As Westporters wait for the final announcement that Elvira’s Deli has been saved — it’s coming soon! — and at the same time gnash our teeth over the stuck-in-zoning-infraction-limbo large residential construction that replaced Positano’s/ Cafe de la Plage across the street — we keep hearing references to “Allen’s.”
From 1890 through the 1990s, Captain Walter Allen’s clam house on Sherwood Mill Pond — a few yards from the long-lived market — was one of our town’s go-to restaurants. It was the perfect place for shellfish, seafood, and killer water views, while celebrating birthdays, anniversaries and anything else.
Allen’s Clam House, in the 1940s.
A list of Westporters who had their first dates there would be a window on town history.
Westport artist Hardie Gramatky painted this view of the Mill Pond, from the back of Allen’s Clam House
Today, Allen’s is the site of the town-owned Sherwood Mill Pond Preserve. With natural grasses and plants, a wide variety of wildlife, a kayak launch — and the same killer views — it’s a wonderful use of the property.
Aerial view of Allen’s Clam House. (Photo courtesy of Dave Stalling)
But it sure was nice to have it — and Positano’s — as a pair of waterfront restaurants for all those years.
Rear view of Allen’s, on the Mill Pond. (Photo/Matt Murray)
Over its long history, Westport has seen thousands of restaurants come and go.
Everyone has favorites. Here are a few. Click “Comments” to add your own.
Allen’s Clam House was a great place for celebrations and dates. It was demolished more than a decade ago. The site is now the Sherwood Mill Pond Preserve.
(Photo courtesy of Dave Stalling)
The Big Top was a beloved hamburger place that attracted everyone: doctors, lawyers, businessmen, high school students, stoners and (very famously) Paul Newman. Today it’s McDonald’s. If that doesn’t say something…
Here it’s the Ocean House. For many years though it was Chubby Lane’s — the first $1 hamburger restaurant in town. The meat came from Charpentier’s butcher across the street, and it was fantastic. Today, this is the site of Willows Pediatrics.
Pearl’s was a longtime Riverside Avenue favorite. It’s easily recognized now, as Da Pietro’s.
Who can forget the Arrow? For years, the Nisticos’ restaurant defined Saugatuck. These days, it’s Mystic Market.
West Lake on Main Street was Westport’s first Chinese restaurant. It was considered to be quite exotic.
Originally a stagecoach stop in the 1700s, the Three Bears closed after many years. It’s been remodeled as Chabad of Westport.
The Three Bears, in its heyday. (Postcard/Cardcow.com)
The Clam Box drew diners for its seafood. The location — on the Post Road by the Sherwood Island Connector — did not hurt. It was later Bertucci’s; now the spot is shared by Shearwater Coffee, and soon-to-open Ignazio Pizza.
Last week’s demolition of the old Positano’s restaurant — remembered by real old-time Westporters as its earlier incarnation, Café de la Plage — evoked a welter of emotions.
It also revived memories of Allen’s Clam House, the other waterfront restaurant in the otherwise residential neighborhood.
Allen’s was right around the corner, on Sherwood Mill Pond. Built in 1890 by Captain Walter Allen, customers flocked there for seafood — and views — from as far as New York.
Allen’s Clam House, in the 1940s.
It was the go-to place for generations of celebrations — proms, anniversaries, holidays, you name it.
An aerial view of Allen’s Clam House, on the Sherwood Mill Pond. (Photo courtesy of Paul Ehrismann)
In 1999, the restaurant and surrounding .83-acre property was up for sale. To protect it from the developers, the town bought it for $1.2 million. Private donations — including $50,000 each from Paul Newman and Harvey Weinstein — defrayed part of the cost.
The restaurant was torn down a few years later. Today — thanks to efforts of Sherry Jagerson, and a group of dedicated volunteers — the land is known as the Sherwood Mill Pond Preserve.
It’s one of Westport’s hidden-in-plain-sight gems. Of course, you can’t buy clams there any more.
But you can bring your own, and have a very fine picnic indeed.
