Category Archives: Places

From Cuba, With Love

Westporters June Eichbaum and Ken Wirfel just returned from a great National Geographic expedition to Cuba. June sends this report, and some wonderful photos:

Our “people to people” visa facilitated a unique cultural exchange. We met extraordinary teachers and students in the visual and performing arts, including an 18-year-old young man in Cienfuegos who choreographed and danced a pas de deux of passion and violence in gay love.

At Isla de Juventud, an all-girl string quartet played a Telemann violin concerto.  We were energized by the percussion and dance of Habana de Compas, rooted in Santeria rhythms. We spoke with cigar factory workers, farmers and a Santeria priest.

Man with cigar. (Photo copyright June Eichbaum)

Man with cigar. (Photo copyright June Eichbaum)

We met a librarian who ran a Google-donated internet center with computers for children, and mechanics skilled in antique car restoration. We visited open-air markets where butchers sold unrefrigerated meat, alongside fruits and eggs.   We walked through a crumbling, abandoned prison for political prisoners and hard-core criminals.

Cuba is both amazing and sad. It is amazing because of the openness, compassion and joy of the Cuban people — their resilience, love of family, and music and art that infuses their world.

The sadness was ours, as we observed Cubans lacking what we consider essential to our everyday lives, like appliances, food (without needing a ration card), cars, even functional plumbing.

Apartment building with clotheslines. (Photo copyright June Eichbaum)

Apartment building with clotheslines. (Photo copyright June Eichbaum)

Yet the United States continues its embargo — not sanctions, but an embargo — an anachronism that has outlived its purpose. All it does now is deprive poor hard-working people.

For instance, Cubans can’t import US cars or car parts. As a result, Cuban mechanics in a time-warp fashion parts for cars from the 1950’s, or import parts from other countries.

One man showed us his ’58 Chevy. He was allowed to import a Mercedes engine from Germany, but not from the US.  Then he pointed to a Chinese container ship in the harbor that was delivering a shipment of new buses.

'58 Chevy in old Havana. (Photo copyright June Eichbaum)

’58 Chevy in old Havana. (Photo copyright June Eichbaum)

Another embargo-imposed time warp is that Cuban-Americans who send money to their relatives in Cuba must use Western Union, not US banks.

So what does Cuba have to do with Westport?

Westporters and Cubanos have shared values:  love of family; devotion to children; engaging in hard work; living in an inclusive society.

Cubanos do not discriminate based on ethnicity or race. They see themselves as one people — not black or mulatto or white.

Woman in colorful dress, old Havana. (Photo copyright June Eichbaum)

Woman in colorful dress, old Havana. (Photo copyright June Eichbaum)

Historically, Westport was the only town in Fairfield County that sold homes to Jews.  “Gentleman’s Agreement” — the 1947 movie with Gregory Peck about anti-Semitism in Fairfield County — told this ugly story.

Cubanos are passionate about the arts and creativity — whether dance, music, theater, painting, sculpture, embroidery, weaving, sculpture or pottery. Life in Westport is energized by groups like Westport Country Playhouse, Westport Art Center, Westport Public Library, Staples Players and Westport Community Theater.

Girl practicing trumpet in high school courtyard. (Photo copyright June Eichbaum)

Girl practicing trumpet in high school courtyard. (Photo copyright June Eichbaum)

On the flight home I thought about transforming the “people to people” Cuba expedition into a two-way street.  Charleston, South Carolina has already provided a model in its annual Spoleto USA Festival.

This event has become one of America’s major performing arts festivals, showcasing both established and emerging artists with performances of opera, dance, theater, classical music and jazz.

Imagine the positive impact of Westport hosting these gifted Cuban artists of all ages with performances over a week at different venues throughout town.  And imagine how it would bring people together at a time when our country is so divided.

Abandoned prisons. (Photo copyright June Eichbaum)

Abandoned prisons. (Photo copyright June Eichbaum)

Santeria religious doll. (Photo copyright June Eichbaum)

Santeria religious doll. (Photo copyright June Eichbaum)

Bedford Square Takes Shape …

… and it looks like it’s been here forever!

Thanks to WestportNow and photographer Jennifer Johnson for this great photo!

bedford-square-february-17

Friday Flashback #25

A few weeks ago, alert “06880” readers were identified the 1920s-era Flambeau Tea Room.

Now how about the Westover Inn?

westover-inn

The front view of this postcard — courtesy of Seth Schachter — looks like it really could be in Westport.

