Category Archives: Places

Birchwood Country Club: Local Jewel, Hidden In Plain Sight

I’ve spent most of my life in Westport. Yet until a few years ago — when I went to an awards dinner there — I had never set foot in Birchwood Country Club.

Nor had I even thought about it.

I’ve been inside 3 times since then: for 2 A Better Chance “Dream Events,” and last November’s Catch a Lift fundraiser.

For me — as with many Westporters — the 80-acre club that lies, barely noticed, on prime land between Riverside Avenue and the Post Road — might have been in another galaxy. It was out of sight, out of mind.

Birchwood’s current board of directors want to change that. They’d like everyone  to know about the only private country club in Westport.

And they want everyone to feel welcome there.

The Birchwood Country Club main building.

Before World War II, the “Westport Country Club” boasted an 18-hole golf course. It was private or semi-private — details are hazy.

During the war, it lay fallow. Weeds replaced well-trimmed grass.

In 1946, returning veterans bought the land, and opened their own club — renamed Birchwood. The reason they didn’t join any existing club in the area: They couldn’t.

They were Jewish.

A redesigned 9-hole golf course became the #6 of its kind in the US, according to Golf Digest. The club added tennis and paddle courts, and a pool.

The Birchwood golf course.

But — beyond the fact that it was located in Westport, and many members lived here — it had nothing to do with the community.

Over the past decade, directors say, Birchwood has grown much more inclusive. Club members still gather to break the fast on Yom Kippur — but there’s a gingerbread house at Christmas.

Children — once supposed to be neither heard nor seen — are now welcome in the restaurant.

Marco Spadacenta — the first non-Jewish president in the club’s 72 years — exemplifies those changes.

He moved to Westport 20 years ago. For 14 years, he played golf at Longshore. He’d never heard of Birchwood. But he wanted more flexibility in tee times, and found the club.

Since joining, he says, “I’ve met the most wonderful people. This is such a great place.”

Birchwood Country Club president Marco Spadacenta and board member Thomas Freydl, in the dining room.

Board member Thomas Freydl echoes Spadacenta. “I grew up in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. Country clubs there were” — he searches for the right words — “less approachable.”

At  Birchwood, Freydl says, “kids can run around. Everyone is relaxed, and has fun.”

As part of their community outreach, Birchwood is figuring out how to serve Westport’s police officers and firefighters. The club welcomes local businesses for corporate meetings and golf outings.

They also plan Memorial Day fireworks. They’ll be shot off on club grounds — yet visible all over town.

Which is exactly the point. “We’re 10 minutes from any place in Westport,” Freydl says. “But when I get here, I feel like I’m out of town. There’s great views off the balcony — green grass, nature and beauty. I spend every summer weekend here.”

New chef Quint Smith has re-energized the restaurant. He’s introduced cooking lessons for kids and adults, and organized tasting sessions. The dining room is a warm, welcoming place.

Birchwood is a hidden wonder. Now, the club hopes more Westporters will find it.

9 Stone Bridges

Alert  — and history-minded — “06880” reader Wendy Crowther writes:

It’s hard for us to imagine today the difficult problem that rivers, streams and brooks posed for Westport’s early settlers and travelers.

At first, traversing even small tributaries required getting wet. Later, rudimentary crossings were built so that carriages and wagons could manage the steep approaches, rocky bottoms, and wetland mud without tipping over, snapping axles, or becoming mired.

These overpasses became more problematic in the early 20th century, when the automobile came into fashion. Smoother transitions across Westport’s many brooks — most notably Willow, Muddy and Deadman’s — were needed.

Which brings us to Westport’s early stone bridges.

Around 1920, a series of 19 Craftsman-style stone bridges were built throughout town. Nearly a century later, 9 remain.

That’s a remarkable number considering they’ve seen nearly 100 years of use. They’ve survived hurricanes and “100-year storms,” and endured the collisions of decades of distracted drivers.

One of Westport’s 9 stone bridges, this carries Greens Farms Road traffic over Muddy Brook (Photo/Wendy Crowther)

Today we pass over these bridges daily. Yet few of us notice their rustic presence. Their stone walls (“parapets,” in bridge lingo) were designed to convey the sense of a park-like setting — an aesthetic popular at the time.

Most blend seamlessly into the roadside landscape, often appearing to be mere continuations of Westport’s many fieldstone walls. They are simple, folkloric, and historically important.

And they are at risk.

The Cross Highway bridge. (Photo/Wendy Crowther)

One of them in particular — on Kings Highway North — has a target on its back.  The town has hired a firm to design its replacement.