Captain Allen and his wife Lida, in front of the clam house.
The on-again, off-again, on-again saga of a restaurant near Old Mill Beach is off again.
This time, forever.
When Positano — the latest in a string of restaurants on Hillspoint Road — closed almost exactly 2 years ago, there was speculation the new owners wanted to tear it down, and build a big house right there on the sand.
There was also talk that some neighbors — fearing the loss of their shoreline view, and enjoying the funkiness of a restaurant in the midst of a residential area — were doing what they could to make sure a new restaurant took Positano’s place.
The “Positano property,” at Old Mill Beach diagonally across from Elvira’s.
That was somewhat ironic. When Positano applied for patio dining in 2012, neighborhood opposition scuttled the plan. Lack of outdoor seating was one factor leading to Positano’s closing, and its subsequent move to a new location next to the Westport Country Playhouse.
Though a number of residents worked for months to get another restaurant on the site, one neighbor continued to object. She sued.
Now comes news that the owner of the property — an LLC with an office in Nashville, Tennessee — has filed an affidavit with Westport’s Planning and Zoning Department. The owner acknowledges and affirms that “any and all commercial uses of the premises at 233 Hillspoint Road have been irrevocably abandoned and discontinued.”
In other words, any chances for a new restaurant — grandfathered in as a pre-existing condition — has been killed. Now, and in perpetuity.
Before it was Positano, 233 Hillspoint Road was several other restaurants (including, most notably, Cafe de la Plage). But before THAT it was a grocery store. Among its names: Beach Food Mart (above), and Joe’s.
So what happens next?
The property is back on the market. It’s listed as “A Generational Waterfront Opportunity.”
Potential buyers have a chance to “build and live directly on Compo Cove Beach’s [sic] most unique [sic] lot with spectacular Long Island Sound views.” The land “is now available for a luxury private home to be built.”
Buyers can enjoy “the most beautiful expansive water views, spectacular sunrises and sunsets” (those sunsets might be tough, since the listing notes it is an “east facing property”, and Compo Hill is a substantial obstruction to the west).
This photo from the real estate listing shows the current footprint of the former restaurant (center). The yellow line shows the property boundaries. Click on or hover over to enlarge.
The listing continues:
Enjoy the ever-changing tides and light, the shore birds, and the tranquility that exists with living right on the beach. With no neighbor to your right, it’s like having your own front row seat to the best Long Island Sound offers — sunbathing, swimming, fishing boating…
Seize this opportunity to create your own magnificent custom home for the first time ever on this site.
A mere $4,500,000.
But wait! There’s more!
Elvira’s — diagonally across Hillspoint from #233 — continues to be on the market too. There’s been no sale yet, but word on the soon-to-drastically-change street is that it may not remain a grocery store/ community center.
Alert “06880” reader — and amateur historian — Wendy Crowther writes:
Mary Riordan Allen grew up on Hillspoint Road, a few houses away from the iconic Allen’s Clam House.
In the early 1900s, Walter “Cap” Allen opened his clam and oyster shack on the banks of Sherwood Mill Pond. The oysters came from beds in the pond and nearby cove. Cap often hand-shucked them himself. Over time he grew Allen’s into a rustic family eatery.
Recently, Mary returned to the property — now the site of the Sherwood Mill Pond Preserve. It was a special occasion: to meet her bench.
A year ago, she asked Sherry Jagerson — chair of the preserve committee – how she and her family could contribute to the spot that meant so much to them. (A photo on the plaque — and below — shows Cap Allen holding a baby: Mary’s husband, Walter Allen.)
Captain Walter Allen (far right) with his wife Lida, daughter Beulah, holding his son Walter Ethan Allen (Mary’s future husband). The photo was taken at Allen’s Clam House around 1911.
Several months later, Mary came to Westport from her home in Maine. Sherry, I and other committee members walked the site with her, to pick out the best spot for the Allen family bench.
Mary Allen, at Sherwood Mill Pond.
