Category Archives: Looking back

“If These Walls Could Talk…” For Drew Coyne, They Do.

The best teachers model their passions.

English teachers read and write. Culinary teachers cook. Phys. ed. instructors work out.

Drew Coyne

Drew Coyne teaches US History Honors at Staples High School. He’s been nominated for Westport Teacher of the Year. His students adore him.

He’s tough, but fair. He makes learning interesting.

And he walks the talk — inside the classroom, and out.

Drew grew up in an 1850s house in upstate New York. His partner Matt O’Connell was raised in a Boston suburb. In September 2017, they started searching for a house to buy. They wanted something historic.

They came close to purchasing in Greens Farms. Then they found an even better property on the Old Post Road in Fairfield — part of that town’s Historic District.

The owners were Paul and Barb Winsor. Paul was George Harrison’s gardener. But that wasn’t what made it amazing.

It was built in 1837 by the Turney family. They owned land by Fairfield beach, and grew peaches.

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church took it over. For nearly 100 years, it served as a parsonage.

In 1936, the church sold the property to the Hermenze family. Four years later, they sold it to Donald and Ann Robbins. The price was $8,000. The Robbinses raised 5 children there.

175 Old Post Road — back in the day.

Drew loved his new home. Walking the halls, he felt compelled to know who walked them before him. And he wondered what stories the walls could tell.

Like any great history teacher, he researched the past. The Fairfield Museum had little information. The church did not have much either.

But searching online, Drew found an obituary for Ann Robbins. It included the names of her surviving children. One — Ann’s daughter Nan Hotchkiss– lived in Fairfield.

Drew called. She’s in her mid-80s now, but was delighted to hear from him. She asked many questions about the house. It obviously meant a lot to her.

So Drew invited her to come see for herself.

Thrilled, she asked if she could bring 2 brothers, and her younger sister. Oh, and also her son’s daughter, who is in her 40s.

The visit — a couple of weekends ago — was wonderful. The former residents walked all around the house, touching things and remembering tiny details like the smell of gingerbread cookies, tricycle races and Nan’s basement “jewelry shop.”

3 generations of owners. Standing at left: Matt O’Connell and Drew Coyne. From the top of the stairs down: Barb Winsor, Carol Robbins, Pat Robbins, Bruce Robbins, Henry Robbins, Anne (Nan) Jackson. Larry Robbins Skyped in with his wife Deirdre.

They pointed to nicks in the wood, and told Drew and Matt how they got there.

“Those are the subtle things we’d never notice,” Drew says. “But they meant so much to the family. They give warmth and beauty, and enhanced my view of our house.”

One of Nan’s brothers lives out of state, and could not make it to Fairfield. So his siblings walked around with an iPad, showing him the 19th century house via 21st century Skype. He added his own memories.

The Robbins children, with their parents, Donald and Ann.

Barb Winsor — who Drew and Matt bought the house from — also came that weekend.

So the couple heard stories about the house, all the way from 1940 to today.

Drew says, “We saw layer upon layer of history. We heard about victory gardens in World War II, and the noise from the Post Road when that was the only highway around.”

As she was leaving, Nan said, “It’s so nice to come home.”

That’s a feeling Drew Coyne has every day, when he walks through the door of the house that is now his. And that he now understands, better than ever.

“This was a great Christmas gift that Matt and I could give them,” he says.

“And a great gift that they gave us, too.”

175 Old Post Road, last winter.

What? No Famous Weavers School?!

A recent issue of the New Yorker offers looks backward.

There’s a tribute to founder Harold  Ross, followed by many old stories and cartoons.

Karl Decker — the longtime, legendary and now retired Staples High School English instructor — is a devoted New Yorker fan. The magazine sent him scurrying to his cellar, where he keeps his back copies.

All the way back to the 1930s.

Karl Decker, with his 1934 New Yorker.

He picked one — June 23, 1934 — and settled down to read.

There was a long article about Franklin Roosevelt; a cartoon by Peter Arno — and 500 words of “precious whimsy” by Parke Cummings.

In the summer of 1960, Karl and Parke — a famous author and humorist — worked together at Famous Writers School.

Al Dorne — one of the founders of the Famous Writers, Artists and Photographer Schools — was always looking for ideas to add to those 3 “schools” (all correspondence-based, and headquartered on Wilton Road).

An advertisement from the 1950s.

Parke and Karl had already submitted proposals for a Famous Sculptors School (which required a railroad spur, to ship in granite) and Famous Dancers School (huge pads on which students would ink their bare feet, then step out the moves on big rolls of paper).

