Tag Archives: Mollie Donovan

[OPINION] Eve Potts: Another Former WHS Board Member Speaks Out

Among the many longtime Westporters — and Westport Historical Society volunteers — who are saddened, distressed and/or outraged by the recent decision of the newly rechristened Westport Museum for History & Culture to remove the Sheffer name from the exhibition gallery to accommodate a new donation, it’s hard to find one with a deeper, stronger connection than Eve Potts.

She joined the WHS board in the 1970s. Here are her thoughts on the changes at the downtown institution, whose own history dates back to 1889.

Eve writes: 

This is a sad, sad story. The present Westport Museum for History & Culture embarked on making a transformational change without the benefit of any knowledge of its own history.

Mollie Donovan was, like many other Westporters, a longtime Historical Society volunteer with an interest in the arts.

Unfortunately a huge vacuum, left by the deaths of an incredible number of faithful, knowledgeable unpaid volunteers like Barbara Raymond, Katie Chase, Susan Wynkoop, Mollie Donovan, Barbara Van Orden and Maggie Fesko, enabled a strategic plan to be put into place that changed the focus of the Society and decommissioned the period rooms, to make way for “museum quality programs and exhibits.”

And now, the announcement that the Sheffer Gallery will be erased and replaced by a name that is totally unknown to most Westporters: the Offutt Gallery.

I have been on the board of the Westport Historical Society since the late 1970s, when we used the home across the street as our headquarters and looked longingly at handsome Wheeler House, then occupied by the elderly Mrs. Avery.

At the time, Betty Sheffer (Ann Sheffer’s mother) and Shirley Land curated the costume collection. They spent many hours conserving and documenting the vintage materials.

The Sheffers, from the very start, were totally supportive, and financially available to help achieve the goals of the Historical Society (as well as every other non-profit organization in Westport).

Ann has always had a world-view vision, and a hands-on ability to bring together diverse factions to reach the goals we all were striving to meet. For Ann, Bill and her family to be handled in such a thoughtless and cavalier fashion by the present board is simply not in the tradition of the stated mission of the Westport Historical Society.

When Mrs. Avery died, I went over to Town Hall to check out the Probate Court records. I discovered that the house had been left to Christ & Holy Trinity Episcopal Church.

Along with Eleanor Street, Joan Dickinson, Barbara Elmer, Bob Gault, Peggy Henkle, Mollie Donovan, Fran Thomas, Barbara Van Orden and a group of other active unpaid volunteers, we worked with the church to put together a plan to purchase the house.

Our goal was $300,000. Through massive fundraising events — and the support of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, and the combined fundraising efforts of Jo Fuchs, Connie Anstett and many willing volunteers — we managed to come up with the funds, as well as the expertise to refurbish the house to its Victorian era splendor.

Wheeler House, on Avery Place.

In 1987 I wrote the book, “Westport…A Special Place,” with Howard Munce as its graphic designer. All of our efforts and expenses were totally without charge to the Society. In addition, we contributed all funds (well over $100,000) from that effort to the WHS, to support future publications to benefit the Society.

Those funds have supported the publication of a whole string of other important historical publications and videos. [NOTE: The Eve Potts Book Fund supported publication of my own book, “Staples High School: 120 Years of A+ Education.” — Dan Woog]

In 2014, with incredible support from then-president Dorothy Curran and the board, we mounted a very successful exhibit. “Cover Story” (in the Sheffer Gallery!) was admired by Fiona and  Andrew Bentley, along with thousands of visitors.

So intrigued were Andrew and Fiona with the artistic New Yorker history of Westport that Andrew got in touch with me. We collaborated on a book about the New Yorker covers.

The cover of Eve Potts and Andrew Bentley’s book.

Thanks to the vision of Ed Gerber, who was president at the time, the book — “The New Yorker in Westport” — was published without cost to the WHS, with funds from the Bentleys and from the Potts Book Fund.

