Tag Archives: Baron’s South

Scott Smith Discovers Westport’s Hidden Gems

Scott Smith is an alert “06880” reader, a longtime Westporter and an ardent outdoorsman. He writes:

If you ask Westporters to comment on our community’s natural charms, chances are most would cite the dazzling string of beaches and coastal places: Compo Beach, Sherwood Mill Pond, Gray’s Creek and Burying Hill. If pressed, they might claims Sherwood Island too.

Others would tout the Saugatuck River, from the fly fishing shallows along Ford Road to the impoundment of Lees Pond, and the tidal stretch through town leading to the mouth at Longshore and Cedar Point. Cockenoe Island gets a shout-out, too, especially from those with the nautical means to visit it.

Fishing off Ford Road (Photo/Richard Wiese)

But plenty of other places across Westport beguile with bucolic beauty. Many of these underappreciated open spaces are in the midst of a welcome renaissance, sparked by renovation efforts from those who love and tend them.

I’m talking about the town parks, preserves, land trusts and wildlife sanctuaries that constitute our remaining inland open spaces. Over the past year or two, I’ve visited quite a few. I always come away thinking how fortunate we are to be able to trod upon them.

“06880” has covered these developments over time, noting singular efforts and improvements. But if you step back and tally them all up, it’s quite an impressive list, covering virtually every part of town.

Over in Old Hill there’s the Lillian Wadsworth Arboretum. I toured it a couple of seasons ago with its caretakers, including Lou Mall and tree warden Bruce Lindsay. They’re spearheading its transformation from an untended patch of blow-downs and invasive vines to a fetching enhancement to the adjacent Earthplace facility.

Dead creepers line a Wadswworth Arboretum trail.

Coleytown has the Newman Poses Preserve, which affords a wonderful walk through meadows along the Saugatuck stream and through upland woods. Having the memory of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward and their family as you traipse along is a nice bonus. Their neighbors — and the Aspetuck Land Trust — get credit for giving us that open space.

Right near downtown there’s the blossoming of long-neglected Baron’s South, another town-led reclamation project with even brighter prospects in store as a nature-driven arts campus.

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

And just down Compo, off Greenacre Road, is the hidden gem of the Haskins Preserve, my longtime favorite place for a weekend stroll.

Haskins Preserve’s dogwoods and daffodils — a lovely combination.

I have “06680” to thank for cluing me in to my newest place to take a hike: the Smith Richardson Preserve in Greens Farms. I’ve long known about the 2 parcels north of I-95. The Christmas tree farm off Sasco Creek Road is where I chop down a tree every year. I consider it in part my annual donation to the Connecticut Audubon Society, which manages the farm and the open space across the road.

But I had no idea of the separate property just across 95, a 36-acre parcel stretching from Sasco Creek all the way to the playing fields behind Greens Farms Academy off Beachside Avenue.

I walked it the other day, taking advantage of frozen ground to course through fields that are in the midst of being cleared of smothering vines and other invasive species.

It’s an impressive project, even if the space is hard by the highway and Metro-North rails. Hemmed in by neighboring houses big and small, and what looks to be a refuse depot managed by the railroad or state, the area has the look of a pocket-size Central Park in the making, with Olmstedian trails that wind through woods, and alongside meadows and ponds. I can’t wait to see how the property develops, with its ambitious new plantings and clearings, and whether the caretaking crews can keep the tick-haven invasives at bay.

Smith Richardson Preserve (Photo/Scott Smith)

These public/private corners of our community are all discovered places, at least for me. When I visit them, either with my dog or solo, I’m often the only one around. I like the solitude, and question why I’d even want to spread the word about them. Parking is often a pinch, and I’m not even sure about the proper access to the new Smith Richardson preserve behind GFA’s sprawling athletic fields.

But these largely hidden local natural spaces deserve recognition, and our support for the groups that manage them — the town, Aspetuck Land Trust, and the Connecticut Audubon Society — whether by check or volunteer hand.

