Tag Archives: Baron’s South

Arts Campus On Baron’s South? P&Z Draws The Line.

The Westport Arts Center is a wonderful, vibrant place.

It’s also wholly inadequate.

Essentially one long room on Riverside Avenue — with a spectacular view of the Saugatuck River — it functions as a small studio and gallery. But it can host only one meeting, lecture, concert, class or exhibit at a time.

Given Westport’s long arts heritage — and the interest of so many Westporters, from senior citizens to kids, in art in all its forms — it’s no wonder the WAC has sought more suitable digs.

Last fall, town representatives approached the organization. Would the WAC be interested in preserving and using Golden Shadows — the main building on the southeast corner of 23-acre Baron’s South (named for the perfume developed by its previous owner, Baron Walter Langer von Langendorff) — for exhibits and performances?

Golden Shadows. (Photo/Wendy Crowther)

The town soon came back with a new question: Would the WAC like to take over the other 3 long-neglected buildings there too?

Meanwhile, a group of veteran, well-respected local artists and photographers — including Leonard Everett Fisher, Ann Chernow, Miggs Burroughs, Niki Ketchman and Larry Silver — had been meeting regularly to discuss their own idea.

These “deans” of the Westport arts scene wanted a dedicated museum-type space to preserve the town’s artistic legacy.

And at the same time, folks like Burroughs, Westport arts curator Kathie Motes Bennewitz, RTM moderator Eileen Lavigne Flug and the Westport Historical  Society’s Bob Mitchell were seeking ways to involve the WAC more fully with other arts organizations in town.

The result was a public/private partnership to create a “community arts campus” at Baron’s South.

As presented last night by 3rd Selectman Helen Garten, at a Planning & Zoning Commission pre-application meeting, there would be 3 phases:

  1. The Westport Arts Center would lease and restore Golden Shadows, retaining most of its decorative interior, for use as offices, classrooms and gallery space.
  2. The WAC would lease and restore the  Tudor revival guest house at 70 Compo Road South as additional gallery space.
  3. They would lease the 2 units at 52 and 52B Compo Road South, for use as artists’ residences.

The house next door to Golden Shadows. The plan would have leased it to artists.

“Leasing all 4 buildings to a single user is the best way to ensure minimal impact on the public open space and surrounding neighborhood,” Garten said.

“Instead of 4 separate buildings, each accessed by its own roadway and each with its own use, there will be a single integrated property.” It would function much as the baron’s estate did, decades ago.

However, P&Z members gave the arts campus plan a frosty reception last night. A pre-app meeting is intended to give applicants a sense of what the zoning board feels about a plan. Commissioners insisted that the concept is too intense for the “light use” zoning of Baron’s South. It’s zoned as “passive recreational open space.”

Arts advocates were unsure last night what their next step will be.

Back to the drawing board they go.

A view into Golden Shadows’ central parlor shows a chandelier and handsome circular staircase. (Photo/Wendy Crowther)

The town currently owns 72 Compo Road South, on the eastern edge of Baron’s South. This was planned to be gallery space.

Oh My 06880 — Photo Challenge #98

Peter Tulupman uncovered a hidden Westport gem: The walking paths on the Baron’s South property.

Ed Bloch, Michael Calise, Seth Schachter, Zoe Kassis and Christopher Buckley all knew that one of those paths was shown in last week’s photo challenge.

You can see them too. Just wander in off South Compo or Imperial Avenue. Or click here, for a cyberview.

Peter also sent in this week’s photo challenge:

photo-challenge-november-13-2016

If you know where you’d see this gorgeous scene, click “Comments” below.

Baron’s South Quietly Makes News

It hasn’t gotten much publicity.

Then again — except for when plans are announced for a project like elderly housing — most Westporters tend to overlook Baron’s South.

But advocates for keeping the 23-acre hilly and heavily wooded property just a few steps from downtown Westport in its natural state got a big boost last week.

Since her appointment last summer, Parks and Recreation director Jen Fava has been quietly analyzing and assessing land her department oversees.

Now, Parks and Rec hopes to upgrade the trails crisscrossing Baron’s South. They’re accessible from Imperial Avenue and South Compo Road, from dawn to dusk — though few Westporters know they’re there, let alone open.

