Category Archives: Looking back

Friday Flashback #29

As Bedford Square nears completion, it’s shaping up as a handsome addition to downtown. David Waldman has taken the original lines of the Bedford Building — the Tudor YMCA, built in 1923 — and extended them along Church Lane, then up across Elm Street.

But Bedford Square has nothing on the grandeur of its namesake’s estate.

E.T. Bedford —  director of Standard Oil, and philanthropist of (among others) Bedford Junior High and Bedford Elementary School — lived on Beachside Avenue, next to Burying Hill Beach.

Here’s what his house looked like in 1920:

e-t-bedford-estate-beachside-avenue-1920

He wasn’t the only wealthy Beachside resident. This is a view of “Nirvana” — E.B. Sturges’ home (and personal dock) — in 1909:

nirvana-e-b-sturges-residence-beachside-avenue-1909

Yet the Bedford influence was hard to avoid. That’s his windmill in the distance, toward the right side of the photo.

(Hat tip: Ken Bernhard)

Staples: The High School That Rocked!

It’s a story so outlandish, folks who were there don’t believe it: In a 2-year period in the mid-1960s, the Doors played a concert at Staples High School.

So did Cream. The Yardbirds. Sly and the Family Stone. The Rascals. The Animals. The Beau Brummels.

Plus over the next few years, the Byrds, Rhinoceros, Buddy Miles, J. Geils,  Peter Frampton and Taj Mahal. And Steve Tallerico, before he became Steve Tyler.

I saw most of those bands. I’ve written about it, on “06880.” So has Mark Smollin, a 1970 Staples grad, in his great book The Real Rock & Roll High School: True Tales of Legendary Bands That Performed in Westport CT.

Still skeptical? Now there’s even more proof: a video documentary, called “The High School That Rocked!”

high-school-that-rocked-poster

It’s a labor of love from Fred Cantor, a 1971 Staples alum who missed most of those performances, but is now making up for lost time.

Rock has never died — witness all the young rock lovers born decades after Jim Morrison died — and Cantor enlisted the help of a very recent Staples grad to bring his vision to reality.

Casey Denton (Class of 2014) led a high-level Emerson College camera and sound crew, then edited the final prodcut.

Doors posterThe video includes research Cantor had done for Smollin’s book, and over a dozen interviews with people who were there at the concerts. (Spoiler alert: I’m one of them. Our recollections seem pretty accurate, despite the admonition that if you remember the ’60s, you weren’t there.)

Cantor focused on a 2-year period, when 6 bands now in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame all took the Staples stage. He is convinced no other high school that could make such a claim.

The video also includes Staples grads from that era who made their mark in the music world. One is Paul Gambaccini, perhaps Britain’s most famous music presenter. Another is Charlie Karp, who at 16 years old was influenced by the concerts to leave Staples and join the Buddy Miles Express. A third is Emmy winner Brian Keane.

Cantor is working with the Westport Cinema Initiative, Westport Historical Society and Levitt Pavilion, to bring “The High School That Rocked!” to a wide audience here.

He’s also entering it in festivals (film, not rock). The first is Film Fest 52 at the Bethel Cinema (Wednesday, March 8, 6 pm VIP party meet and greet, 7 pm film, followed by a Q&A and reception). It will also open the SENE Film, Music & Arts Festival in Providence on April 25.

You don’t have to have seen any of the Staples concerts — or even to have been alive then — to love this film.

But if you were there, you’ll appreciate the final credits.

They say the film was produced by “Sally’s Record Dept. Productions.”

Ginger Baker, Cream's drummer, at Staples. (Photo copyright Jeremy Ross)

Ginger Baker, Cream’s drummer, at Staples. (Photo copyright Jeremy Ross)

 

Downtown Aerial View: The Sequel

Yesterday’s “Friday Flashback” featured an aerial view of Westport, circa 1965. Readers remarked on long-lost icons like the Victorian house on Gorham Island, and long-lamented additions like the Wright Street building.

In case you missed it, here it is:

Click on or hover over to enlarge.

And now — if you’d like to compare — here’s what downtown looks like today.

downtown-westport-aerial-view-2016

Alert reader Glenn Payne sent along this Google Earth view.

You can tell it’s recent, because Bedford Square is under construction, and the Kemper-Gunn house has already been moved from Church Lane to Elm Street.

Click on or hover over both images to enlarge. They get bigger — just like downtown did.

Friday Flashback #27

As Bedford Square nears completion — and an Elm Street/Baldwin parking lot land swap is back in the news — it’s a great time for a bird’s-eye view of downtown Westport, 1965-style.

Click on or hover over to enlarge.

