Westport has been home to many famous residents. None was more famous than the Fraser family — well, that’s what James Earle Fraser’s 1953 obituary said, anyway.
He was a sculptor who designed the buffalo nickel, the “End of the Trail” sculpture of a Native American slumped over a tired horse, and the Theodore Roosevelt statue at the Museum of Natural History.
Two of James Earle Fraser’s designs.
His wife Laura Gardin Fraser was also an internationally known sculptor. She designed the Congressional Medal of Honor, featuring Charles Lindbergh’s likeness.
The couple knew everyone who was anyone, local historian Mary Gai says. Among the guests who visited were the wives of Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt, Edsel Ford, Harvey Firestone, Averell Harriman, and George Patton’s family.
The Frasers married in 1913, and moved to Westport the next year. They built a large studio off North Avenue, north of Coleytown Road, where they worked for decades.
The Frasers’ home and former studio, today.
They bought surrounding property to keep their neighborhood quiet. They then sold some land to other sculptors and painters — including former student Lila Wheelock Howard and her illustrator husband Oscar, and Kerr Eby, whose etchings are still sold today.
The Frasers’ foresight — and hospitality — helped make Westport a true 20th-century “artists’ colony.”
James Earle Fraser, at work on a bust of Theodore Roosevelt in his Westport studio.
The Frasers did not just sit home and create art, of course. They helped found the Fairfield County Hunt Club, Westport Beach Club (now Longshore), and Shorehaven Country Club.
But the studio was the center of their lives. It featured stone walls, large doors and windows, and a dark slate roof. Legend has it that the Frasers had bought a villa in Italy, had it disassembled and brought to Westport — along with Italian masons — where it was rebuilt, stone by stone.
Sculptures created inside — including some of the most famous works — were rolled out through 2-story swinging doors.
The original studio, today.
The Frasers’ studio was later bought by Ralph and Betty Alswang. He was a noted theater designer — and, decades after the Frasers, another key contributor to Westport’s artistic life.
The studio — at what is now 2 Fraser Lane — is on the market. Enlarged over the years to 5,650 square feet (and 5 bedrooms), it’s been renovated inside. But the exterior looks much as it must have a century ago.
Several homes with long artistic histories have recently met the wrecking ball. Will this be preserved — or, like James Earle Fraser’s buffalo nickel, become just a faded artifact of an earlier time?
Mediterranean influences are strong on the Frasers’ former house.
Mary Gai is many things: an alert “06880” reader. A realtor. A lover of Westport history.
Those 3 elements come together in her fascinating story about the Coleytown neighborhood:
I couldn’t believe my eyes when I first saw 277 North Avenue in the early 1980s. But I immediately knew I was looking at history.
Standing hundreds of feet from any road, the dramatic lines of the 1740s saltbox — constructed to avoid taxes the King of England imposed on 2-story houses — had not changed since it was built.
Amazingly, it still exists today — along with a carriage house, barn and surrounding acreage. The fact that it does is due to a series of little miracles. The first was that James Earle Fraser and Laura Gardin Fraser bought sizable chunks of Coleytown starting in 1914, including this property.
James Earle Fraser, at work on a bust of Theodore Roosevelt in his Westport studio.
Westport would not be Westport if not for the Frasers. They were the most famous residents of Westport ever (according to his 1953 obituary). The 1st polo games ever in Westport were held on their property. A year later they founded The Fairfield County Hunt Club.
They were also among the founders of the Westport Beach Club (now known as Longshore), and Shorehaven Country Club.
These politically active, internationally famous sculptors attracted to Westport a dizzying array of internationally famous visitors, including both Roosevelt first ladies, Edsel Ford, the Harvey Firestones, the Mayos, Averell Harriman, the George Patton family, famous poets, architects, writers, activists and philanthropists. Three-time Pulitzer Prize winning poet Edwin Arlington Robinson lived with them in Westport for 15 years.
Public records reveal that the Frasers intentionally purchased property to keep their neighborhood quiet enough for their creativity. They then sold some land to other artists, effectively founding Westport’s famous artists colony.
Former Fraser student and famous sculptor Lila Wheelock Howard and her illustrator husband Oscar bought the old mill and barn on Coleytown Road in 1919. Kerr Eby, world-famous artist and pacifist, bought the Coley homestead from the Frasers in 1923, just a few hundred feet from the Fraser studios. The property that he named “Driftway” became the inspiration for many of his etchings (still sold today). He lived in his beloved old saltbox for the rest of this life.
Water was an important part of the property, for many reasons.
Heir to the Montgomery Ward fortune Ward Thorne and his wife Judith bought Driftway from the Eby estate in 1949. They lived there for the rest of their lives as well. To insure that the property be taken seriously by historians, they donated it to the Antiquarian & Landmarks society.
The current sellers are true heroes of preservation. They stabilized and restored the magnificent saltbox, insuring that it will “live on” with its 5 working fireplaces, chestnut beams, floors and gorgeous woodwork. A family addition echoes the saltbox form, and adds functionality for today. They also purchased the old mill and barn to reunite the property and the main building components, which now includes 3 antique homes, 2 barns and 10.5 acres of the original farm homestead.
277 North Avenue today. The original lines of the 1740s saltbox still remain.
The area is called “Coleytown” because of the Coley family. They farmed their land for 200 years, and had quite a sophisticated operation. Fresh water from the Aspetuck River helped grow grapes, flax, corn, onions and other crops.
The Coley wharf was located on the Saugatuck River just south of Gorham Island. Produce — including grain processed at the Coley mill — was transported on the Coley’s sloop “Nancy” to New York and Boston on a regular basis.
