most important local architects, Charles Cutler. Barbara and Allan Raymond whose tireless devotion to the history of Westport is well known, lived in the house for 50 years.

The McGarveys wanted to reconfigure the front yard and driveway to make it safer for their young family. They installed a white wooden picket fence and circular drive with gates on either side. A 2-story addition complemented the original structure, with original materials, a matching cedar shingle roof and 6- over-6 wooden windows. The Raymonds would be pleased to know the McGarveys are now stewards of this treasured homestead.

6 Great Marsh Road

Adaptive Re-use
Queen Anne Style, c. 1887
Saugatuck Harbor Yacht Club

In 1690 William and Mary, reigning monarchs of England, bestowed a royal grant for a tidal basin known as Great Marsh. The decree allowed for private ownership of the land under the water located at the mouth of the Saugatuck River.

To whom this grant was bestowed, remains a mystery. Not until 1893 did state records recognize a land transfer of the Great Marsh to Henry C. Eno, owner of a grand Queen Anne manor house on the abutting property. In 1887 he added a richly detailed stable situated alongside the tidal basin land grant.

The picturesque board-and-batten sided stable is massed with a projecting gable pavilion, and double-leaf paneled loft doors on the 2nd level. A copper-roofed cupola accents the ridge of the gable roof. The original horse stalls and their accouterments remain, as does the distinctive herringbone patterned brick flooring where guests of J. Anthony and Frances Probst, third owners of “Great Marsh,” danced summer nights away.

A reversal of fortune caused the family to sell the 100-acre estate. A marina was included in subdivision plans. Landscape architect Evan Harding designed what became Saugatuck Harbor Yacht Club. In keeping with the original aesthetics, the stable was converted to a clubhouse, with an addition and balcony added to the south end. The underwater marsh land was dredged to create a harbor, the first of its kind on the Eastern Seaboard to feature an underwater bubble system allowing boats to remain moored year-round.

79 Newtown Turnpike

Rehabilitation
Lewis Burr Fillow House, c. 1800/1925
Chabad Lubavitch of Westport

This spring, Chabad Lubavitch of Westport celebrated the grand opening of its space in the old Three Bears restaurant. The rehabilitation of this historic building was sensitive and creative.

Exterior and interior architectural elements were preserved and restored. The renovation — designed by Robert Storm and carried out by Able Construction — encompassed over 9,000 square feet of the original property, and 10,000 square feet of complementary new construction.

The project blends New England vernacular-fieldstone and shingle features with the historic core structure. The site that has served as a stagecoach stop, inn, restaurant is now a new Jewish center for prayer services, educational programs and meetings.

15 Bridge Street

Bridge Street National Register District
Mary Dolan House, c. 1880 / David Bulkley House, c. 1880
Veronica and Tom Hofstetter

This Italianate-style c. 1880 house was built on land sold in 1879 by Isaac Allen to David Bulkley. The carpenter built a gable-ended, side hall plan, 2-story original home. Current owners Veronica and Tom Hofstetter purchased the house in 2004. They made their first addition the next year, incorporating a new master bedroom, kitchen and enlarged basement.

In 2017, the Hofstetters continued a 137-year-long tradition of stewardship by working with Vita Design Group. Their commitment is a good example of expansion to an existing historic structure in a manner that reflects appropriate design details. The house is a contributing resource in the Bridge Street National Register Historic District, established earlier this year.

36 Evergreen Parkway

Excellence in Care and Maintenance
Cape Cod, c. 1937
Cynthia Wallace

Cynthia Wallace acquired the property in 1960, and has been its faithful steward ever since. This home is a circa 1937 1 1/2-story Cape Cod, a loosely based Colonial Revival style with origins in the simple wooden folk houses of New England.

It is a rectangular plan building with a symmetrical façade and center entrance.  A brick chimney interrupts the asphalt shingle sheathed roof. The exterior is clad in wood shingles. The attached 2-bay garage, presumed to be a later addition, has carriage doors and an entry door. A rear dormer has been added.

The award acknowledges the contribution an architectural archetype of the mid-20th century has made to our present suburban landscape. The HDC cites this as an example of how, with sensitive modifications — including expansion, care and maintenance — a house of a different era, though not that long ago, can represent what a good neighbor can be.

Ultimately, 50 Years

2018 marks the 60th anniversary of some legendary Westport institutions:

Mitchells. Earthplace. Staples Orphenians. And the Staples High School boys soccer program (click here for details on this Saturday’s Wreckers event!).

Checking in at a mere 50 years old is Ultimate Frisbee. But — like those other local icons — it too has a special Westport connection.