All funds raised from the sale of that publication have gone directly to the Society’s regular yearly budget. They were desperately needed at that time for necessary repairs, including a roof, new furnace and lighting system. The book continues to sell well, and funds continue to go to the WHS annual budget.

It is pitiful to see how all the hard work of so many dedicated Westport volunteers over so many years has been totally disregarded in a determined effort to erase the past by the unwitting actions of the present Westport Museum hierarchy.

Town Hall Heritage Tree Shines

Everyone driving past Town Hall enjoys the Christmas tree on its sloping lawn. An ordinary evergreen all year long, it’s lit every night during the holiday season.

But there’s a second one worth seeing. It’s inside Town Hall, just outside the auditorium.

The Town Hall Heritage Tree.

It’s called a Heritage Tree. And for good reason: Every December, for over 35 years, new ornaments are added. Each is designed by a Westport artist. Taken together, the nearly 150 designs represent our artistic heritage in a unique, beautiful way.

Elizabeth Devoll’s ornament features historical Westport photos.

Among the many artists represented: Bernie Burroughs, Mel Casson, Stevan Dohanos, Naiad and Walter Einsel, Leonard Everett Fisher, Neil Hardy, Robert Lambdin, Gordon Mellor, Howard Munce, Jim Sharpe, Dolli Tingle, Barbara Wilk and Al Willmott.

Tammy Winser’s Westport snowman.

This year, 5 new ornaments were added:

  • A whimsical glass ornament (“100% Santa approved”) by Nina Bentley.
  • A diamond-shaped acrylic lenticular featuring the William F. Cribari Bridge — with and without Christmas lights, by Miggs Burroughs.
  • A large, multi-faceted 20-view polygon featuring historical Westport photos, by Elizabeth Devoll.
  • A delicate pine cone, subtly embellished with text and color by Katherine Ross.
  • A glass-domed “Carrot: Building a Snowman in Westport” by Tammy Winser.

Miggs Burroughs’ lenticular features the Saugatuck bridge.

The new ornaments were hung — front and center on the tree — by Eve Potts and Marion Morra. They carry on the Heritage Tree tradition started by their sister, the late Mollie Donovan, nearly 40 years ago. The tree is sponsored by the Westport Historical Society.

Katherine Ross’ pine cone.

So don’t just drive by the Christmas tree outside Town Hall. Drive up, walk inside, and admire the Heritage Tree too.

Happy holidays!

Nina Bentley’s glass ornament.


Remembering Jack Donovan

Jack Donovan was not as well known as his wife Mollie.

Until her death 3 years ago, she was a tireless volunteer in a variety of causes. From the Historical Society and Westport Arts Center to the Schools’ Permanent Art Collection, everyone knew Mollie Donovan.

Jack and Mollie Donovan, on their wedding day.

Jack and Mollie Donovan, on their wedding day.

Jack was less visible, more low-key. But in his quiet, unassuming way, he too contributed to a variety of causes in town. He offered his pro bono services as an accountant to many, and he was very active — behind the scenes — helping Mollie in every project.

Jack died yesterday morning at 87. His death came the same way he lived: quietly and gently.

His son Dan — who, thanks in part to the love of Westport instilled by his parents — moved back here several years ago, with his wife and their 6 kids — passes along a story that epitomizes Jack Donovan.

“Mom lost a diamond from her wedding ring,” Dan says. “Dad submitted a claim to the insurance company and they got reimbursed.

“A year later, Mom was sweeping under the radiator in their bedroom. Lo and behold, the missing diamond was found.

“Dad promptly wrote a check to the insurance company. They called to ask why. He told them it was for the found diamond. They said no one had ever done that before — and they had no idea what to do with his check!”

Jack Donovan was honest, loyal and smart. He had impeccable integrity. He was a great Westporter and a beloved family man, with values we should all strive to emulate.

Jack Donovan, surrounded by his 12 grandchildren.