After returning home, Mary sent me old photos. One showed her son Chris sitting on what may have been the same boulder from decades earlier.
Mary said that Chris loved feeding the swans close to shore. In early spring, they came to the marsh, rebuilt their nest, laid their eggs and raised their cygnets.
Mary Allen’s son Chris, with Sherwood Mill Pond swans.
In high school, Mary clammed at low tide on the mud flats, and sold them to Cap. She also sold horseshoe crabs. He put them in floats where he kept his fresh clams; they kept the water clean.
Cap Allen and his wife Lida, in front of the clam house.
The Clam House and Mill Pond were Mary’s summer playground. She and her friends rented Cap’s handmade rowboats, to catch blue claw crabs and have adventures. They swam at the gates at high tide — a “challenging and dangerous activity” that today she would not allow.
In winter, the pond froze over. The ice skating was wonderful.
Years later — after she married — Mary’s own children enjoyed similar activities. They also ate quite well at Allen’s. After all, she was family.
Cap’s son, Walter Ethan Allen, had a 35-foot ketch-rigged oyster boat. With a shallow draft and long, shallow centerboard and rudders, it was perfect for oystering. For better ballast, Walt asked neighborhood kids to sail with him.
When Walt returned from World War II, he asked Mary — a Staples High School student — to help. Eventually, ballast turned to romance. They married when she was 18. He was 30.
Walt and Mary Allen had 5 children. This photo shows Abigail, their oldest (Cap’s grandchild), in front of the barn that once stood tight against Hillspoint Road on the edge of the Clam House property. The barn was rustic inside, but furnished with a full kitchen and a 2nd-floor loft. Cap used it as a popular summer rental property.
Cap owned a 1934 Ford Phaeton convertible. He drove it to the bank every Monday morning, to deposit the week’s proceeds.
Mary enjoyed hanging out at the clam house. Cap was “quiet but friendly and affable, and had a nice sense of humor.” A cigar smoker, he recovered from throat cancer. In 1954, age 75, he died of arterial sclerosis.
His sons — David and Mary’s husband Walt — tried to keep the business going, hiring help while they held their own jobs. Finally, they decided to run the restaurant only. The Uccellinis — 2 generations of their own family — did a magnificent job too.
Allen’s Clam House was a hugely popular summer place. Over time though, the building wore down. Environmental restrictions made it financially impossible to continue.
The restaurant closed in the mid-1990s. The land was ripe for sale. Developers — hoping to build 3 houses — made lucrative offers. Westporters mourned the loss of what had always been a favorite view. They urged the town to buy the land.
Mary worked closely with First Selectman Diane Farrell, and negotiated a special deal. Though it took many years, the site was eventually rehabilitated by volunteers. It officially opened as a preserve in 2010.
The Sherwood Mill Pond Preserve is one of the most tranquil spots in Westport. (Photo/Katherine Hooper)
For the dedication, Mary’s daughter Bonnie Allen wrote:
A special acknowledgment is due to my mother, Mary Riordan Allen, the last remaining owner of the Allen’s Clam House property. 11 years ago, in the spirit of Captain Allen’s concern for the Mill Pond and its meadows, she turned down high purchase offers from developers in favor of selling the property to the town at a price it could afford.
With generous matching contributions from like-minded Westporters (Paul Newman, Harvey Weinstein and Martha Stewart among them) the town of Westport bought the property, and honored my mother’s wishes that it be preserved in its natural state, dedicated to my grandfather, Captain Walter Dewitt Allen.
Last week, Mary and Bonnie returned to Westport to meet their bench — a gift from Mary and her children. The plaque honors Mary’s husband Walt, who died in 1982, and Bonnie’s son, Sebastian Katz, who died in 2000 at age 20.
Mary and Bonnie Allen, on the family’s bench.
The plaque on the Allen family bench.
Mary’s bench is the one that Sherwood Mill Pond visitors gravitate to most. I suspect that’s because it provides the same views and sense of peace that first drew Cap to this special piece of the Mill Pond, and inspired him to raise a family and a business on its shores.