Ultimate began in 1968 at Columbia High School in Maplewood, New Jersey. A 1960 alum was teaching math at Staples. When Al Jolley heard of the game — non-contact, free-flowing, like a traditional “goal” sport but with a unique culture — he vowed to bring it to Westport.

The group played on an unkempt field behind the old 9 Building, at the east end of Staples. (Field hockey players chased them away, with sticks.) With no other teams in the area, they scrimmaged themselves.

An early Ultimate team. Alan Jolley is at far left.

They encouraged Weston High to form a team, and played them on April 5, 1973. Staples won 24-9, in the 1st interscholastic Frisbee game in Connecticut. It was also the 1st known coed interscholastic sports event. 

On April 14, Staples hosted Columbia High, in the 1st known interstate coed match. Staples beat the sport’s inventors, 18-8. (To be fair, the guests were missing several players.)

But Staples — in fun — declared themselves “National Champions.” The  National Observer sent a reporter from Washington to write about the team.

The Ultimate Frisbee Hall of Fame has honored 29″Johnny Appleseeds” of the sport. Four — Jolley and 1974 graduates Ed Davis, Ron Kaufman and Dan Buckley — are among them.

Dan Buckley, Alan Jolley and Ed Davis, at a Staples Ultimate Frisbee reunion several years ago.

From October 18-21, a grand celebration of Ultimate will be held in San Diego. Kaufman will fly in from Singapore.

The following month, Columbia High honors Jolley as a “Hometown Ultimate Hero.” For the 49th year in a row, the school will play a Thanksgiving reunion game, at the site of that very first one.

Unfortunately, they can’t get revenge for that loss to Staples, all those years ago. Jolley disbanded his team in the late 1970s, after issues with school administrators over things like insurance.

What an untimely, Ultimate end.

Mystery Object #10

If there’s one thing Westport has plenty of*, it’s women’s shoe stores.

Back in the day though, we** made our own shoes.

To do so, we needed a leather punch.

This tool was used to punch leather to make shoes. Made of cast iron, its beveled edge at the base cut through the leather when a hammer struck the top of the handle. A cobbler then used those pieces of leather — along with those of other shapes — to construct shoes.

The leather punch was part of the Westport Historical Society’s ongoing “Westport in 100 Objects” exhibit. Every 2 weeks there’s a new mystery object. If you stop in and identify it, you can win something from the gift shop.

There was no winner this time.

besides banks and nail spas.

**okay, our ancestors

Mitchells At 60: Westport Flagship Store Flies High

A couple of Saturdays ago, hundreds of folks from Fairfield County and beyond jammed Mitchells.

They celebrated the store’s 60th anniversary — and its just-completed major reconfiguration.

The 27,000 square feet sparkle with updated designs, new collections, fresh lighting and an ultra-modern feel.

The fresh, new interior at Mitchells of Westport.

One floor below — where dozens of employees direct the operations of the 9 stores Mitchells owns on the East and West Coasts, and 18 tailors work their magic — another renovation has launched the business far into the future too.

It’s a far cry from the first Ed Mitchell’s store in 1958. All those celebrating customers last month could not even have fit in that tiny shop on the corner of Post Road and North Compo.

Back then, “the Mitchells” consisted of Ed and his wife Norma, and Ed’s mother (who did the tailoring).

The original Ed Mitchell’s. It’s now the site of People’s United Bank.

Yet 60 years ago they put out a coffee pot, and poured free cups. It was a small gesture, but a telling one. We want you here, the Mitchells said. And we’ll do whatever we can to make you feel at home.

The coffee pot has been replaced by a fancy machine, with espresso and capuccino options. Ed and Norma’s family is now on the 3rd generation, with a 4th waiting in the wings. Most family-owned businesses don’t make it past generation 2.

The coffee cup and family feeling are why Mitchells has survived — and thrived — over 6 decades.

I’ve known Bill and Jack Mitchell — Ed’s sons — since my father took me to the store as a child. I coached all 3 of Bill’s sons. I know many other Mitchells.

But the other day, as I sat with Jack (now chairman of all 9 stores) and his son Andrew (chief marketing officer) for a quiet, casual conversation about the past 60 years, I realized what a remarkable story this is.

A Mitchell family photo. Jack is at far left; Andrew is 4th from left, and Bill is at far right.

Although the business is now national, its roots remain right here in Westport. And that is the key both to Mitchells’ success, and why it is such a great “06880” tale.

“We’re bucking a national trend,” Jack says. “The headlines across the US are about retailers — Macy’s, Neiman Marcus and a lot more — that are closing stores and concentrating online. We’re investing in brick and mortar.”

Mitchells does have a robust web presence. But, Andrew adds, “we believe the digital world must support the in-store experience.”