A path in Baron's South. (Photo/Judy James)

A path in Baron’s South. (Photo/Judy James)

The Parks and Rec Commission unanimously approved $75,000, to pay for upgrades suggested by Fava. However, she noted, the cost could be as low as $25,000. Most of the work will involve trees.

A private group — Friends of Baron’s South — has played a key role in cleaning up the property.

It’s a true town gem. And — very quietly, and unobtrusively — it’s about to get even more attractive.

Baron’s South: A New View

Many Westporters enjoyed yesterday’s spectacular weather the usual autumn way: Apple-picking. Leaf-peeping. Your kid’s sports-game-watching.

A few folks spent the day working. A small work crew assembled at Baron’s South, for a 3rd clean-up of that town-owned, heavily forested downtown property.

Organized by Wendy Crowther and Morley Boyd, they made a big dent removing invasive trees, overgrown underbrush and climbing vines. They also cleared a main pathway that descends from Golden Shadows — “the baron’s” old house — into the deeper woods.

Slowly, they opened up the viewsheds from the mansion. There’s much more to do, but already it’s become easier to imagine how magnificent the hills and dales of the wooded landscape once were.

Crowther says the clean-up work reveals a view of Golden Shadows not seen since the town purchased the property in 1999.

Golden Shadows - Wendy Crowther

The ultimate fate of Golden Shadows — and what to do with the entire 22-acre property — has not yet been decided.

But whatever happens, a small group of Friends is ensuring the place looks great.

 

Hardly As High As An Elephant’s Eye

Alert “06880” reader Wendy Crowther loves Baron’s South. While walking this summer she noticed a few interesting plants growing in an odd spot, just behind the walled main entrance.

They were grouped tightly together in a 1-foot-square patch. She was fairly sure she knew what they were, but could not believe they’d appear there.

Her suspicions grew stronger when tassels sprouted from their tops. Wendy thinks they’re corn stalks.

Corn stalks

But why?

Many years ago, Wendy tried to grow corn in her garden. She needed at least 4 rows of plants, because corn requires cross-pollination: wind blowing the pollen from the male tassels onto the female silk.

So, she says, the Baron’s South corn won’t produce a single ear.

Wendy also says the stalks are small for corn. They should have been knee high by the 4th of July.  They’re still only shoulder height.

Wendy asks: “Did someone plant these as a goof? Did a squirrel raid a backyard barbecue and make off with a few kernels to bury for winter? Are they corn look-alikes – a houseplant gone rogue?”

She thinks that “06880” readers will have the answer.

Or at least, some corny guesses.

Golden Shadows Gets Trimmed

Westporters continue to debate the best use for Golden Shadows.

But no one can argue that the area in Baron’s South — once the handsome home of Baron Walter von Langendorff and his wife — looks a lot better today than it did yesterday.

This morning, historic preservationists Morley Boyd and Wendy Crowther organized a work party. They and Planning & Zoning Commission members Al Gratrix and Chip Stephens were joined by Mike Bernie, one of the baron’s original landscapers.

Golden Shadows is hidden from view, in the middle of the property. (Of course, the town owns Baron’s South, and it’s open from sunrise to sunset.)

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take care of it. Nice to see some concerned Westporters lend a helping hand.

Golden Shadows cleanup 2

Morley Boyd and Wendy Crowther, hard at work.

Golden Shadows cleanup 1

Chip Stephens (left) and Al Gratrix get their hands dirty.

Golden Shadows cleanup 4

The still-impressive hillside near Golden Shadows, after trimming, raking and weeding.

Golden Shadows

Golden Shadows

 

Behind The Golden Shadows Door

Treasure trove from the 1950s — or just a tired, dilapidated old house?

That’s what a group of Westporters — members of the Historic District Commission, town officials and others — tried to figure out yesterday.

Third Selectman Helen Garten led a tour of “Golden Shadows” — the “mansion” built by perfume magnate Baron Walter von Langendorff and his wife on South Compo Road.

The outside of the baron's

The baron’s “mansion.” The architectural style has been called “Hollywood Colonial.”

