Category Archives: Real estate

Shakespeare’s Stratford And Westport: A Twice-Told Tale

Early Sunday morning, fire destroyed the American Shakespeare Festival Theater in Stratford.

News reports noted that the 1,500-seat venue — modeled after London’s Globe Theater — hosted performances by Katharine Hepburn, Helen Hayes and Christopher Walken.

When the theater thrived, its garden on the banks of the Housatonic River featured a garden with 81 species of plants mentioned in the Bard’s plays.

The American Shakespeare Festival Theater in Stratford, in its heyday.

Papers reported too that the idea for the theater came from Lawrence Langner. It was not his first rodeo. In 1930 — 25 years before developing the Stratford venue — the Weston resident turned an apple orchard and old tannery into the Westport Country Playhouse.

But Westport’s connection to the American Shakespeare Festival Theater runs far deeper than that.

In fact, our town was almost its home.

In 2014 I posted a story that began with a note from Ann Sheffer. The Westport civic volunteer and philanthropist — who had a particular fondness for the Playhouse, where she interned as a Staples High School student — had sent me an old clipping that told the fascinating back story of Stony Point. That’s the winding riverfront peninsula with an entrance directly off the train station parking lot, where Ann and her husband Bill Scheffler then lived.

Stony Point today (left of the river). The train station and tracks are at top.

Stony Point today (left of the river). The train station and tracks are at top.

Written in 1977, the Westport News piece by longtime resident Shirley Land described a New York banker, his wife and 2 daughters. They lived in a handsome Victorian mansion with “turrets and filigree curlicues.” The grounds included an enormous carriage house, gardener’s cottage, barn and hothouse.

It was the Cockeroft family’s country home, built around 1890. They traveled there by steam launch from New York City, tying up at a Stony Point boathouse.

After the daughters inherited the home, the New York, New Haven & Hartford railroad purchased some of the land for a new train station. (The original one was on the other side of the river.)

The 2nd daughter bequeathed the estate to the Hospital for the  Crippled and Ruptured (whose name was later changed, mercifully, to the New York Hospital for Special Surgery).

But the property fell into disuse. Eventually the hospital sold Stony Point to real estate developers.

Which brings us to Shakespeare.

Around 1950 Langner, Lincoln Kirstein of Lincoln Center and arts patron Joseph Verner Reed had audacious plans. They wanted to build an American Shakespeare Theatre and Academy.

And they wanted it on Stony Point. Proximity to the train station was a major piece of the plan.

The price for all 21 acres: $200,000.

But, Land wrote, “the hand of fate and the town fathers combined to defeat the efforts of the theatre people.” Many residents objected. There were also concerns that it would draw audiences away from the Westport Country Playhouse. (Others argued that a Shakespeare Theatre would enhance the town’s reputation as an arts community.)

The theater was never built in Westport. It opened a few miles away –in the aptly named town of Stratford — in 1955.

It achieved moderate success there. But in 1982 the theater ran out of money (and backers). The state of Connecticut took ownership. It closed in 1985.

The garden turned into weeds. The theater grew moldy. The stage where renowned actors once performed the world’s greatest plays was taken over by raccoons.

The entrance to Stony Point.

The entrance to Stony Point.

Meanwhile, in 1956 Westporters Leo Nevas and Nat Greenberg, along with Hartford’s Louis Fox, bought the Stony Point property for residential development.

It’s now considered one of the town’s choicest addresses. A recent listing for one home there was $14 million.

That’s quite a story. We can only imagine what might have happened had Westporters decided to support — rather than oppose — the American Shakespeare Festival Theater in Westport.

Then again, as a famous playwright once said: “It is not in the stars to hold our destiny, but in ourselves.”

Invasive Vines: If You See Something, Do Something

Darcy Sledge has lived in Westport for 30 years. She is active in several organizations — most importantly for this story, the Westport Garden Club and University of Connecticut invasive plant working group. Darcy writes:

This is the perfect time of year to check the health of your trees and shrubs.

