Fred Cantor has lived on Drumlin Road for 20 years — and elsewhere in Westport for many years before that.
But in all his years here, he’s never seen anything like this sight — not on December 18, that is:
By comparison, Fred sends along this photo he took on Christmas morning, 1975:
Westport has changed a bit in 40 years. Back in the day, beautiful woods — not the massive Wright Street building — hugged Wilton Road.
But the Fairfield Furniture store was not the most welcoming sight on the west bank of the Saugatuck. The Tauck family’s restoration of what was once — and is now — National Hall was 20 years in the future.
Westport enjoyed a white Christmas in 1975. In 2015, the forecast is near 60.
The fountain a few years ago, near National Hall. It’s gone now.
Crazily enough, no one knows when it vanished. Or why. Or where it is now. Even though it happened within the last decade.
What’s beyond dispute, though, is that the fountain was there in 1991, when Arthur Tauck gave Westport one of its greatest gifts ever.
National Hall had stood on the west bank of the Saugatuck River since 1873. It was built by Horace Staples — our high school’s namesake — and over the years served many purposes.
It housed Staples’ First National Bank of Westport. It was used as a newspaper office, a coffin-making business, and for many other purposes. Adjacent wharves provided easy shipping to New York, Boston and other ports.
The 3rd floor was used for everything from basketball games to concerts, said noted local historian Eve Potts. In 1884, the very 1st classes of the new Staples High School met there.
Ships lined up near National Hall (right), in this early photo.
According to the New York Times, the bank moved out in 1924. Other tenants followed. By the 1940s — with most commerce being conducted on the other side of the river — the building was sold to Fairfield Furniture.
But that store closed in the 1970s. For 3 decades the building — one of the most prominent in Westport — sat empty.
Fairfield Furniture — a hulking presence for many years.
It deteriorated. Water leaked in. Tons of bird droppings caused the roof to sag.
In 1989, the area was designated a Historic Design District. That enabled Tauck — president of the high-end tour company founded by his father, which at that time was headquartered nearby on Wilton Road — to redevelop the area, in a historically sensitive way.
Over a period of several years, Tauck renovated National Hall. He’d bought it at auction in 1986, for $1.5 million. At a cost of $6 million, he and Ferris Architects restored the building to its original brick and cast-iron facade grandeur.
Tauck created the boutique 15-room Inn at National Hall. Every room was different. Each floor included a living room, library and fireplace. A restaurant occupied the ground floor.
The Inn at National Hall, after Arthur Tauck’s restoration project.
The manager was Nick Carter. From 1979-85, the former British Navy officer was in charge of royal accommodations on the yacht Brittania.
Tauck also donated the gas lamps on the Post Road bridge to the town.
Reporting on the project in 1991, the Times described “a new landscaped plaza with a fountain as its centerpiece.”
For a variety of reasons, the Inn at National Hall did not succeed. Today, though with Vespa on the ground floor — and offices above — the place is bustling. And the building is a handsome sight for anyone entering town.
But back to the fountain. Sometime — during one of the many renovations of the property — it disappeared.
How could a handsome — and very heavy — fountain simply have vanished? And how come no one recalls when it happened, or where it went?
A sad chapter in the storied history of National Hall has sputtered to an end. The Inn’s final day is Monday. Antiques, chandeliers, a 15-foot cherry bookshelf — all could go the way of Shaw’s, if that’s what Antares, the property’s elusive owner, wants.
Can’t Westporters — a creative bunch, for sure — mine the handsome 3-story 137-year-old building’s past for an appropriate remodel?
Back in 1884 National Hall served as the 1st home of Staples High School. Of course, just 4 years ago we dedicated an $84 million renovation, so odds are we won’t be moving back downtown any time soon.
At one time the top floor was used as a basketball court. Rumor has it that the YMCA is dissatisfied with its current digs, just a skyhook away from National Hall. If they haven’t made plans to move anywhere, maybe the Inn could serve as a new Y. On 2nd thought, it is a bit cramped.
For many years, National Hall housed a furniture store. Age of Reason — right across the street — wanted to expand there recently, but Antares never returned phone calls. Returning to retail remains another option.
Because the building is on the National Register of Historic Places, it can’t be torn down as easily as your basic split-level. But that designation — and local politics — also constrict possible uses of the property.
So I guess there are no other options for…wait! I’ve got it!
One of National Hall’s most noted incarnations was as the home of Horace Staples’ Westport Bank & Trust Company. What a perfect location for a bank — and just what Westport needs!
On second thought — nah. No one would ever think of opening a new bank around here.
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