Click on or hover over to enlarge.

It’s tough to see the old Y (new Bedford Square), or any part of Elm Street, thanks to the trees. But this photo — by R.P. Lentini, courtesy of alert “06880” reader Matt Murray — intrigues me for several reasons. Among them:

  • The old Victorian house still stood on Gorham Island
  • The Wright Street building was a decade in the future
  • The building between Christ & Holy Trinity Church, and what is now Seabury Center.

What stands out for you? Click “Comments” below.

Zelda!

F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald spent just a few months in Westport — way back in 1920.

But it made a lasting impact on their lives.

Now Netflix and Amazon Prime viewers can relive that crazy time through a new series called “Z: The Beginning of Everything.”

Christina Ricci plays Zelda, “the brilliant, beautiful Southern Belle who became the original flapper and icon of the wild, flamboyant Jazz Age.”

In episode 9, “Scott and Zelda work through rising marital tensions at their Westport house.”

Sounds interesting.

Even if it was filmed on Long Island.

Zelda today...

Zelda today…

F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, in front of what appears to be their Westport home.

and yesterday, with F. Scott Fitzgerald in front of their Westport home.

(Hat tips: Erica Peale and Jeff Mitchell)

Happy 216th Birthday, Horace Staples!

From the opening of Staples High School in 1884, to a few years after he died 13 years later at age 96, students and faculty celebrated January 31 — Horace Staples’ birthday — as “Founder’s Day.”

That tradition — dormant for over a century — gained new life today. The Staples chapter of Rho Kappa — the national high school honor society — brought Founder’s Day back..

Exhibits outside the auditorium, created by nearly every academic department, portrayed life in the late 19th century. The culinary classes dedicated one to onions. After all, when Staples’ High School (as it was punctuated then) was dedicated, the Westporter newspaper proclaimed, “A good high school will increase the value of property, and raise the price of onions.”

1880’s music played between classes.

And “Horace Staples” — the founder who was a businessman, merchant, factory owner, bank president and farmer — roamed the halls again today. He wandered into classrooms, discussing the differences between his school in 1884 and the 2017 one that sits, a few miles from his original Riverside Avenue building, on North Avenue.

"Horace Staples" posed with students in Barbara Robbins' English class this morning.

“Horace Staples” (center) posed with students in Barbara Robbins’ English class this morning.

Students asked questions. Mr. Staples answered everything from what Westport was like back then (“there were not as many very large houses”) to what he thought of the school today (“you have so many wonderful teachers; be sure to listen to them, read, think, and make your mark on the world”).

And who was “Horace Staples”?

Why, the guy who wrote the book — Staples High School: 120 Years of A+ Education — about his own alma mater.

"Horace Staples," with his portrait near the front entrance to Staples High School. He hasn't aged a bit.

“Horace Staples,” with his portrait near the front entrance to Staples High School. He hasn’t aged a bit.

Friday Flashback #24

“06880” readers like our Friday Flashbacks. This one they’ll love.

Actually, it’s a two-fer. Back in the day, Westport was home to not 1, but 2, sanitariums. (Sanitaria? Whatever. If you’ve forgotten your medical history, a sanitarium was a hospital for the treatment of chronic diseases, often tuberculosis or mental disorders.)

The best known and most visible was originally the former mansion of Henry Richard and Mary Fitch Winslow. Built in 1853 and named Compo House, the palatial home was surrounded by guest houses, servants’ and gardeners’ quarters, and gorgeous gardens. Former president Millard Fillmore was a visitor, and extravagant fireworks were shot off there every July 4th.

By 1907, it had become the Westport Sanitarium. Here’s how it looked then:

westport-sanitarium-1907-now-winslow-park

The building was torn down in the 1970s. It had long earlier fallen into disuse, becoming an attractive nuisance to teenagers, drug users and other random folks.

No wonder. It was just a few steps away from downtown, on land bordered by the Post Road and North Compo.

Today, it’s the site of a dog park. Its name is Winslow, in honor of the original owners. The sanitarium is the reason for all those asphalt paths, in places you’d never expect them.

Our 2nd sanitarium — named for its owner, Dr. McFarland — was on Long Lots Road. In later years it became a full-fledged psychiatric hospital, called Hall-Brooke. A building visible from Long Lots was renamed McFarland Hall.

This is what Dr. McFarland’s Sanitarium looked like in the early 1900s:

dr-mcfarlands-sanitarium-hall-brooke

The photo above is of the main building. The other building was visible for many years from Long Lots.

If you’ve got memories of either sanitarium, click “Comments” below.

(Photos courtesy of Seth Schachter)

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.