Or anywhere else in New England.

I’ve never heard of it. Seth hasn’t either.

But — according to the back of the postcard — it was right there on the Post Road.

westover-inn-back-of-card

There’s one clue as to its vintage: the phone number. Those were the days when you needed only 5 digits to make a call.

Sometime in the 1950s, Bell introduced the “CA 7” (for CApital) prefix to Westport.

If you have any memories of the Westover Inn, click “Comments.”

And if you know where it was located, we’d really like to know.

Searching For The Quintessential Westport Shot

The Compo cannons and Minute Man monument. Sherwood Mill and Nash’s Ponds. The Saugatuck and Aspetuck Rivers. The Bridge Street and Post Road bridges.

Those — and many others — are photographers’ favorites. From the water to the Weston border, our town teems with great scenes to shoot.

Now one of those images may land on the cover of the next Westport Weston Chamber of Commerce‘s Visitors/Membership Guide.

And it could be yours.

The Chamber is seeking “quintessential” Westport photos. The last time they asked — in 2015 — they received over 1,000 submissions, from dozens of amateur and professional photographers.

Westporter Mark Litvinoff was the winner, with a gorgeous shot of the Levitt Pavilion.

Mark Litvinoff's winning photo from 2015.

Mark Litvinoff’s winning photo from 2015.

Scores of other images were used inside the 68-page booklet and map. Every winner received photo credit.

Any resident or businessperson from Westport or Weston can submit any number of entries. Send them to matthew@westportwestonchamber.com, with the subject line “Photo Contest.” Deadline is March 1.

“06880” will publish the winning image, and worthy runners-up.

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)

Photo Challenge #107

Last week’s photo challenge was like Goldilocks.

It was not too easy. Not too hard. It was just right.

There was a great balance between right answers, and wrong.

The wrong guesses went in every direction. Seth Schachter’s waterfall photo showed not Lees Pond. Not Nash’s Pond. Not Devil’s Den.

It was Bulkley Pond. That’s by Sasco Mill, on the Westport/Southport border. It’s right behind Shake Shack. And — sssshhh!  — there’s a cute little parking area, for your enjoyment.

Andrew Colabella, Billy Scalzi, Joyce Losen and Katie Augustyn knew exactly where that hidden-in-plain-sight site was. Click here for the photo, and all the comments.

This week’s photo challenge is a lot uglier. But — like the 3 Bears — it takes all kinds to make up Westport.

If you know where in Westport to find this, click “Comments” below.

(Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

(Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

 

Proud Townees Offer Westport Wear

Last summer, Ted Vergakis was on vacation in California. He saw someone wearing a simple T-shirt, with 2 words in beautiful script: “King’s Highway.”

Ted’s a Westporter. He had no idea what the shirt referred to. It could have been “a San Diego biker gang,” for all he knew.

No matter. He wanted one.

His oldest son Theo went to Kings Highway Elementary  School. His youngest son Alecko is a student there now. The family calls it “a special place,” and seeing those words crafted on a T-shirt seemed both cool and rare.

Ted realized that though there are places to buy things that say “Westport,” they don’t feel as if they were created specifically for here.

Ted and Stephanie Vergakis.

Ted and Stephanie Vergakis.

So he and his wife Stephanie decided to create a hand-drawn script for Westport, and a unique illustration that can’t be found anywhere else in town.

This was not a total stretch for the couple — but not exactly what they’d been planning either.

Both grew up in small Massachusetts towns. Both started their careers in advertising, managing creative departments and producing campaigns.

Stephanie went on to work in fashion, at Donna Karan. Ted spent several years running the global creative group at IMG — with clients like the Olympics, NCAA, sports stars and models.

Now they run their own studio, called Offmad. They provide creative and strategic support to clients like Kayak.com, PwC, Vroom and others.

Ted and Stephanie's Westport hoodie.

Ted and Stephanie’s Westport hoodie.

Their route to Westport — via Manhattan and Hoboken — was similar to others’. When they felt the need for more space, and realized the commute would be longer, they wanted someplace special.

“More of a destination, not just a suburban town,” is how Ted describes it.

Work colleagues suggested Westport. On weekend trips here, Ted and Stephanie “pretty much knew it was the perfect place.” They loved it all: seeing houses in the morning, then lunch at the Mansion Clam House, a trip to the Compo Beach playground, a stop at Trader Joe’s.

“We were really taken by how much at home Westport made us feel,” Ted says.