Many trees are being smothered by invasive vines — often right under our noses.

I took a few photos in Greens Farms right before New Year’s, to show a few examples.

This is the entrance of a beautiful estate, with stone wall gates. In the foreground you see gorgeous pines. In the background, you see the same type of trees completely smothered in vines.

Vines weaken trees and shrubs. When weakened, they are the first to fall in a storm. The result is power outages, property damage and injuries.

When leaves are out, vines are hard to see. It’s easier to see them now.

I’ve gotten rid of my vines by cutting them at ground level, then cutting them again at head level. The dead ones hang in the branches, but eventually fall off.

Here’s what they look like:

(Photos/Darcy Sledge)

You  have to watch for new growth, and cut it every time. Eventually though, you get rid of the vines.

Even thick ones (called Asiatic bittersweet) can be cut with a lopper. I did it often in Winslow Park, and earned the nickname Cyndi Lopper.

Invasive vines are a rampant problem throughout the US — especially in Connecticut.

We will lose our beautiful trees and shrubs if we don’t work on getting rid of invasives. The town and state can do only so much. People need to walk their own properties on nice winter days. You may get an unhappy surprise. Landscapers may not even notice or identify owners about vines.

We talk about Westport’s changing streetscape, properties being torn down, and lovely trees being cut for new construction.

Yet our own trees may be slowly dying.

(For more information on invasive vines, click here. For more on the UConn invasive plant working group, click here.)

Giant Typewriter Eraser: The Sequel

This morning, “06880” reported that the 19-foot, 10,000-pound typewriter eraser sculpture that’s entertained Beachside Avenue drivers and joggers for more than 20 years has relocated to Florida.

The story quickly made its way south. This afternoon, a spokesman for Norton Museum of Art — its new West Palm Beach home — emailed a photo of the installation.

(Photo/Rachel Richardson)

And hey! I learned something else:

It’s sitting in Heyman Plaza.

Artists’ rendering by foster + partners.

The area outside the museum honors Sam and Ronnie Heyman. She’s a Norton trustee.

And — this is no coincidence — they’re the Beachside Avenue couple who donated the massive, quirky Claes Oldenburg/Coosje van Bruggen sculpture to the museum.

I guess like many Westporters, “Typewriter Eraser, Scale X” is a snowbird at heart.

Gone: One 19-Foot, 10,000-Pound Typewriter Eraser

For years, one of the attractions of Beachside Avenue — besides the beautiful homes, enormous lawns and sweeping views of Long Island Sound — has been a quirky sculpture of a typewriter eraser.

The work — “Typewriter Eraser, Scale X” by noted sculptors Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen — stands 19 feet, 3 inches tall, and weighs 10,300 pounds. Enormous blue bristles project from a tilting red wheel.

It was commissioned in the late 1990s by Westporters Sam and Ronnie Heyman. It’s a limited edition piece. Others are in Seattle, Las Vegas, and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.

The Heymans went to California to see their artwork fabricated. It traveled cross-country in a flatbed truck, before being installed — very trickily, atop a subterranean 12-foot concrete base — on the couple’s front lawn.

“Typewriter Eraser, Scale X” — just the thing for your lawn.

For two decades “Typewriter Eraser, Scale X” amused, entertained and enthralled everyone who drove or jogged by.

Now it’s gone.

But it will be unveiled next month in a new location: the outdoor entrance plaza to the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, Florida.

That’s fitting. The museum will feature an exhibition of Oldenburg and van Bruggen’s work. Much of it focuses on office equipment — including typewriters and erasers.

In fact, the Heymans’ sculpture proved an inspiration for the exhibit. Ronnie Heyman is a Norton trustee.

In 2012, Greens Farms resident Seth Schachter’s son stood in front of the Beachside Avenue fence — with the eraser sculpture in the background.

Plenty of people enjoyed the enormous eraser on Beachside Avenue.

But many, many more will see it in its next home, outside a museum in Florida.