Thanks to Mary and her family, this site is a wonderful place, where both nature and history are preserved.
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For months, Westporters have seen — and wondered about — the wooden structures visible at low tide in Sherwood Mill Pond.
They’re used to grow oysters. And though only those folks living on the Mill Pond — or enjoying the view there — have noticed them, they won’t be “secret” for long.
Westport oysters are coming back. In fact, they may be our town’s fastest-growing industry.
And one of our most important.
Last month, near low tide, JP Vellotti snapped this photo at Sherwood Mill Pond. The tops of oyster cages (center) peek above the water.
Oysters are not new. In the mid-1800s 2 men — a Mr. Nash, and a Dr. Deifendorf — grew oysters in the Mill Pond.
The Nash family may be best known for their own pond — off Kings Highway and Woodside — but they have a long oystering history here. In 1908 — several years after Captain Walter Dewitt (“Cap”) Allen married Lida Nash, he bought a small oyster house (the first part of Allen’s Clam House), and 30 acres on the pond.
Accessible only by boat, the house had been built in 1747 with remnants from the cooper shop. It was moved to the middle of the pond at the turn of the 20th century, as the home of a guard who watched the beds for poachers.
The house had been cut into 3 pieces, then dragged out at low tide by a team of oxen. It was built into the island house by Cap’s father Samuel, a carpenter.
When Cap died, his daughter, Beulah Northrop, inherited the island house. She later gave it to her nephew, Sandy Allen, who then sold it to Jeff Northrop Sr.
I learned all this from Jeff Northrop Jr.. His father (Jeff Sr.’s) great-aunt was Lida Nash Allen. For generations, those 3 families have been intertwined.
Some of the oysters harvested last summer from Sherwood Mill Pond. (Photo/Dan Woog)
Captain Allen grew clams and oysters. He ran Allen’s Clam House for several decades. He died in 1954.
The Uccellini family had been involved in the restaurant since World War II. They took over Allen’s Clam House after Cap’s death — but the clamming business ended.
During the Great Influenza Epidemic of 1918-19, the only cure was said to be clam broth. Believing there were only enough clams to feed the locals, men with guns defended the Mill Pond from New York marauders.
Jeff Sr. was born in 1952. At age 4 he sat on Captain Allen’s lap, eating his first oyster. He lived on Grove Point, and spent summers playing at the tidal gates.
From 1957 on, the pond lay dormant. Jeff grew up, and worked in the boat business.
In 1971 — after graduating from Staples — he began growing oysters with Rand McNeill. They took their crop to Fulton Fish Market. Older buyers there immediately recognized the distinctive Mill Pond taste, from decades earlier. Eventually though, the business died.
In 2008, Jeff Sr. sold his boat company. He wanted to revive the family’s oyster business.
Automated tidal gates help drain Sherwood Mill Pond — a boon to oyster production. Last summer, a Weston boy played near the gates — just as Jeff Northrop did when he was a kid. (Photo/Dan Woog)
Just before his 2 million oysters were ready for their first harvest, Hurricane Sandy roared in. Sand sucked from the Saugatuck River was deposited in the Mill Pond. The oysters — planted on the bottom — suffocated.
But Jeff and his son are determined to bring oystering back. They re-examined growing techniques, and raised enough capital to do it all again. They call their venture Hummock Island.
A company studying the water called Sherwood Mill Pond one of the best oyster-growing mediums they’d seen. It usually takes 3 years to grow mature oysters. Because this pond is so nutrient-rich, oysters need just 18 months.
The Northrops now grow their oysters in bags. Placed in cages off the pond floor, they’re away from sand and crabs. Those 500 cages — in 2 rows, each 600 feet long — are visible only at low tide. They hold another 2 million oysters.