Separately and together, they all make Westport a wonderful place to live and to explore.

Leonard Everett Fisher: Back In Charge, Backing The Arts

In 1965, Ruth Steinkraus Cohen began organizing a community-wide arts council.

But the Westport philanthropist/activist focused primarily on music. Noted illustrator Leonard Everett Fisher urged her to include the visual arts.

Cohen had been invited to testify in Hartford, on hearings about establishing a statewide arts commission. She invited him to come along.

Those discussions led to the formation of the Westport Arts Council — one of the first in any town, anywhere. Cohen served as chair. Fisher was an original board member, and its 2nd president.

But the executive director was “a total failure,” Fisher recalls. “We never got much traction.”

He turned his energy to the Westport Library. He served 3 terms as president, and helped plan the “new” building, on the landfill site near the Levitt Pavilion.

Leonard Everett Fisher

The Westport Arts Center, meanwhile, developed and grew on its own. Fisher — busy with his professional and personal life — had little to do with it. He showed his works occasionally. But, as he admits, “I was not a great contributor.”

A while back, then-director Helen Klisser During offered Fisher a one-man retrospective. It was well deserved. In his 70+ year career, Fisher illustrated 250 books for young readers; designed 10 US postage stamps, and had his works shown in the Smithsonian, the New York Public Library, Yale, the New Britain Museum of American Art, and in museums around the world. He’s listed as one of the 2000 Outstanding Artists and Designers of the 20th Century.

The show brought him closer to the WAC. But he still had no time for the board.

A year ago, artist Ann Chernow called. She said that 1st Selectman Jim Marpe had a plan for Golden Shadows — the main house on the town-owned Baron’s South property.

Marpe asked 3rd Selectman Helen Garten to head up a committee to explore restoring the decrepit house as a Westport Artists Museum. Other groups had their eyes on the property too.

The Planning & Zoning Commission eventually gave tacit approval to an arts campus on Baron’s South. But commissioners did not want to deal with multiple entities.

Golden Shadows: the centerpiece of the Westport Arts Center Baron’s South plan.
(Photo/Wendy Crowther)

The Westport Arts Center agreed to take over the museum plan. Who better to help than Fisher?

So — at 93 years young — Fisher has joined the Westport Arts Center board.

If all goes well, he says, the WAC/Baron’s South project can be completed a year from now.

Fisher is in excellent physical shape. His mind is clear and sharp.

“So long as I put one foot in front of the other, this gives me energy and excitement,” he says.

“What we’re doing is wonderful for the town. I think people will be very surprised at what they see.”

At which point Leonard Everett Fisher will do what he’s done ever since moving here, more than half a century ago. He’ll turn his attention to a new project, benefiting the arts and all the citizens of Westport.

Baron’s South “Arts Campus” Returns To P&Z

In May, the Westport Arts Center and a group of arts advocates presented a pre-application to the Planning and Zoning Commission.

The goal was to create an “arts campus” at the Baron’s South property. The 3-prong proposal included these ideas:

  1. The Westport Arts Center would lease and restore Golden Shadows — the main building that served as the home for Baron Walter Langer von Langendorff (“The Baron”) — 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 P&Z was not thrilled with the plan. They called the plan too intense for the “light use” for which the 32-acre property is zoned.

Many Westporters, on the other hand, thought it was great. “06880” was flooded with positive comments.

Golden Shadows: the centerpiece of the Westport Arts Center Baron’s South plan.
(Photo/Wendy Crowther)

The whole idea of a pre-app meeting is to get a sense of the P&Z’s mood. The WAC and arts advocates listened to the commissioners.

Tomorrow (Thursday, July 6, 7 p.m., Town Hall) they’ll present a formal proposal. They’ve reworked the use of the artists’ residences, and other concepts.

They also hope to show that the work they’ll do on-site will help the public enjoy all the open space surrounding the arts campus.

The meeting is open to the public.

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.