The c.1760 gristmill — replaced by steam power — became a cotton mill by 1840. Batting produced from Southern cotton was sent to manufacturers to fill the need for textiles in Northeastern cities. A piece of cotton mill apparatus still hangs from the barn rafters, and an original millstone decorates the riverfront landscape. A footbridge and waterfall create a gorgeous, unspoiled landscape.
The original mill house.
The Frasers and 4 other owners of this property not only preserved the antique buildings and land along the Aspetuck River. They also preserved the largely forgotten village center, first called “Coley Ville.”
The mill and converted barn on Coleytown Road were the center of the little village. It included a small green, schoolhouse, shoemaker, blacksmith, yarn manufacturer, horse stables, 5 Coley homesteads, and probably a couple of other shops.
The original Coley homestead. (All photos courtesy of Mary Gai)
Today, the former village gristmill, barn and the Coley homestead are looking for new stewards. Let’s hope they preserve the character of this special neighborhood — one that has endured even longer than our nation itself.
(For much more information on the property, click here; then follow the “Driftway” links on the left.)
Last month’s post about “I Love Lucy” and Westport’s Minuteman statue — plus many of the characters in that story — struck a chord with alert “06880” reader/longtime resident Jeff Seaver. He writes:
I first experienced Westport at age 17, visiting the family of a college friend. Ralph and Betty Alswang lived on Fraser Lane. He was a theater designer of note, and we became friends. Eventually he took me under his wing as an intern in theater architecture. (Mercifully, he later suggested I leave the field and “try something more fun.”) In the meantime I helped work on Lucille Lortel’s White Barn and Playwrights Horizons, among other projects.
At the Alswang home I was exposed to an astonishing collection of the special denizens of Westport. This included the Alswangs themselves, Bob and Eileen Weiskopf, and their delightful children.
Ralph and Betty’s house on Fraser Lane had once been the studio of the sculptor James Earle Fraser. With its stone walls, imposingly large doors and windows, and dark slate roofs, the house was an architectural marvel. I understand that Fraser found the villa in Italy, purchased it and had it disassembled and brought here — along with Italian masons — to be reconstructed, stone by stone.
James Earle Fraser and his bust of Theodore Roosevelt, around 1921.
I am told that Fraser’s original for the cast bronze equestrian sculpture of Theodore Roosevelt with an American Indian (now standing at the entrance to the American Museum of Natural History) was created within those walls. Sculptures were rolled out through the 2-story-tall swinging doors on to a massive concrete loading dock, later converted into a patio.
Ralph and Betty had a lively, eccentric home life: 3 vibrant, smart kids; a pair of neurotic Siamese cats; dogs here and there; huge spreads of food; lots of laughter, storytelling and music; remarkable friends, and deeply held — usually radical — political views, loudly expressed over meals.
Ralph was a larger-than-life character. He built a coffee table sturdy enough to stand on to facilitate the delivery of his fabled orations: smart, opinionated, always hysterically funny. And everyone, it seemed — especially my college chums — had secret crushes on Betty.
The Alswang home was open to neighbors and friends like Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Sydney Poitier and their families; director Otto Preminger; actor Gary Merrill (who had been married to Bette Davis); attorney Leonard Boudine (who lived across the street); Lucille Lortel, and many others.
Some were luminaries, some mere mortals, but all of them fascinating, talented folk. I would stumble out of Ralph’s studio, bleary-eyed from work, and find an assembly of guests lounging over coffee at the outsize dining table or enjoying the sun in back. As a naive teenager, I assumed this lifestyle must be how all adults lived.
Ralph Alswang (5th from left), with a galaxy of stars as they arrived for a session of the House Un-American Activities Committee in Washington, D.C. The group includes June Havoc, John Huston, Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Danny Kaye, Jane Wyatt and Ira Gershwin.
Sad to say, this extraordinary madness was not to last. Betty Alswang, whose beauty (she was a model in her youth) was matched by her wits, died from cancer. As sometimes happens, Ralph died of a heart attack not long afterward. It was a heartbreaking loss, and the aftershocks left holes in many lives.
But the children carried on the tradition of style, talent and smarts. The Weiskopfs’ son Kim, who became a friend, went on to some celebrity as a TV writer in California. Fran Alswang became a TV producer, working with Michael Moore among others. Hope Alswang has a distinguished career as a curator of the decorative arts at various museums. Ralph Alswang was, among other things, official White House photographer for the Clinton administration. The Poitier children who once scampered around the house have found their own special callings.
Ralph and Betty and their circle remain emblematic for me of the greatest attributes Westport had to offer, when its gravitational pull attracted a constellation of brilliant lights in the theater, visual and literary arts.
Given the changes over the past 30 years in Westport, I’m skeptical such a powerful confluence could occur here again. But I feel blessed to have been invited in briefly, if only as a spectator, during that special time.
I later set about crafting my own dynasty. I got as far as designing and building a beautiful loft in Chelsea, filling it with Siamese cats, and marrying another talented artist.
In 1999, after 25-plus years of carving out a successful career as an artist in New York, I began searching for a life outside of the city. I wanted our 5-year-old daughter to experience exotic, rarefied things like grass, birds and squirrels.
One evening, while scouting locations in Connecticut, I looked up and recognized the road that leads to Longshore. I crossed over from there to Compo Beach, parked by the legendary cannons and stared out across the beach, flooded with recollections. I stopped over at Allen’s Clam House, and took a drive back up north to Fraser Lane, where so many other wonderful memories came flooding back.
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