This concerns me and my fellow Westport Preservation Alliance colleagues Morley Boyd and Helen Garten. We are pushing back against the replacement plan favored by the town’s Public Works Department.

We’ve also made a pitch to the town to collectively nominate all 9 bridges for listing on the National Register.

While we would love to see all 9 bridges thematically nominated, we’re especially worried about the Kings Highway North Bridge over Willow Brook.

It matches the style of the other 8 bridges. More importantly, we believe it may have been built atop even older stone abutments. It’s possible that its enormous foundation stones may date back to the original King’s Highway, built in 1673 to carry mail from New York to Boston. Losing this bridge to a modern replacement would be tragic, especially if portions date back to pre-Revolutionary times.

Large stones in the abutments beneath the Kings Highway North Bridge may be remnants of a much earlier bridge. (Photo/Wendy Crowther)

We’re also concerned that the other 8 bridges will confront a similar replacement plan “down the road.” That’s why we’ve suggested the town pursue a National Register designation.  This will help protect the bridges — and may also make them eligible for rehabilitation grants.

To become eligible for a National Register listing, the history of these structures would be fully researched. State Historic Preservation Grants are available to conduct this work.

We feel that these very special bridges possess the integrity of location, design, setting, materials and workmanship to qualify for this distinguished honor.

On a more visceral level, the preservation of these bridges will allow us to appreciate the human craftsmanship that went into building them.  By picturing the crew of local men who lifted each stone by hand and mortared them in place, we’ll not just notice these bridges — we will feel them.

Evergreen Avenue (Photo/Wendy Crowther)

The locations of 4 of the 9 bridges have been identified above.  Do “06880” readers know where the other 5 are? See if you can find them as you drive around town (or, for the expats, as you travel down Memory Lane).

Tomorrow (Tuesday, January 9, 7 p.m., Town Hall Room 309), our request that the Town pursue a National Register listing for these nine early 20th Century bridges will be heard by Westport’s Historic District Commission at its public hearing.

We hope they are willing to cross that bridge when they come to it.

Pic Of The Day #247

Saugatuck River, from Grace Salmon Park (Photo/Patricia McMahon)

Closing The Barn Door On Aquarion’s Water Tanks

Back in the day — before Bridgeport Hydraulic built a water storage facility, and Staples High School moved in across the street — North Avenue was farmland.

A couple of decades ago, the Rippe farm and orchard was replaced by Greystone Farm Lane. Developers tossed a bone to the past, designing parts of some of the houses to look like silos.

Which may provide one solution to a controversy now roiling the road.

Aquarion — Bridgeport Hydraulic’s successor — wants to build 2 water tanks at the site it owns. Their 39-foot height concerns neighbors.

Pete Romano has an idea.

The LandTech principal knew that on Wilton Road at Newtown Turnpike, Aquarion used a facade to “hide” some of its equipment.

The Aquarion facility on Wilton Road.

He asked Peter Wormser — an architect at his engineering firm — to design something similar for North Avenue.

The result: 2 “barns.”

LandTech’s rendering of the barn structures for North Avenue. Click on or hover over to enlarge.

“I know Wilton Road is not as big,” Romano says. “And maybe Aquarion needs access on all 4 sides. But it’s an idea. It might get people talking.”

North Avenue will not go back to apple orchards and onion farms.

But perhaps — even with 2 big pumping stations — it can look that way.

 

Next New Mixed-Use Development? The Empty Lot Off Long Lots.

Come for the Daybreak application. Stay for another one that’s flown way under the radar.

Thursday’s Planning & Zoning Commission meeting (Town Hall, auditorium, 7 p.m.) was already expected to draw a crowd. The first item is 500 Main Street — the old Daybreak Nursery site. Able Construction is proposing to build 12 age-restricted, 2-bedroom houses. As seen from the comments on yesterday’s “06880” story, there are strong feelings for and against.

The 2nd item has drawn less attention. “DMC Westport” wants to develop 793 Post Road East/5 Long Lots Road.

That’s the empty lot between Westport Wash & Wax and Ruta Court, opposite the old Bertucci’s.

The proposed development would be built at 793 Post Road East (shown here) …

Like the Daybreak area, this is a neighborhood with lots of traffic. Every morning, a line of cars — coming from drop-offs at Staples, Bedford and Long Lots schools, plus folks commuting into town — backs up on Long Lots Road.

Like Daybreak too, the Post Road/Long Lots property may have soil issues from previous owners (a landscaping company and gas station, respectively).