“It felt very New England and familiar. We both loved where we grew up and vacationed — Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard. Westport really reminded us of all those special things from home.”

But — like most Westporters — when Ted had his aha! T-shirt moment, he also realized that Main Street has become flooded with retailers that do not offer anything authentic and Westport-special.

So he and Stephanie decided to partner with skilled designers and illustrators. They wanted to celebrate their town, and the artists who created its legacy.

Townee's sparkling Saugatuck Bridge t-shirt.

Townee’s sparkling Saugatuck Bridge t-shirt.

Creating the sparkling Saugatuck Bridge illustration for their “Townee” apparel — which now includes short- and long-sleeve T-shirts, hoodies, fleeces and rally caps, for adults, kids and toddlers — was particularly important.

“I don’t think there’s a soul in town who doesn’t love the way the bridge looks during the holidays,” Ted says. “It’s perfect from every view — from 95, driving over it, walking through it.”

As for the company name, Ted says, “We think being called a townee is a compliment — a badge of honor. It’s someone who knows the best things to do, see, when to go places.

“Loving where you live makes you a townee. We all spend so much time  here doing normal day-to-day things. We want to remind others of how special Westport is.”

Their reminder: a line of high-quality apparel that’s comfortable, can be worn every day, and shows the pride people have in their town.

Townee launched last month. You may already have seen folks wearing Ted and Stephanie’s gear.

Just call them townees.

(Ted and Stephanie offer free delivery to all addresses. For more information — including ordering — click here.)

Neither Snow Nor …

Today’s light but steady snowfall made driving treacherous.

(Except for the usual bozos barreling along the Post Road at their usual breakneck speed. Slow down, guys!)

Our postal carriers were undeterred. They lived up to their motto — as this photo from Drumlin Road shows.

(Photo/Fred Cantor)

(Photo/Fred Cantor)

The truck made its way up the unplowed road with some difficulty, alert photographer Fred Cantor reports.

But it did deliver the mail.

86 Cross Highway: Another Preservation Success Story

There’s something about Cross Highway. For some reason, it’s become the epicenter of preservation in Westport.

“06880” has chronicled the stories of #93, the former home of noted artist George Hand Wright; #108, an 1805 dwelling that may have been built by a free black man; #113, where several outbuildings included one of the first gas stations in Westport, and — most recently — #180, a 2.9-acre property with a 1728 saltbox and 1790s-era barn.

All were saved from almost certain destruction by owners who loved the history, charm and livability of those homes — and found ways to save them.

Meet the latest addition to the Cross Highway saga: #86.

Eight years ago, Bill and Sarah Dransfield moved to Westport. They left Manhattan for the usual reasons: schools. Their 1st child was entering kindergarten. The couple are both teachers — he’s at The Allen-Stevenson School on the Upper East Side, she’s a fitness instructor (now with Total Training & Endurance) — they could not afford New York’s astronomical tuitions.

They rented on Long Lots Lane. They painted, cleaned up the yard — and watched as nearly every home nearby turned into a teardown.

Sarah and Bill Dransfield, on the property they now own.

Sarah and Bill Dransfield, on the property they now own.

This past spring, they learned their own rental home would soon be torn down too. They began looking for one to buy.

It was not easy. They had a limited budget. They wanted to stay in the Bedford/ Long Lots district, where their 2 kids were in school.

And they really wanted an older house. “One with character and charm,” Sarah explains.

They were outbid on a Roseville Road farmhouse. November 1 — the day they had to be out of their rental — loomed.

While Sarah was looking at a place on Main Street — she was literally inside the house — a friend who lives on Victoria Lane sent a text. Her neighbor’s house had just come on the market. “It’s a gem,” the friend said.

Sarah’s realtor quickly replied: “It’s out of your price range.”

But she agreed to show it to Sarah. The moment she walked in the door, Sarah says, “I knew this was it. It’s exactly what we wanted. I cried!”

A springtime view of 86 Cross Highway, as seen from the road.

A springtime view of 86 Cross Highway, as seen from the long driveway. The house is set back from the road.

She particularly loved the 2 fireplaces, and the office overflowing with books and papers. “I realized how much the owner had enjoyed being there,” Sarah says.

The house was built in 1910. Since 1962, it was owned by Sarah and Steve Herz. She too was an educator — a longtime and much-loved English teacher at Bedford and Staples, who died 2 years ago — while he earned renown in a 2nd career as a poet.

When Bill saw the home, he noted a problem with the ceiling: The house had a flat roof. But the couple saw plenty of potential. “The inside just needs to be loved again,” Sarah says.