Their latest idea: Famous Weavers School. The preface read: “The School will provide each student with 4 English Shropshire sheep, a shepherdess, and …”

Dorne told them he’d have to consult with Ed Mitchell before they went any further.

“Inexplicably, our workloads increased markedly after that,” Karl reports.

Mark Kramer: A View From The Bridge

Mark Kramer spent 3 decades as a writer-in residence at Smith College, Boston University and Harvard’s Nieman Foundation. He also enjoyed a storied career as a book and magazine writer, editor, speaker and consultant.

Mark has not lived in Westport since graduating from Staples High School in 1961. But — as an alert “06880” reader — he notes from afar that “the Saugatuck (Cribari) Bridge is threatened by traffic and time.”

It meant a lot to his childhood — and the town. Mark also has an idea for the bridge’s future. He writes:

I fished from that bridge in the 1950s. I loved watching the crew of volunteers (including John Santella from his dad’s barber shop), Paul Nette from Bridge Garage, and a few firemen from the nearly adjacent firehouse answer the call to pivot it open.

They appeared with a giant wrench — a waist-high T of iron, shaped like 3-pins of the traditional lug wrench that came in auto tool kits.

They stuck the socket into an embedded peg in the center of the bridge, and leaned into the crosspieces of the wrench. Slowly the massive bridge swung parallel to the river, a sailboat or two passed under, they swung it closed again and walked back to work.

Hand cranking the “Bridge Street Bridge,” back in the day.

People crossed the walkway for the pleasure of the view from midstream. They probably still do.

There’s an example of bridge preservation, connecting the twin towns of Shelburne Falls and Buckland, Massachusetts — not far from Smith College — that might be a feasible way for Saugatuck to go.

The “Bridge of Flowers” has had a big part in invigorating the commercial life of the twin towns, which has seen craft workshops and good restaurants come, along with scads of tourists on weekends.

After the local trolley quit, its bridge was long neglected. Then a local committee, led by a visionary real estate woman, raised some minimal funds, turned out lots of volunteer help, and turned it into a 3-season amazement, a walkers’ bridge bulging with horticultural wonders.

The “Bridge of Flowers.”

Now active committees, and perhaps a paid employee or two, keep flowers planted and flowing. It is a community-binding wonder, defying time and making folks happy.

Meanwhile, a new bridge across the Deerfield serves traffic a few hundred yards upstream.

I lived a town away for years, and my perspective on the Bridge of Flowers shifted.

At first it was a great place to bring the in-laws. But then I aged enough so the neighborly generosity that made it happen came into view.

The visitors’ book at the Buckland end of the bridge fills daily with thanks from  people who drive there, and walk the bridge. Many stop for lunch or supper, and browse the shops selling ice cream, used books, ceramics and paintings — a good sort of tourism to draw.

Mark hopes Westporters will look into the idea of a Bridge of Flowers — with a new bridge built nearby. Click here for the Bridge of Flowers website. For more information and personal insights, email Mark directly: kramernarrative@gmail.com.

 

Former Positano’s Finally Goes Down

Last month — when “06880” reported that Peter Nisenson flood-proofed, refurbished and saved 201 Main Street, the “little red house” on the Saugatuck River that had been slated for demolition — readers rejoiced.

Now Nisenson and his PEN Building Company are about to start work on another property. It’s a new structure — but it sits on one of the most visible corners in Westport.

For decades, 233 Hillspoint Road has been the site of commercial ventures, in the heart of the Old Mill residential neighborhood. First a grocery store, the 2-story building later housed restaurants, including Cafe de la Plage and Positano’s.

This morning, it became Westport’s latest teardown.

The view from Old Mill Beach, as the former Positano’s and Cafe de la Plage was demolished this morning. (Photo/Patricia McMahon)

Over the next year, Nisenson will build a new home there. He and the owner have spent a couple of years planning how best to utilize the awkward-shaped lot — while maintaining the neighborhood character, and views admired by all Westporters.

“It’s a very public property,” Nisenson notes. “It was important to create something that blends in.”

The new house will be pushed back from the road. A dense buffer zone with native plants will provide privacy in back for the owners. But it’s on a public beach. The property ends where the sand begins — so Old Mill will remain the same as it’s always been.

The sidewalk in front will remain too.

The former restaurant has been vacant for nearly 4 years. Neighbors — and everyone else who loves the beach area — hope that Nisenson’s new project will be as well received as his Little Red House.