… and extends to 5 Long Lots Road (above).

But while Daybreak neighbors are concerned about 12 homes, those on Ruta Court and Long Lots have bigger issues.

Literally.

DMC Westport is proposing 2 mixed-use buildings — 3 stories, 10,000 square feet each. Retail and offices would occupy the first floor; residences would be above.

Plus 4 more 3-story buildings, at the rear of the property. Two would include 4 townhouses each; 3 would have 3 townhouses apiece.

There would be room too for 93 parking spaces.

If you’re going to Town Hall on Thursday, get ready for a long night.

A site plan for 793 Post Road East/5 Long Lots Road. Click on or hover over to enlarge.

 

Scott Smith’s Concrete Questions

The roads of Westport play an important — if often unrecognized — role in our lives. When we do think about them, it’s in the context of traffic, alternate routes, that sort of thing.

Scott Smith thinks of asphalt and concrete. The longtime Westporter writes:

The autumn flurry of repaving Westport’s road before the asphalt plants shut down for the winter makes me wonder about the status of some other byways around town. I’m thinking of the local streetscapes I travel that are still paved with concrete.

Three spots come to mind: the mile or so along Greens Farms Road between Compo and Hillspoint, and 2 blocks on Riverside — one heading toward the train station, the other from Viva’s to the VFW. Made of poured aggregate cement and laid down in blocks of 20 feet or so, these stretches of old roadway remind me of a time when things were built to last.

Concrete on Greens Farms Road …

But not always. Years ago, while re-landscaping a home I lived in off Imperial Avenue, I dug up a bunch of old concrete blocks. They were odd shapes, most 2 or 3 feet across and all 6 to 8 inches thick, smooth on one side and jagged on the other.

The house was built in 1960, on low-lying property, so I figured they were fill from when construction of the I-95 Turnpike tore through town. The chunks of pavement were a bear to raise up out of the ground, but made great stepping stones. I bet they are still there.

… on Riverside Avenue north of the Cribari Bridge …

It’s probably a state versus town issue, but as I see other local roads in the continual process of getting stripped of asphalt and replaced with new black pavement, I wonder what’s up with these concrete remnants of vintage Westport.

Are there any longtime townies — or people in Public Works — who could let the rest of us know when these roads were first laid down, and how long they might stick around?

… and near the train station. (Photos/Scott Smith)

Thanksgiving Balloons

Many Westporters enjoyed Macy’s 91st annual Thanksgiving Day parade yesterday. Some ventured into New York. Most watched from the comfort of their homes. The main attractions — as always — were huge balloons.

Others headed to North Avenue, for the annual Staples-Greenwich football game.

Along the way, they were treated to balloons that looked nothing like Superman, Snoopy and Scrat.

This balloon shows the location and 38-foot height of 2 proposed water towers Aquarion hopes to build opposite the high school. A smaller tank now sits on the property.

Accompanying the balloons were signs opposing the project. Among them: “If you think traffic is bad now, 5 years of industrial park construction across from Staples HS.”

Happy Thanksgiving, From “06880” To All

Stevan Dohanos’ “Thanksgiving” painting drew its inspiration from the red gingerbread house at 55 Long Lots Road.

It’s still standing. And Thanksgiving is still one of Westport’s most cherished holidays.

 

Photo Challenge #148

You’d think a plaque honoring all of Westport’s veterans — “living or dead” — would be located in a prominent spot. Veterans Green, probably. The VFW, perhaps.

You’d also think that because it was dedicated in 1975, plenty of people would remember where it was.

You’d be wrong.

Jack Whittle and Deej Webb were the only “06880” readers who knew where last week’s photo challenge can be found. (Click here for the image, and all comments.)

It’s not what our veterans deserve. The plaque is at the old Bertucci’s (and older: Clam Box) property, near where a memorial flagpole once stood.

There’s a reason it’s there, and it has nothing to do with clams or pizza. For several decades, a Doughboy statue once graced the median, between the restaurant and Torno Hardware.

It was relocated probably 20-25 years ago to Veterans Green (though it was not called that then). It’s certainly a more appropriate spot — across from Town Hall, next to the Westport Historical Society.

Also appropriately, I’m honored to pass along alert (and patriotic) “06880” reader Adam Vengrow’s reminder:

Veteran’s Day is Saturday, November 11. Westport’s Town Hall ceremony is always inspiring — but  lightly attended. Consider going (10:30 a.m.). School’s not in session that day, so bring the kids too. It’s a great way — besides a plaque — to honor our veterans.