Jack Donovan, surrounded by his 12 grandchildren.



Robert Lambdin’s Old Mural Gains New Life

Westport has a poor batting average for saving old homes.

But when it comes to preserving murals, it’s all grand slams.

Restored murals by John Steuart Curry and other noted artists hang in our public schools, fire station and Town Hall.

The Westport Art Rescue Committee — led by the late Mollie Donovan, her sister Eve Potts, Judy Gault Sterling and Ann Sheffer, among others — saved Robert Lambdin’s WPA-era “Pageant of Juvenile Literature” when Saugatuck Elementary School was converted to senior housing. It’s now on display at the Westport Library, admired by hundreds of people every day.

Lambdin also painted the grand “Saugatuck in the 19th Century” — actually 3 works. Two — dating to 1964-65 — were installed in the handsome main lobby of Westport Bank & Trust Company, which commissioned the work.

They remained there as the local bank was swallowed up in a series of takeovers by now-forgotten, bigger ones. The building — in the heart of downtown — is now Patagonia. The cool, functional clothing store has lovingly preserved Lambdin’s murals.

Robert Lambdin's old-time murals lend a touch of Westport history to modern-day Patagonia.

Robert Lambdin’s old-time murals lend a touch of Westport history to modern-day Patagonia.

The other “Saugatuck in the 19th Century” painting was hung at Westport Bank & Trust’s Charles Street branch — in the heart of Saugatuck. It was painted around 1969, when the branch opened.

That large mural depicts a lively Saugatuck. It shows agriculture, stables, the railroad and river trade; businesses like Elonzo Wheeler’s button factory; the Bridge Street bridge, and the Saugatuck Bank (Westport Bank & Trust’s forerunner), whose founding partners included Horace Staples.

Though the view was composed with artistic license, Lambdin conducted painstaking research. Town residents modeled for him, including (at the center) Captain Serano Allen.

Robert Lambdin's Saugatuck mural.

Robert Lambdin’s Saugatuck mural. Hover over or click to enlarge.

The Saugatuck mural was a point of pride in the neighborhood, even as the branch lost its local roots. Eventually it became a TD Bank.

When TD (whatever those initials stand for) closed the branch last November, the mural’s future was unknown.

The building is being sold. The mural is headed for storage.

But — thanks to town art curator Kathie Motes Bennewitz, and the Westport Arts Advisory Committee — “Saugatuck in the 19th Century” has a new life.

After touch-up work, it will hang in Town Hall. An exhibit is planned too.

The gift from TD Bank is valued at $25,000.

But you can’t put a price on preserving history.

Last Thursday, the mural was removed from the old bank building.

Last Thursday, the large mural was removed from the old bank building.

Kathie Bennewitz: Westport’s First “Town Curator”

You never know where life will take you.

Who knew, for example, that swimming and lifeguarding would help propel Kathie Bennewitz — 35 years later — to her new position as Westport’s 1st-ever town curator?

Yet that’s what happened, after Kathie Motes moved to Westport in the summer of 1978 — just before her senior year at a new school, Staples High.

Kathie Bennewitz

Kathie Bennewitz

Kathie joined the swim team, took art classes, and befriended Ellise Fuchs, whose father Bernie was a world-famous illustrator. Kathie posed for him, pretending to receive a medal for an Olympic scene.

At Princeton, she majored in art history. “I’m not a fine artist,” she claims. “But I love the process, and the way art reflects who we are.”

One summer, lifeguarding at Compo, she met Scott Bennewitz. He was a beach security guard — and a fellow Princetonian.

They married, and lived in Dallas, Minneapolis and Holland. She’d earned a masters in art history. Everywhere they moved, she worked in museums.

Eight years ago, they came to Westport. Kathie volunteered with the Westport Schools Permanent Art Collection. She says that meeting co-founder Mollie Donovan “changed my life.”