The baron and his wife bought the property in 1941. The original home had been built by Angus McDonald. The baron tore it down around 1958, and built the current house. (It was not their main residence, though; that was New York City.) He died in 1983. His wife pre-deceased him.

The town now owns it, with the rest of the 22-acre “baron’s property.” We bought it in 1999, and haven’t yet figured out next steps. We’ve batted around ideas — event venue? rental property? museum? — and it’s been (among other things) a crash pad for homeless people. But right now it’s used only to store thousands of books for the annual Westport Library sale.

An HDC subcommittee is considering whether to apply for historic designation for the baron’s home, and several accessory buildings. Here’s some of what they — and I — saw on yesterday’s tour of the mansion.

Golden Shadows 2

The terrazzo entryway leads to the curving stairway above. First floor features include parquet flooring, original fixtures, bleached mahogany walls and pocket doors.

Yes, that's an old computer monitor being stored inside the Italian marble fireplace.

Yes, that’s an old computer monitor stashed inside an Italian marble fireplace.

The architect and builder are unknown.

Though musty, the building is in “better shape than one would think,” Garten says. The HVAC ducts are probably workable. The finishes look good. The floors should be polished, and electrical work is needed. Only one room has sustained water damage.

“It’s got steel girders,” Morley Boyd notes. “It was overbuilt, but that’s allowed it to withstand a lot of abuse.”

A bay window looks out over a beautiful dell.

A bay window looks out over a beautiful dell.

The dining room is tiny. Apparently, the baron and baroness did not entertain much. Guests stayed in other houses on the property.

The formica-filled kitchen features stainless-steel cabinets, lit from within. There’s also a classic, pink 42-inch push-button stove — now worth quite a bit of money.

Golden shadows 5

Interestingly, there are only 2 bedrooms — his-and-her (non-adjoining) suites on the 2nd floor, with French doors leading onto terraces.

There are, however, 5 1/2 bathrooms. All retain their original fixtures.

You don't see free-standing sinks like these every day.

You don’t see free-standing sinks like these every day. And check out the floors!

The house was semi-air-conditioned. Awnings kept out the heat. From the 2nd floor, the baron and his wife enjoyed terraced botanical, English and sunken gardens — and views all the way to the Saugatuck River.

There was a greenhouse, but it no longer exists. This fountain is believed to have been brought to the property from the other land the baron owned -- what we now call Winslow Park, across the Post Road on North Compo.

A greenhouse no longer exists. This fountain is believed to have been brought to the property from the other land the baron owned — what we now call Winslow Park, across the Post Road on North Compo.

The town has cleaned up some of the house — including mold in the basement. The lawn is mowed from time to time, and beams that bent under the weight of the stored books have been shored up.

Eventually, we’ll figure out what to do with the baron’s house. It may be renovated or restored. It may be designated a historic property — or torn down. Time will tell.

Meanwhile, here’s a view the baron and his wife often enjoyed, outside the back of his house.

Golden shadows 8 - barons south

Any non-baron can now enjoy it too — at least from sunrise to sunset, when our baron’s property is open to all.

Baron’s South To Remain Open Space

In a vote that will resound for decades to come, the RTM affirmed the Planning & Zoning Commission’s designation of the Baron’s South property as open space.

The 22-acre, wooded and hilly property — bordered by South Compo Road, the Post Road and Imperial Avenue — is already home to the Senior Center, on its western edge. But further development — for instance, of a hotly debated senior housing complex — will not take place.

A majority of RTM members — 20 — actually voted to overturn last month’s P&Z decision (4-1, with 1 abstention) designating the entire area as open space.

But 14 members sided with the P&Z. Overruling the P&Z required 24 votes — 2/3 of all members.

A path in Baron's South. (Photo/Judy James)

A path in Baron’s South. (Photo/Judy James)

The roll was called after midnight. Debate was intense but civil throughout the long evening. Many issues were raised, ranging from the importance of open space and the inevitability of more development once construction began, to the speed and propriety of one commission deciding such a major issue for the town.

Some speakers declared that the vote should be about the “open space” decision alone — not the merits of one particular senior housing proposal. The need for senior housing, however, was noted by other speakers.

