Recently the New York Times ran a story on the top-secret nuclear bomb shelter built for President Kennedy near his Palm Beach home. These days, it’s a tourist attraction.
We could have had something similar, right here in Westport.
Instead we turned our Nike Site into a school.
At the height of the Cold War, the U.S. government developed a defense system. Nikes were line-of-sight anti-aircraft missiles that would destroy incoming bombers.
In the 1950s Bridgeport — an important manufacturing city, with military production places like General Dynamics, Remington and Sikorsky — was presumed to be high on the Russians’ target list. Nike missiles would defend it.
They had to be launched from a high elevation, not far from the city. Westport seemed a perfect spot.
Nike missiles on display.
The town was rattled. RTM member Ralph Sheffer was appointed chairman of the Nike Site Committee.
Meanwhile, Ralph recalled in a Westport Historical Society oral history, the Army sent in “their best PR people — handsome young captains” to calm things down.
Ralph visited Nike sites around the country. He even called a former classmate — President Eisenhower’s press secretary — to ask for help. He offered to set up a meeting with Ike.
“I decided it would be too presumptuous,” Ralph said.
The missiles were placed in silos on North Avenue. They were to be set off from another point in Westport — one with direct sighting to the Nikes. The tower had to be built on a higher elevation: the Sheffer family’s 32-acre property on Cross Highway, from Bayberry to Sturges Highway.
Ralph’s father-in-law — “a loyal American citizen” — donated the property to the Army for $1. He stipulated that if the Nike site was no longer used, it would revert to the town.
The Army built barracks on Bayberry Lane. Ralph said he spent mornings “throwing beer cans back onto Army property.” Other military personnel — those with families — lived on Wassell Lane.
A typical Nike site -- much like the North Avenue one. Missiles were usually buried underground.
Westport writer Max Shulman wrote about the Nike Site — the town’s reaction, and how it dealt with frisky GIs — in Rally ‘Round the Flag, Boys!
In 1958, the book became a movie. Paul Newman played the Ralph Sheffer character; Joanne Woodward was Ralph’s wife Betty. The film introduced the Newmans to Westport. They soon moved here — and never left.
“Of course,” Ralph said in his oral history, “by the time the Nike site was built and in place, it was outdated by new technology.”
In 1960, control was transferred from the U.S. Army to the National Guard. Westport’s Nike Site closed 3 years later.
Rolnick Observatory -- the former Nike Site on Bayberry Lane -- in 1975.
The Bayberry Lane barracks became Westport/Weston Health District headquarters. The control tower was turned into the Rolnick Observatory.
The North Avenue site has a more intriguing history.
For a decade, it lay abandoned. Area children — including, ahem, me — have vivid memories of cavorting on the property. The silos were open — well, we found a way to open them — and believe me, nothing beats the Cold War memory of clambering inside a missile silo.
In 1973 the Department of Health, Education and Welfare — which apparently had taken control — transferred the North Avenue land to the town.
According to the Norwalk Hour of October 1 that year, a ceremony was held. Paul Newman called it “a great day for Westport.” The Staples band played a couple of tunes, including — inexplicably — “On Wisconsin” and Chicago’s “25 or 6 to 4.”
First Selectman John Kemish said, “The land once needed for war will now be dedicated to the pursuit of peace. The property will now be redeveloped by our Board of Education as a facility for our children.”
Well — not quite.
Though envisioned as a possible location for the Town School Office, a curriculum center, a maintenance garage and/or a repair area for Staples’ automotive classes, it languished.
In 1977-78, industrial arts teacher Ed Ljostad created a “Woodshop to Nike” class. Eleven junior and senior boys began a planned 5-year renovation project there.
Their goal was to build bedrooms, bathrooms, a kitchen, storage space, dorm rooms and a dining hall — a living environment that any Staples group could use.
They began removing walls, radiators, pipes and debris; the next step was plumbing and electrical work, a septic system, new windows and doors.
Project Adventure — a one-quarter gym option — installed a ropes course, high wire and 30-foot balance beam, to develop group cooperation.
But both projects petered out. Generations of Stapleites recall the Nike Site as an abandoned, overgrown, unpatrolled area — the ideal spot for drinking, drugs and sex. (“Hey, wanna see my silo?”)
You wouldn’t know any of that today. The missiles are gone; so is any trace of the military.
Instead of Cold War civil preparedness — or teenage wasteland — the North Avenue Nike Site is pristine.
Few — if any — of the people there today know the history behind the property.
The property that today is Bedford Middle School.
The North Avenue Nike site today.