Kathie learned how deep and broad Westport’s arts history is. And she realized the impact of men like John Steuart Curry, and institutions like the Westport Country Playhouse, on this town.

"Blues Piano Players" -- one of the 7 wonderful works by Eric von Schmidt that make up "Birth of the Blues." They hang in the Staples auditorium.

“Blues Piano Players” — one of the 7 wonderful works by Eric von Schmidt that make up “Birth of the Blues.” They hang in the Staples auditorium.

She also met volunteers like Eve Potts — Mollie’s sister. “Their commitment, passion and enthusiasm for this town, and its arts community, is infectious,” Kathie says.

She worked professionally at Greenwich’s Bush-Holley House and the Fairfield Museum. A year ago, she became an independent curator.

She also was appointed tri-chair of the Permanent Art Collection, and served on the Westport Arts Advisory Committee. The 2 organizations gave her a broad perspective on the arts here.

So, when a group of people — including Ann Sheffer, David Rubinstein, Leslie Greene, Carole Erger-Fass and Joan Miller — floated the idea of a town curator, she was intrigued.

So was First Selectman Gordon Joseloff. “We already have a town historian, Allen Raymond,” Kathie notes. “This is a natural counterpoint.”

The doughboy statue on Veteran's Green is part of Westport's art and sculpture collection.

The doughboy statue on Veteran’s Green is part of Westport’s art and sculpture collection.

In her new post, she’s responsible for advising the town on the care of its art and sculpture collection. Westport owns several hundred works of art, displayed in Town Hall, the Senior Center, Parks & Rec headquarters — even the Fire Department. Statues include the Minuteman and Doughboy on Veterans Green.

Kathie will also serve as liaison to the 1,100-piece Permanent Art Collection, and the Westport Library, with its own murals, paintings and illustrations.

“So many other communities lose their treasures,” she says. “But thanks to Burt and Ann Chernow, and so many others, we have ours. They’ve created a platform we can spring off of, and do even more.”

That “more” includes plenty. Kathie envisions self-guided tours of the schools’ collections. A “museum on the street,” with Howard Munce’s Remarkable Book Shop work displayed outside that old store (most recently Talbots). Robert Lambdin’s “Battle of Compo” mounted near the cannons.

She’ll be involved in the rehanging of art at Town Hall — something last done in 1976.

Kathie would also like to open up hard-to-see parts of the town’s art collection — like the amazing fire station mural — to the public.

“Pageant of Juvenile Literature” — a 1934 work by Robert Lambdin — hangs in the Westport Library’s Great Hall. This is part of that mural.

“Pageant of Juvenile Literature” — a 1934 work by Robert Lambdin — hangs in the Westport Library’s Great Hall. This is part of that mural.

She is eager to get started. But she won’t be alone.

“I’m a team player. I enjoy working with people in groups. We need everyone’s help.”

Among those helping: Marie-Neloise Egipto, a Staples senior who will do her spring internship with the Permanent Art Collection.

“I’m honored to serve the town,” Kathie says. “This is different from the other positions I’ve held. It really validates all the decades of work done by the Mollies, the Eves and the Anns who have advocated for, and celebrated, our arts community and legacy.

“Very few communities have the public, school and library collections that we do. Westport should be very, very proud.”

Just as we all should be proud that Kathie Bennewitz is our 1st-ever “town curator.”

Honoring Our Arts

The Westport calendar is filled with little events that should be big ones.

They’re the ones you vaguely hear about before they happen.  Afterward, someone tells you how great it was to be there.  You vow you’ll go next year — but don’t.

The Westport Arts Awards is one of those you-really-shouldn’t-miss events.  This year’s 19th annual ceremony is Sunday, October 21 (2 p.m., Town Hall).  If you want to see all that’s right with this town — its long-time residents, its young people, its support of creativity and achievement — save the date right now.