The baron’s property will now remain undeveloped — an “urban forest” just steps from downtown. Was today’s early morning vote comparable to previous decisions (for example, to purchase Longshore when a developer proposed building 180 houses there — or to allow construction of the Wright Street and Gorham Island office complexes), or a missed opportunity to build on town-owned land?

Check back in a decade or two.

There are already buildings on Baron's South. The baron's Golden Shadows house is shown in the distance.   A debate will begin soon on their fate.

There are some existing buildings on Baron’s South. The baron’s Golden Shadows house is shown in the distance. A debate will begin soon on their fate.

Take The Baron’s South Walking Tour — Right Now!

If you couldn’t make last week’s RTM-sponsored walking tour of Baron’s South — or you have no idea how to access the town-owned property, which is (very quietly) open to the public from dawn to dusk* — then this video is for you.

Westport realtor Judy James has created a 2-minute walking tour. Click here to access it, via RealPlayer.

NOTE: There’s no sound. Which is exactly what you experience if you walk Baron’s South yourself.

Except for the birds.

*There are entrances on Imperial Avenue and South Compo Road.

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.

“Conflict Of Interest” Charge Roils Baron’s South Debate

As the RTM prepares to vote this Tuesday (April 28, 7 p.m., Town Hall auditorium) on whether to overturn the Planning & Zoning Commission’s decision to designate the Baron’s South property as protected open space, legislators have another issue to contend with.

Westport resident Valerie Seiling Jacobs sent this “open letter” to all RTM members:

As many of you know, I have been opposed to the proposed senior housing project on Baron’s South for many years. My view has long been that the deal proposed by The Jonathan Rose Companies was unfair to taxpayers since the town will get too little in return for donating such a valuable asset. And it has always puzzled me that Ken Bernhard, who co-chaired the Baron’s South Committee and is one of the project’s prime cheerleaders, seemed so determined to push ahead with the project—even in the face of growing evidence that the project was seriously flawed and could not meet the town’s needs.

I learned today [Friday] that Mr. Bernhard has multiple conflicts of interest that were never disclosed. First, Cohen & Wolf, the law firm in which he is a principal, is counsel to the Jewish Home of Fairfield, which stands to gain a lucrative contract for services if the Rose project goes forward. In fact, in a bulletin last summer, the President of JHF touted how great the business would be for the JHF. Second, Martin F. Wolf, another senior attorney at Mr. Bernhard’s law firm, sits on the Board of Directors of the JHF.

Mr. Bernhard’s failure to disclose these connections and conflicts is especially egregious given the sensitivity of this issue and Mr. Bernhard’s past behavior. At a Board of Finance meeting in October 2012, a number of members of the public complained that the RFP process appeared to have been rigged in favor of The Rose Companies—a suggestion to which Mr. Bernhard took extreme umbrage, demanding an apology. Nevertheless, in response to concerns about conflicts of interest, the members of the Baron’s South Committee were specifically asked to stand and state whether they had any financial interest in the Rose Companies. Mr. Bernhard did not stand. His failure to reveal his firm’s interest in this project may have been technically correct — since the financial interest was in another entity — but it was still materially misleading. As an attorney and a former elected official, Mr. Bernhard should know better.

A path in Baron's South. (Photo/Judy James)

A path in Baron’s South. (Photo/Judy James)

For Mr. Bernhard to have served on the Baron’s South Committee without disclosing these connections, which fatally compromised his ability to objectively evaluate the responses to the town’s RFP, violate fundamental principles of justice and fairness. This is the equivalent of a judge owning stock in a corporation that appears in a contested matter in the judge’s court. And I note that this is not the first time that Mr. Bernhard’s ethics have been called into question. In 2010, he was forced to pay a $3,500 penalty after his improper campaign contributions were discovered.

All of these facts bolster the conclusion that the Rose Companies’ proposal is a bad deal for Westport and its taxpayers. The Planning and Zoning Commission’s decision to designate Baron’s South as open space was the right thing to do. I hope that you will decide NOT to overturn that decision.

Thank you.

——————————————————————–

I asked Ken Bernhard for his side of the issue. He said:

Thank you for the opportunity to respond to Ms. Jacobs’ letter to the RTM. It distresses me that the discussion about a project designed to address the needs of hundreds of Westport seniors who require affordable housing options has devolved into the kind of ugly debate endemic in Washington — specifically, don’t discuss the issues; unleash a personal attack on your opponent.