Remembering Arpi Ermoyan

Arpi Ermoyan — a longtime Westporter, and a major name in the world of commercial illustration — died last week. She was 99 years old.

Arpi Ermoyan

Ermoyan was an illustrator, editor at Cosmopolitan in the 1950s and ’60s, worked at Doyle Dane Bernbach ad agency, wrote an important book called “Famous American Illustrators,” curated gallery exhibitions of illustration art, and for many years directed the Society of Illustrators. She was one of very few women to break through in that male-dominated field.

In 1953, she and her husband Suren — also a noted illustrator, who served as art director at Good Housekeeping — moved to Tanglewood Lane, off Stony Brook.

She became part of the vaunted Westport Illustrators group — again, one of the few female members.

According to the Illustration Art website:

Illustrators in Westport during this era used each other for models all the time, and Arpi was a favorite….Neighboring illustrators would stop by the house on Tanglewood Lane and before you know it, Arpi had to “put aside her drawing board and start modeling.” Several great illustrators of the era were inspired by her striking good looks and painted her into their illustrations.

In 1961, the Ermoyans moved from Westport. They sold their house to another, younger illustrator.

Perhaps you’ve heard of him: Bernie Fuchs.

Arpi Ermoyan, by Bernie Fuchs

(Hat tip: Kevin McConnell)

Mystery Object #12

Westport leads the nation in nail salons per capita.*

But our obsession with nails is not new.

Back in the 1890s, Westporters may not have had 27,915 salons to choose from. But they did have Victorian Nail Buffers.

The wooden blocks were finished with felt, covered with leather chamois, then topped with a sterling silver filigreed handle. They gave nails pleasing shines.

Victorian nail buffer

I didn’t know any of this. Neither did you (I’m sure).

But Laura Mozier knew what a Victorian Nail Buffer was. That’s why she’s the winner in the most recent Westport Historical Society Mystery Object contest.

It’s part of their ongoing “Westport in 100 Objects” exhibit. Every 2 weeks, the WHS displays something new. If you stop in and identify it, you — like Laura — can win something from the gift shop.

There are plenty of good items to choose from. Though they don’t carry gift certificates to nail salons.

*#FakeNews. But close.

Christie’s Closes Soon. Another Westport Institution Is Gone.

In 1926, Christie Masiello opened a fruit and vegetable stand on Cross Highway. For nearly 7 decades she and her nephew Don were staples of that northern Westport neighborhood: a place to buy food (and gas). And — just as important — to meet.

The place went through some changes — it was briefly a dry cleaner — but when John and Renee Hooper bought it in 2009, Christie’s regained its rightful place as a neighborhood store. And community center.

John added burritos, prepared foods and more to the menu. He rented space to Frosty Bear ice cream. There was a farmers’ market on Sunday mornings.

Nearby Staples High and Bedford Middle School students flocked there after class (sometimes during). Neighbors stopped in a couple of times a day, for whatever they needed. (Including cumin for a Christmakkah meal — click here for that great story.)

It was the only place around for builders, construction workers, tradesmen and delivery people too. They packed the parking lot at lunchtime.

Christie’s was also the go-to place during weather disasters. When hurricanes howled or blizzards blew, the store was the neighborhood port in a storm. John offered ice, water, food, cell charging — whatever anyone needed.

If his power was out too, it was still the place to gather, swap stories, and get energized for the cleanup ahead.

(Photo/Katherine Hooper)

But all those will soon be memories. With sadness, John has announced that Christie’s is closing next month.

Rent and taxes are high, relative to sales and income that can be generated in his out-of-the-way place.

The lease was up in June. But John and Renee stayed on, to see if they could create a plan to make things work.

Christie’s is a non-conforming use, in a residential neighborhood. Zoned as a retail food establishment, it can operate as a takeout deli, with limited tables and chairs to seat approximately 9 patrons indoors.

The Hoopers wanted to offer brunch in the winter — in front of the fireplace — and on the porch in summer.

Christie’s handsome front porch.

They hoped for limited dinner too, in the form of Friday Family Fun Nights  (Saturdays too).

But before they could get approval from Planning & Zoning, they needed an okay from the Health Department.

Health officials said the septic system could not handle the additional stress. And — according to state regulations — the surrounding soils made expansion of the current system unfeasible. John and Renee had to operate as they currently do.

“Local officials were great,” John says. “They tried to work with us. But state laws prohibit expanding the septic system.”