The event honors artists in 6 disciplines — art, music, film/new media, visual arts/photography, theater and literature — as well as 3 young people, 2 Westporters who work quietly in the background, and 10 artists with local ties who died this year.

Tyler Hicks

The biggest name is Tyler Hicks. The 1988 Staples grad — a staff photographer for the New York Times — has covered conflict in Kosovo, Chechnya, Congo, Ethiopia, Syria, Libya, Sudan, Iraq and Afghanistan, and been captured by the Libyan government. When Times correspondent Anthony Shahid died in Syria, Tyler carried his body across the border to Turkey.

In 2009 Tyler, fellow Times photographer (and Staples ’99 grad) Lynsey Addario, and the Times staff shared the Pulitzer Prize for “masterful, groundbreaking coverage” of the wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

He’s the youngest recipient ever of a Westport Arts Award Lifetime Achievement Honor. He lives in Istanbul, so his mother will accept it for him.

Other Lifetime Achievements go to author, screenwriter and essayist Mary-Lou Weisman; Anne Keefe, artistic advisor at the Westport Country Playhouse; filmmakers Frank Jacoby and Doris Storm; English horn player Doris Goltzer, and artist, painter and printmaker Jak Kovatch.

Horizon Awards — presented to artists under the age of 32 who have already demonstrated excellence — are some of the most intriguing honors at the ceremony. This Sunday, there are 3.

Peter Duchan

Peter Duchan co-wrote the screenplay, and was associate producer for the South by Southwest film “Breaking Upwards.” He also wrote the book for the recent Off-Broadway musical “Dogfight” (scored by previous Westport Arts Award honoree Justin Paul).

Playwright, screenwriter and director Leslye Headland‘s credits include “Bachelorette,” “Assistance” and the rest of the “Seven Deadly Plays” series. She recently wrote a remake of “About Last Night” for Screen Gems. Like Peter, she is a Staples grad.

Nicholas Britell is a composer, pianist and producer. He scored the film “Gimme the Loot, ” which won the Grand Jury Prize at SXSW last March. His music was featured in “New York, I Love You” and elsewhere. Nick is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Harvard.

Longtime Westporter John Franklin will be honored as a Champion of the Arts. Former head of the Westport Arts Center, and a consistent and generous supporter of music, dance and the arts, he’s one of those real good guys who does so much for so many, so quietly.

Joan Miller

So does Joan Miller For her decades of  work on the Westport Schools Permanent Art Collection — a pet project of Mollie Donovan — as well as many other volunteer efforts, Joan is an apt recipient of the Mollie Award, for tireless service.

Ten names will be added to the Heritage Honor Roll.  J.D. Salinger, Hilton Kramer, David Levine, Natalie Maynard, Arlene Skutch, Albert Goltzer, Paul Rand, Marianne Liberatore, Burry Fredrik and Jerome Kilty were all connected to Westport. All died in within the past year, or were not honored while alive.

If you think the Westport Arts Awards are a dull, stand-up-and-give-a-speech affair:  think again.

These are creative people.  There are short videos, along with brief presentations.

And, of course, a reception afterward.

The Westport Arts Awards are Westport at its best.

Its artistic, photographic, musical, theatrical, literary — and very, very talented — best.

Westport’s WPA Art: Still For Everyone

When we think of Westport as an “artists’ colony” — which, hopefully, we still do — certain names leap to mind: George Hand Wright. Harold von Schmidt. Stevan Dohanos. Hardie Gramatky. Howard Munce.

They spanned the 20th century, and helped launch Famous Artists School. Their work lives on, in catalogs, galleries and the memories of art lovers around the world.

But Westport has another arts legacy: WPA paintings. And back in the 1990s, much of it was in danger of disappearing.

The Depression-era works had hung for years in the post office, schools, Town Hall and other public buildings. Gradually, however — during renovations, moves and other events — WPA art was removed from walls, and never replaced. Important pieces of history gathered dust in storage closets, attics and basements around town.