Curiously, Ms. Jacobs appears to be guilty of the very offense that she charges me with, i.e. an undisclosed bias.  She does not divulge in her letter that she is the co-chair of a political party, Save Westport Now, whose agenda appears to oppose development in town regardless of its merits. Apparently, the unanimous consensus of the RTM sub-committee to overturn the vote of her party’s candidates has given rise to her invective.

I have lived in Westport for more than 40 years and for most of that time, I have been actively engaged in the community’s affairs. I have given of my time by holding positions on the ZBA and the Board of Selectmen. In addition to serving as town counsel for 3 administrations, I have represented Westport in Hartford. Throughout this time I did, and still do, provide free legal services to many of the non-profit organizations in town. I sit on multiple boards providing my time and energy helping our friends and neighbors. It’s all been a labor of love.

The risk, of course, in being so active is that occasionally there are instances where the roles may overlap. These instances are part of life in a small town and are not considered conflicts in the forums in which these things are adjudicated. A community cannot function without this reality of professional and personal overlap of its citizens’ talents and interests.

Early springtime at Baron's South. (Photo/Judy James)

Early springtime at Baron’s South. (Photo/Judy James)

Five years ago, I was asked by First Selectman Joseloff to give more of my time to Westport by sitting on the Baron’s South Committee. The 8-person committee was made up of volunteers serving in a private capacity. None of us had, nor did we ever have, any decision-making authority.

Since that time, I have donated at least 300 hours serving on this committee, a large portion of which was spent long before there was a proposal to do anything. When a concept for providing affordable housing for seniors was ultimately advanced, the town sent out a request for a proposal. Our committee of volunteers reviewed the proposals and made a unanimous recommendation to accept the proposal submitted by Jonathan Rose. The decision to work with Jonathan Rose was made by elected officials.

The substance of Ms. Jacobs’ letter is that she claims I have a conflict of interest in serving on the Baron’s South Committee because she has learned that one of the 50 lawyers at my law firm does work on totally unrelated matters for Jewish Senior Services, an organization that has joined with Jonathan Rose to provide services if and when the project is approved and built at some time in the very distant future. (Ms. Jacobs is incorrect when she asserts that Attorney Martin F. Wolf is a senior attorney at Cohen and Wolf in that he is “of counsel,” retired from active practice years ago, and has no financial interest in it).

Ms. Jacobs would argue that I should have conducted a conflicts check with my law firm. This would have been appropriate had I been serving as legal counsel or in any other professional role — but I was not. I was acting as a private citizen in a private capacity doing volunteer work for my community. Ms. Jacobs can spin the facts and connect the dots any way she pleases, but there is no legitimate substance to her point.  Her criticism is inflammatory and its purpose is more about advancing the political agenda of Save Westport Now than anything else.

We have an important issue confronting our community, i.e. whether to preclude the use of Baron’s South for any municipal purpose, even the expansion of the senior center, or to leave open the discussion on how best to use this valuable town asset for affordable housing or otherwise. Reasonable people can disagree, and Westport deserves a respectful exchange on this issue.

——————————————————————-

In a related development, RTM moderator Eileen Lavigne Flug will recuse herself from leading Tuesday’s discussion. She is of counsel to Cohen and Wolf. In a comment on a previous “06880” story, Flug wrote:

While Cohen and Wolf does not represent Jonathan Rose Companies, it has come to my attention that Cohen and Wolf represents the nonprofit Jewish Home for the Elderly of Fairfield County, Inc. on certain matters, although not on the proposal for senior housing at Baron’s South. While I myself have no connection with the Jewish Home for the Elderly of Fairfield County, Inc., and while I believe the connection to be attenuated since the matter before us is a zoning issue and not directly related to the proposed senior housing project, in order to avoid the appearance of a conflict and any concerns about the RTM’s process and deliberations, our deputy moderator Velma Heller will be running the meeting.

Baron's South, with the baron's Golden Shadows house in the distance.

Baron’s South, with the baron’s Golden Shadows house in the distance.