The big question is: How many visitors actually know what a typewriter eraser was?

(Hat tip: Seth Schachter. He spotted an article about the sculpture in the Wall Street Journal. Click here to read the full story.)

Progress Report: That Building By Bertucci’s

What’s rising on the lot between Westport Wash & Wax and Bertucci’s?

The view from Long Lots Road. (Photo/Jo Ann Davidson)

Two mixed-use buildings of 3 stories (and 10,000 square feet) each. There will be retail and offices on the 1st floors, with 16 residences above.

In the rear are 4 townhouses, with 2 or 3 bedrooms each. Of the 28 apartments, 6 are classified as “affordable.” There are also 93 parking spaces.

The address is 793 Post Road East — and 5 Long Lots Road, because of the driveway there too.

Happy New Year!

Pic Of The Day #620

Flood-proofing, at Old Mill Beach. (Photo/John Videler, Videler Photography)

And In Today’s Starter Home News…

The stock market is headed for its worst December since 1931.

But in Westport, there’s a house on the market for $20 million.

At 5,206 square feet, with 4 bedrooms, 4 full and 3 partial baths and a 3-car garage on 1.48 acres, it doesn’t sound too different from many Westport homes worth about $18 million less.

Plus, this is right on a main road. There’s a ton of traffic — especially in summer.

Then again, that’s one of the attractions. This is the house everyone gawks at.

It’s the only one on the south side of Hillspoint Road between Soundview Drive and Old Mill Beach.

(Photo copyright SmartMLS)

In real estate-speak, 261 Hillspoint Road offers

total privacy – and the most stunning, varied and interesting water views one could ever hope to find….This important property is the most truly unique waterfront estate at coveted Compo Beach. This premier neighborhood is one of the most highly-desired coastal communities in the Northeast.

There are “mesmerizing views of the water…..all but two rooms open to vast waterside decks and balconies.” Plus a private beach, a pool, pool house and outdoor kitchen.

So the hell with the market. You only live once. Go for it!

(Hat tip: Rosemary Milligan)

Green’s Farms United: Neighbors Band Together

Greens Farms means many things, to many people.

It’s filled with rolling hills, old homes, a small beach, a friendly train station and post office, and a stately elementary school.

That school sits on the northern edge of the neighborhood. It’s an area that residents feel is under siege.

Just across the Post Road, a 94-unit apartment building is quickly filling up. Twelve apartments have been constructed on the site of the former Geiger’s property, with 32 assisted living apartments being built next door.

The bank/office complex at the Post Road/North Morningside corner has just been sold. That too may be converted into apartments.

Now 19 townhouses have been proposed for 20-26 South Morningside — the Historic District directly opposite Greens Farms Elementary School.

Green’s Farms United created this map to show recent and planned housing developments near Greens Farms School.

A group called Green’s Farms United has had enough.

Energized families created a website and GoFundMe page. They’re on Facebook and Instagram. They organized an email list, alerting Westporters about upcoming hearings.

They hired an environmental engineer. And a lawyer.

They’re mad as hell, and they’re not going to take it anymore.

They want everyone to know what’s coming up — and what’s come before.

They’ve seen the effects after the Morningside South developer removed trees near Muddy Brook in 2017: soil erosion and flooding increased.

But something else happened.

“We started as a group of Greens Farms families, concerned about the 20-26 Morningside Drive South future,” says one of the organizers, Aurea de Souza.

“We are now a group of friends and neighbors fighting for a cause, while enjoying and appreciating meeting so many incredible people on the way.”

They take heart from neighbors on the other side of town, who are battling the proposed 6-story, 81-unit apartment complex between Lincoln and Cross Streets, off Post Road West.

They are Green’s Farms United.

That’s more than just their name.

It’s their neighborhood.

And their lives.

The current view of 20-26 Morningside Drive South (left), directly opposite Greens Farms Elementary School, and an overlay of where the proposed 19 townhouses would be built.

“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.

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.