“Pageant of Juvenile Literature” — a 1934 work by Robert Lambdin — hangs in the Westport Library’s Great Hall. This is part of that mural.

Mollie Donovan and her sister Eve Potts scoured — sometimes on their hands and knees — those nooks and crannies, searching for lost art. They were guided by hearsay, intuition, and a handwritten list of commissions compiled decades earlier by the magnificently named Henrietta Cholmeley-Jones.

Mollie and Eve didn’t find everything. Some works had been destroyed when buildings were torn down. But the ones they rescued were restored — thanks in part to Mollie and Eve’s fundraising efforts — and they’re now an important part of our town’s artistic legacy.

The other day, Westporters Kathie Bennewitz and Carole Erger-Fass traveled to Waterbury’s Mattatuck Museum for the opening of a new exhibit. Called “Art for Everyone,” it celebrates the 1,700 paintings, murals and sculptures created by 173 Connecticut artists, thanks to government support during the 1930s.

Robert Garrett Thew’s street sign was a WPA commission. Apparently, Westport drivers were not so careful in the 1930s, either.

Ralph Boyer’s “Westport WPA Art Committee, 1939” usually hangs in the selectman’s conference room at Town Hall. Now it’s on loan to the exhibit — and is the 1st painting visitors see as they enter the gallery.

Eve Potts was at the opening reception. She had great stories to tell about Henrietta Cholmeley-Jones, who was instrumental in assigning WPA commissions to Westport artists.

Seventeen Westport artists were put to work from 1934 to 1937. They produced 34 artworks and 120 photographs. All the materials, plus framing and placing of the murals, casting of the sculptures and film for the photographs, cost Westport a total of $3,020. For her work as “local supervisor,” Henrietta Cholmeley-Jones earned $1 a year.

But she made it into the painting on exhibit at Mattatuck (below). She’s wearing pearls.

Thanks to Mollie and Eve, Westport’s WPA works are on display year-round, throughout town. Like the Mattatuck exhibit, they are truly “Art for Everyone.”

Mollie Donovan’s Art Auction

When Mollie Donovan died a year ago, Westport mourned. A vibrant, creative and very bright woman was gone. On a more practical — and selfish — level, we worried that her many areas of expertise — arranging Westport Historical Society exhibits, for example, or hanging paintings for the Westport Schools Permanent Art Collection — would be lost forever too.

Mollie Donovan

Though Mollie was irreplaceable, she continues to give back to her favorite activities. The donations made in her name are one example. An event this Saturday (April 21, 7 p.m., Westport Playhouse Barn) is another.

The “Mollie Gala Art Auction” features 100 high-quality pieces. They come from local and regional artists — and as far as Barcelona. Westporters Leonard Fisher, Hardie Gramatky and Howard Munce are represented; so is Modesto Cuixart, who in 1959 was selected over Picasso as best painter at the São Paolo Bienal.

The auction is a fundraiser for the Westport Historical Society, one of Mollie’s many beloved organizations. There will be beautiful art, with silent and live bidding; music from a string quartet and pianist, and plenty of food and wine.

It’s a typical Mollie Donovan event: classy, artistic, and all for a good cause.

A year after she left us, she’s still helping her hometown out.

(Tickets are $60 until Friday, April 20; $65 at the door. Click here to purchase.)

Some of the art on sale at this Saturday's "Mollie Gala." Enjoying the scene is Kristan Peters-Hamlin, chairwoman of the event. (Photo/Larry Untermeyer)

Honoring Our Arts

The Westport calendar is filled with little events that should be big ones.

They’re the ones you vaguely hear about before they happen.  Afterward, someone tells you how great it was to be there.  You vow you’ll go next year — but don’t.

The Westport Arts Awards is one of those you-really-shouldn’t-miss events.  This year’s 18th annual ceremony is Sunday, October 23 (2 p.m., Town Hall).  If you want to see all that’s right with this town — its long-time residents, its young people, its support of creativity and achievement — save the date right now.