“Our value that the customer comes first, and our goal of building relationships, hasn’t changed since I was at Wesleyan University and my dad opened the store,” Jack says.

“But this has changed.” He holds up his iPhone.

His staff uses the internet to track inventory, and ship it so customers can find the right shirt, suit, blouse or shoes online. They’re encouraged to visit a store, try it on and have it tailored. An item in the Seattle store can be shipped quickly to any other store, in Westport, Greenwich, Long Island, California or Oregon.

Customers browse online. But many enjoy the in-store experience too.

But Mitchells does much more. Their website encourages customers to email their personal style advisor, or call a sales associate. All emails are answered by real people.

“People are busy today. If they can only look at shoes at 10 p.m. when the kids are in bed, fine,” Andrew says. “If someone in a London hotel room sends an email or text, it may be 3 a.m. here. But we’ll take care of it.”

When the store is closed, a phone message offers an actual number to call in the event of a fashion emergency. Those calls are answered by an actual Mitchell family member. Immediately, the problem is taken care of.

What is a “fashion emergency”? An unexpected funeral, and no suit. A business meeting, and a forgotten shirt. Things happen.

A Mitchell family member will open the store on a Sunday for those issues. If needed, they send a tailor to a customer’s home.

Jack Mitchell (left) lives in Wilton. Bill lives in Westport. They — and their extended family — go the extra mile (literally) to help customers.

That personal touch is why customers continue to flock to the stores. Each one is different. However — as they’ve bought properties across the country — the Mitchells have been careful to keep each local identity.

And name.

“Why change Richards in Greenwich, Marsh’s in Huntington, Wilkes Bashford in San Francisco and Palo Alto, or Marios in Seattle and Portland?” Jack asks. (There’s also a by-appointment tailor shop on 5th Avenue and 58th Street.)

“Every one of those stores is part of its community. Our customers have 9 times the inventory, but the heart and soul of the customer experience is local.”

And the local Westport experience informs everything the entire company does.

“Our corporate office is here,” Jack says. “We have more Mitchells on the floor here than any other store. This is our heart and soul. It’s where it all began.”

For 60 years, Mitchells has embraced the community. They host 2 major fundraisers each year — Pink Aid (which started here) and Near and Far.

But they open their doors to 150 or so smaller events each year. Shopping nights for charity, group meetings, small fashion show fundraisers — just ask, and the Mitchells say, “Sure!”

Their quiet, behind-the-scenes help is even more legendary. The stories could fill a book. (In fact, Jack — the “hug your customer” expert — has written 3.)

“My father always said, ‘if you’re good to the community, you’ll have a healthy business,'” Jack says.

“Westport has been good to us. We just try to give back.”

FUN FACT: Why — when Mitchells changed the name from “Ed Mitchell’s” — did they eliminate the apostrophe? “It’s not about us owning it,” Jack explains. “It’s about all of us growing, one customer and one family member at a time.”

And, he adds: “If we were starting the business today, it would not be Ed Mitchell’s. It would be Ed and Norma Mitchell’s.”

He pauses, thinking about his mother’s enormous contributions to the success of the store.

“Or Norma and Ed’s.”

Marilyn Monroe’s Westport T-Bird

Marilyn Monroe spent a mid-1950s summer in Westport. She rented at Old Mill Beach, if the stories are to be believed.

Not up for dispute: She bought a black 1956 Thunderbird convertible — from a dealership here in town.

Now you can own it too. According to the New York Post, it will be auctioned off in November.

Marilyn Monroe’s Thunderbird (Photo courtesy of New York Post)

Of course, it’ll cost you. The Post said bids are expected to range between $300,000 and $500,000.

Monroe owned the T-bird from 1955 to 1962 — the year she died. She and Arthur Miller drove it to their 1956 wedding.

“In recognition of the car’s important provenance, special heed was given to the retention of original parts, with most driver and passenger touch surfaces left undisturbed,” the owner said.

Think this is #fakenews? The Post notes: “Julien’s Auctions is behind its sale and reportedly has documents from the current owner proving the vehicle’s authenticity.”

(Click here for the full story. Hat tip: Rob Corona)

Mystery Object #9

No one likes a trip to the dentist.

But if you lived in the 1700s, you would have liked it a lot less.

The Westport Historical Society‘s most recent Mystery Object was a tooth key.

Also known as a dental key, it was used to extract diseased teeth. (Stop reading now if you’re squeamish.)

Modeled after a door key, the tooth key was inserted horizontally into the mouth. Its claw tightened over a tooth. The dentist then rotated it, loosening the tooth.

The original design featured a straight shaft, which caused it to exert pressure on the tooth next to the one being extracted. A newer (1765) version featured a slightly bent shaft.