They wrote a letter to the Herz children, who were selling the home. The Dransfields said they were both teachers, and wanted to raise their children in a home that had so obviously meant so much to Sarah and Steve Herz’s children, Mark and Kate.

“They got it,” Sarah Dransfield says. “They know it’s hard for teachers to live in Westport.”

They agreed on a price. The buyers’ landlord allowed them to stay in their rental property until mid-December.

On December 19, the new owners moved in. Bill cut down a small fir in the yard, for their Christmas tree.

A rear view of 86 Cross Highway.

A rear view of 86 Cross Highway.

There’s a lot of work to be done. The Dransfields will put in a sloped roof. They hope to expose some of the old beams in the kitchen. They’ve found some old photos, and plan to bring back the landscaping as it was when the Herzes bought the house.

Sarah and Bill are thrilled to own their first home. They’re even happier that it’s the type they always coveted: an older one, with character and charm.

Sitting in their new kitchen, they talk about the home next door. It’s a teardown — and it looms over that stretch of Cross Highway, which has managed nonetheless to maintain several older properties.

“Not everyone can move into a ready-made home,” Sarah says. “And not everyone wants to.”

For now, the streetscape of Cross Highway remains less changed than many others in Westport.

Those who care about preservation can thank Ed Gerber (#93), Jeff Porter and Rachel Ember (#108), the Ronemus family (#113) and Mark Yurkiw and Wendy Van Wie (#180) for that.

And — though #86 sits back a bit from the road — we can now add Bill and Sarah Dransfield to the list.

With, of course, an assist from Steve and Sarah Herz, and their kids.

If A Tree Falls In Baron’s South, Does It Make A Sound?

It’s tough to take down trees here on public land without an uproar.

Westporters howled 3 years ago, when 15 tulip poplars and Norway maples lining the Longshore entrance road were slated for removal. There was a similar brouhaha when a number of Main Street trees were sacrificed for light poles.

But very quietly earlier this month, several dozen trees — not far from the center of downtown — were cut down. We’ve heard hardly a peep.

The key is that those latest trees were on the Baron’s South property. That’s the 22-acre site between Compo Road South and Imperial Avenue. We — well, the town — bought it in 1999. But we’ve never decided exactly how to use the land.

It’s magnificent: hilly, wild and filled with wildlife. It’s been minimally maintained, which suits some people fine. Others think it needs a bit more care.

Deep in the Baron's South property. This image was taken from Judy James' video.

Deep in the Baron’s South property. This image was taken from Judy James’ video.

Most Westporters have no idea it even exists. So the recent Parks & Recreation Department project — to clear overgrown brush, vines, tree branches and other debris, and (oh yeah) chop down a number of trees — hardly registered.

Of course, a few folks noticed.

Cut trees are hauled away from Baron's South.

Cut trees are hauled away from Baron’s South.

One “06880” reader emailed to say that when a friend “came upon such woodland carnage, he became so sick to his stomach he had to leave.” Both were appalled that such “clear-cutting” took place without any notice.

Others hailed the project.

Scott Smith wrote:

The property has fascinated me since moving to this part of town 20 years ago. I’ve hiked, biked and explored the place even before the town bought it.

These photos hardly capture the transformation of the overgrown and long neglected grounds, or the number of trees cleared from the landscape.

The new view at Baron's South, looking west. (Photo/Scott Smith)

The new view at Baron’s South, looking west…

The tree clearing has opened up views of the Baron’s old manor house from nearly every part of the park. I never realized the views it commanded from its hilltop setting. The new vistas from the high ground also reveal glimpses of downtown and the steeples of Assumption Church across the river, and Saugatuck Church on the other side of the Post Road.

The loss of so many (but certainly not all) shows how rugged and steep the site is; there are more than a few slopes and ravines that would make for double-diamond sled runs if the town would ever allow it, which they won’t.

... looking east ...

… looking east …

On the flat land closer to Imperial and near the Senior Center is a small nursery of trees and shrubs packed in deep beds of tree mulch. I suspect tree warden Bruce Lindsay has a well thought-out re-landscaping plan.

Can’t wait to see how this most hidden of the town-owned jewels shapes up this spring. It’s definitely going to be a huge change.

It already is. Whether that change is positive or negative is up for debate.

By the small group of people who even know it happened.

... and looking north. (Photos/Scott Smith)

… and looking north. (Photos/Scott Smith)