When the Mill Pond was drained last summer, the Northrops got a chance to inspect their oysters. They’re grown in bags, hung from cages that are usually submerged. (Photo/Dan Woog)
Because the Mill Pond can be drained, the Northrops have a unique opportunity to work on their oysters. Every day, tidal gates allow over 2.5 million cubic meters of fresh, nutrient-rich water to enter the pond. All the conditions align for bountiful harvests, with firm white meats, beautiful shells and an intimate meroir.
Oysters are very efficient sources of protein. They’re non-polluting. They produce no waste.
Plus, they’re feeder filters. Since they started growing, the water quality of the Mill Pond has increased dramatically.
A rare view of Sherwood Mill Pond while it’s drained, with the Northrops’ oyster cages visible. The view is from mid-pond, toward Hillspoint Road and Compo Hill beyond. (Photo/Dan Woog)
A special boat comes into the channel. (The Northrops own the land used to get in and out of the channel.)
Hummock Island oysters are on the menu at restaurants like Pearl at Longshore. They’re available in local stores.
You can’t see the oyster beds, except at extreme low tide. Most Westporters don’t know they’re there. (Many don’t even know about the magical Mill Pond.)
But — just like years ago — the oyster world knows Westport.
(More exciting news: Tours of the oyster farm are in the works!)
From time to time, to the delight of some readers — and the annoyance of others — “06880” waxes rapturously about long-gone relics from Westport’s past.
The Remarkable Book Shop. Allen’s Clam House. Famous Artists School.
If you’ve read this blog for more than a week — even if you moved here this winter — you probably know those names.
Now it’s time to turn the tables.
Alert (and creative) “06880” reader Erik Marcus suggests looking ahead and back, simultaneously. How about crowdsourcing current Westport stores, restaurants and institutions that — 30, 40 or 50 years from now — would deserve as much respect, if they are no longer around?
To make it interesting — and because we’ve given plenty of props already to places like Westport Pizzeria and Oscar’s — let’s limit it to relative newcomers. In other words, you can only mention something that did not exist here before 2000.
Hit “Comments” to add your favorite future nostalgia-inducers. Add a few details. And please, use your full, real name.
Will Bartaco and the west bank of the Saugatuck River still be hopping in 2054? Or will it be a long-ago memory? (Photo by Anne Hardy)
For decades, Allen’s Clam House was a prime Westport attraction.
But the Hillspoint Road restaurant — whose claim to fame was its spectacular setting on the Sherwood Mill Pond — also obscured most views of that wide, calming expanse. When Allen’s was torn down nearly a decade ago, the pond opened up to everyone driving, biking, jogging or walking by.
The Mill Pond as seen from host Jim Pendry's deck, as night falls during the fundraiser. (Photo by Wendy Crowther)
Except it was framed by a utilitarian (and very un-scenic) parking lot.
For several years, Westporters have quietly planned an environmentally sound, passive park dedicated to nature preservation. The project includes restoring native wetland plants at the water’s edge; a naturalized vegetated upland buffer; a walking path and benches; a kayak/canoe launch area; educational signage, and a small parking area.
The town is contributing some money; a matching grant helps. But more funds are needed. Last Saturday night, a great community event gave the Sherwood Mill Pond Preserve an important boost.
The host — Jim Pendry — lives next to the former clam house. A large crowd enjoyed Mill Pond Mojitos and more, while browsing paintings and prints sold at a silent auction. All work was created and donated by local artists.
Sherry Jagerson, 191 Hillspoint Road Committee chair, points to Audubon artist Edward Henrey's work. (Photo by Wendy Crowther)
Guests included the donor artists; neighbors; champions of the pond, preservation and open space; town historian Allen Raymond (who lives on Compo Cove); landscape architects; First Selectman Gordon Joseloff, who appointed the “191 Hillspoint Road Committee” that’s moving the project forward; and Republican challenger Gavin Anderson, a Mill Pond resident.
The event raised $7,000. More than $20,000 is still needed — along with materials and volunteers.
But excavation and grading begins now. Planting is planned for the end of the month — fall is the perfect time for wetland plants to take root.
Time and tide — and the tidal pond — waits for no man.
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