The photo above shows the earlier design. It was donated to the WHS by Mrs. William L. Coley.

The tooth key was part of the ongoing “Westport in 100 Objects” exhibit. Every 2 weeks there’s a new mystery object. If you stop in and identify it, you can win something from the gift shop.

There was no winner this time.

Which  may be good. It means no one in Westport has had actual experience with a tooth key.

39 Cross Highway: Past Meets Present

Alert “06880” reader — and proud homeowner — Deborah Howland-Murray writes:

In 1985, my husband and I purchased our antique home at 39 Cross Highway. Like any house over 200 years old, the walls held undiscovered mysteries.

Decades later, they are beginning yielding their secrets. Sifting through original hand-calligraphed parchment documents, my son Galen and I are learning that our cherished home of 33 years was equally cherished by generations of one family, all the way from pre-Revolutionary times until 1927.

We are realizing that the story of our house is interwoven with the story of Westport. We are also finding out how precarious is the fate of our antique repository of history, and of those like it in Westport.

Our house tells a tale of a people birthing a country. Captain Phineas Chapman, farmer and carpenter, built his home on land acquired in 1742, the year of his marriage to Sarah Ketchum. The home housed their family of 10 children: 7 sons and 3 daughters. We have come to know the part they played, and the price they paid, in our nascent democracy.

39 Cross Highway

Capt. Chapman’s forebears arrived in 1635. His father, Rev. Daniel Chapman, was the first pastor of Greens Farms Congregational Church.

The minister’s male descendants were highly respected for their accomplishments. Phineas was made lieutenant in the Connecticut Militia in 1755, then promoted to captain for distinguished service in the French and Indian War.

His son Joseph was this area’s first physician. Sons Daniel, Albert and James bore arms in the American Revolution. James and Albert were highly decorated; Major Albert received the paramount honor of admission to the Society of the Cincinnati.

The oldest part of 39 Cross Highway is lovingly maintained.

Our home bore witness to Gen. Tryon’s wrath during the Danbury raid in 1777. His advance toward Danbury took him along Cross Highway, arresting patriots along the way — including Captain Phineas and his brother Dennie. The same fate befell Daniel in Ridgefield.

Upon his return, Tryon was thwarted from crossing the Kings Highway bridge by Benedict Arnold. Instead, he forded the river upstream and flanked Arnold by marching through Chapman farmland.

The 3 Chapmen men were transported to a New York City sugar house turned prison. The 2 older ones were eventually released. Daniel died there. His health broken by the dank, horrifically overcrowded conditions, Captain Phineas died 5 years later.

The 1784 distribution of Phineas’ estate shows that he left a parcel of land a bit over 1 acre and 20 rods, with “dwelling and barn.” As we followed the land deeds throughout history, this parcel and dwelling — the “old homestead” — remained constant in description.

At some point, Phineas Jr. (1766-1823) was instrumental in building a school diagonally across from his house. The Chapman family valued education. Many relatives — including some of his 11 children — graduated from Yale.

The Cross Highway schoolhouse. The back of the photo says “Cross Highway near Daybreak Nursery on green.”

Through marriage, the Chapmans became linked to one of the most influential families in Westport. Their cousin and admirer, Morris Ketchum, was a financier and locomotive manufacturer who brought the railroad to Westport. His meetings with friend Salmon P. Chase, Lincoln’s Treasury Secretary, led to the issuance of war bonds and the printing of our first paper currency.

Three Westport homes built by Capt. Phineas still remain: our own; the house built for Albert, comprising the oldest part of 150 Compo Road; and Dr. Joseph’s home (incorrectly called Charles Taylor House) at 268 Wilton Road, beautifully preserved and expanded.

268 Wilton Road

Ketchum’s Hockanum and others are nearby. Not located in a designated historic district, they are in peril of meeting the same end as the Redding home Daniel built with Captain Phineas, unceremoniously demolished in 2006.

Our research took on new meaning as I placed our home on the market. We met with representatives of the Historic Commission and the Westport Historical Society to determine what protections would keep our home safe from the developer’s bulldozer. I was astonished to find that there were virtually none.

Dedicated organizations have the power to forestall, but not prevent. Registering the house as a historical landmark will take more time than I have. And the restrictions are so severe that even an antique lover is dissuaded from purchase. There does not seem to be a middle ground.

I support progress. But there are uncountable new builds for sale in Westport. Is it progress to destroy homes that speak to us of our ancestors, of their sacrifice to create the democracy we enjoy? Shall we lose the opportunity they afford to teach our children about the entrepreneurial spirit that created our town, and country?

As a native Westporter, I sincerely hope not.