Now here’s this week’s photo challenge. If you think you know where in Westport it is, click “Comments” below.

(Photo/Amy Schneider)

Honoring Westporters Who Preserve History

Though the 1 Wilton Road building disappeared, plank by wooden plank, there is some good news on the preservation front.

Next Monday (October 30, 7 p.m., Town Hall auditorium), 1st selectman Jim Marpe and Historic District Commission chair Francis Henkels will present the organization’s 2017 awards.

Eight properties — from all over town — have been chosen. They represent a variety of styles, and were selected for many different reasons.

Taken together, they are proof that Westport still cares about its architectural heritage.

Well, sort of.

Bedford Square

Since 1923, this Tudor revival has anchored downtown. Generations of Westporters knew it as the YMCA. When the Y moved to Mahackeno, there were grave concerns over the future of the building.

Bedford Square Associates — led by David Waldman — made a strong commitment to historic preservation. With hard, creative work and collaboration with town agencies, they and architect Centerbrook Associates designed a mixed-use complex that repurposed the Bedford building. Though there is significantly more space, the character and scale respects the streetscape of Church Lane, the Post Road and Main Street.

Bedford Square (Photo/Jennifer Johnson)

Wakeman Town Farm

This late-1800s farmhouse, with veranda, turned posts and a projecting gable is a Westport landmark. In the 1900s the Wakeman family supplied neighbors with produce, milk and eggs.

In 1970 Ike and Pearl Wakeman sold the historic property to the town. Today it is a sustainability center and organic homestead, open to the public.

Longtime Westport architect Peter Wormser donated his time and talent to rehabilitate the farmhouse. Public Works oversaw construction. Key elements include a rebuilt front porch, and new educational kitchen and classroom. Wakeman Town Farm is now even better able to teach, feed and inspire Westporters of all ages.

Wakeman Town Farm (Photo/Bob Weingarten)

190 Cross Highway

The Meeker homestead stood on the route taken by British soldiers, heading to Danbury to burn an arsenal. But after 2 centuries the barn and 1728 saltbox house fell into disrepair.

When Mark Yurkiw and Wendy Van Wie bought the property in 2003 it was in foreclosure. They rehabilitated the barn/cottage, and got a zoning variance to subdivide the property (making both buildings more likely to be preserved.) They’re now protected by perpetual preservation easements.

190 Cross Highway (Photo/Amy Dolego)

383 Greens Farms Road

This English-style barn was built in 1820 by Francis Bulkley. In 2000 Lawrence and Maureen Whiteman Zlatkin bought the property. They installed a new shingle roof, reinforced the basement foundation and floor beams, replaced exterior siding and enhanced the interior. All work was done with meticulous care, using historically appropriate materials. The barn now hosts civic gatherings, concerts and family events.

Maureen died last month. Her husband hopes that her focus on preserving the barn will inspire other Westporters to do the same to their treasures.

383 Greens Farms Road

8 Charcoal Hill Road

This 1927 stone Tudor revival is a classic example of the homes Frazier Forman Peters designed and built in the area. When Sam and Jamie Febbraio bought it in 2015, it had suffered from severe neglect. They meticulously restored it to its original form, adding 21st-century amenities. A 3rd-generation Westporter, Sam understands the appeal and significance of Peters homes.

8 Charcoal Hill Road (Photo/Bob Weingarten)

101 Compo Road South

Jenny Ong purchased this 1924 colonial revival — listed on the Westport Historic Resources Inventory —  in 2015 “as is” from a bank, with no inspection. Extensive water damage made it uninhabitable. The roof had collapsed, and the exterior was rotted.

The owner hired a structural engineer and architect. The original footprint was maintained, but with new windows, doors and roof. A dormer, stone steps and driveway were added. The rehabilitation replaced basement posts, first floor joists and flooring.

101 Compo Road South (Photo/Bob Weingarten)

37 Evergreen Avenue

The renovation of this 1938 colonial revival — located in the Evergreen Avenue Historic District — included the removal of a later-addition solarium in the front of the house. It was replaced by an addition within the existing footprint. Materials and design reflect and enhance the house’s original character. Owners Bruce McGuirk and Martha Constable worked with the HDC to ensure the work would be appropriate for the historic district.

37 Evergreen Avenue (Photo/Bob Weingarten)

6 Clover Lane 

This 1966 home — designed and built by George White — is a typical New England saltbox-style replication. Its 3rd owners — Lawrence and LJ Wilks — have taken special care to preserve the exterior.

6 Clover Lane (Photo/Bob Weingarten)