So Christie’s will close soon after their last catering event: a Staples PTA holiday lunch for teachers.

That’s fitting. John has always been a huge supporter of Westport (and Fairfield) schools. He’s provided great food as cheaply as he can — sometimes at cost.

Four middle schoolers hung out the other day at Christie’s — near a menorah, moose and reindeer.

“Renee and I are thankful for all the great friends and supporters we’ve met,” John says. “I’ve watched a lot of kids grow up. It’s been amazing, and what I’ll miss the most.”

“Closing Christie’s is sad for me. But Renee is comforted that I will be able to devote more time to her growing food company.” White Oak Farm & Table sells non-GMO and organic shelf-stable food to stores nationwide.

Everyone who made Christie’s their home away from home is sad too.

Really, everyone in Westport should be.

A little bit of what made our town special will soon be gone.

Thanks, John and Renee, for 9 great years.

And Christie’s, for 92 of them.

Back In The News: Coaching Kudos For Paul Lane, Albie Loeffler

Paul Lane and Albie Loeffler retired decades ago.

But both men — longtime Staples High School coaches, physical education instructors and friends — are back in the news again.

Lane — one of Staples’ legendary football coaches — was honored at last week’s game against Norwalk.

Between 1962 and 1987, Lane led the Wreckers to 4 FCIAC Eastern Division championships, 2 FCIAC crowns, and 122 victories. His 11-0 1975 squad was the last single state champion — determined by sportswriters — before the current playoff system began.

In the 1967 FCIAC title game, Staples snapped Stamford Catholic’s 30-game win streak, 8-0. The Crusaders — ranked #1 in Connecticut – had outscored their opponents 333-66. The Wreckers stopped them twice on the goal line, in the last quarter.

Paul Lane (center) at last week’s Staples High School football game. He’s flanked by his sons Peter (left) and Skip. Both played for him.

Lane started coaching football in the Army in 1950. He then served as an assistant to Frank Dornfeld for 8 years, before taking over the top job.

At Staples, Lane also won state championships coaching indoor and outdoor track — and girls golf.

He grew up in Bethel, but his family has long ties to Westport. He’s been a Compo Beach resident nearly all his adult life. Former players — and of course his sons Skip and Peter, both of whom played for him — often drop by to chat with their former coach.

Last week on the football field, Lane was introduced with a video produced by Justin Nadal and Staples’ media lab. Then he shook hands with coaches and players, stood beside the team for the national anthem, and headed to the 50-yard line for the coin toss.

This week also saw the announcement that Loeffler — who, with Lane, co-owned a summer sports camp for Westport youngsters in the 1950s and ’60s — has been selected for the United Soccer Coaches Hall of Fame. He’ll be inducted at the organization’s annual convention in Chicago this January.

Loeffler joins 62 other major contributors to the game. The Hall of Fame already includes legends like former men’s national team and University of Virginia coach Bruce Arena, women’s national team and University of North Carolina coach Anson Dorrance, and University of Connecticut coach Joe Morrone (with whom Loeffler co-founded the Connecticut Junior Soccer Association).

Albie Loeffler

Loeffler — who died the day before his 94th birthday in 2009 — was a goalkeeper at the University of Connecticut. He began his coaching career in South Windsor (1942-52), where he won 2 state championships.

He came to Staples in 1952, teaching phys. ed. and coaching basketball, baseball and track. In 1957 he formed a club soccer team. The next year it earned varsity status.

His Staples record includes 12 FCIAC titles and 7 state championships — 5 of them in a row. His teams recorded 25 consecutive shutouts (including post-season tournament games), won or tied 43 straight matches, and lost just 2 home games between 1966 and 1974. When he retired in 1978, his 314 career wins was a national record.

Loeffler was a 2-time National Coach of the Year. More than 175 athletes went on to play college soccer; 11 became All-Americans.

Albie Loeffler (left), coaching a Staples High School soccer team in the early 1960s.

In 1998, the soccer field at Staples was named in his honor. Earlier this month, it was the site of the program’s 60th anniversary celebration.

Loeffler’s daughter and grandson will accept his posthumous award in Chicago.

I’ll be there too. Albie Loeffler was my mentor. I played for him. He got me involved in coaching — and in the United Soccer Coaches organization. He was an original member when it was formed (as the National Soccer Coaches Association of America) in 1941.

I am honored to have known Albie Loeffler. I’m glad I’ve continued my long friendship with Paul Lane.

And I’m proud that both men are back in the headlines, in the town where they influenced countless lives.

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.