The event honors artists in 4 disciplines — music, film/theater, visual arts and literature — as well as 3 young people, 2 Westporters who work quietly in the background, and 6 local artists who died this year.

Miggs Burroughs

You should go to the ceremony if for no other reason than to pay tribute to Miggs Burroughs.  For 4 decades, the 1963 Staples grad has shared his graphic design talents — often gratis — with countless area organizations.

The Westport town flag; Levitt Pavilion, Westport Historical Society, Westport Y, Project Return logos; every First Night button; t-shirts for local races — all are Miggs’ creations.

That’s in addition to his postage stamps, Time Magazine covers, lenticular images, cable TV show…  No wonder Miggs has earned the “Mollie Award,” named for the indefatigable arts advocate Mollie Donovan.

Mimi Levitt

Speaking of the Levitt Pavilion, Mimi Levitt will receive the “Champion of the Arts” award.  The Austrian native — who served as a translator at the Nuremberg war trials — was, with her husband, a major benefactor of the outdoor performing arts center when it was founded on the Saugatuck River in 1973.  She still serves on its governing committee.

The Arts Awards span all ages, from 90-year-old Mimi Levitt to a trio who are just beginning what will be spectacular careers.

Drew McKeon

“Horizon Awards” — to emerging artists under 32 — will be presented to drummer Drew McKeon (he’s toured with Hall & Oates and Jimmy Buffett, and played off-Broadway); filmmaker Nick Ordway (whose “God of Love” earned an Oscar for Best Live-Action Short), and dancer Katrina Gould (she’s performed with the Boston and Los Angeles Ballet companies).

Lifetime Achievement Awards will go to Naiad Einsel (art), Hans Wilhelm (literature), Millette Alexander (music), and Maureen Anderman and Frank Converse (theater/film).

Six names will be added to the Heritage Honor Roll.  Sculptor Stanley Bleifeld, violist Keith Conant, artist Tony Marino, architect Abe Rothenberg, author Max Wilk — and of course uber-volunteer Mollie Donovan — all passed away recently.

If you think the Westport Arts Awards are a dull, stand-up-and-give-a-speech affair:  think again.

These are creative people.  There are short videos, along with brief dance and music presentations.

And, of course, a reception afterward.

The Westport Arts Awards are Westport at its best.

Its artistic, musical, theatrical, literary — and very, very talented — best.

Remembering Frazier Peters — And Mollie Donovan

A fascinating exhibit opened Sunday at the Westport Historical Society.

Called “Frazier Forman Peters:  At Home With Stone,” it honors the man who is arguably Westport’s most famous architect.

Frazier Forman Peters

Peters — also a builder, teacher and writer — was born in 1895 to a New York Episcopalian clergy family.  He graduated from Columbia University as a chemical engineer, but quickly grew disgruntled with the industry,

He came to Westport in 1919, hoping to work the land as a farmer.  The rocky soil intrigued him, and he soon found his calling as a designer and builder of stone houses.

Peters’ homes can be found from Virginia to Maine — but most are in Connecticut.  Between 1924 and 1936 he designed and built over 36 stone houses Westport.  His designs are revered for their unique fieldstone wall construction method, as well as their spatial organization and sensitive placement in relation to the natural environment.

Susan Farewell wrote:

Were Frazier Peters to build houses today, he’d be receiving all sorts of accolades for being an architect on the leading edge of environmentally-conscious, energy-efficient, sustainable design and construction.

The thick fieldstone walls (as much as 16 inches) typical of a Peters stone house make them energy-efficient; the stones effectively hold the heat in winter and keep the interiors cools in summer….

He segregated rooms by giving each one a separate identity, and through the use of step-downs, varied building materials, and interesting transitions. He was also taken by how beautifully European stone structures aged and compared them to American-built frame houses that “droop and pout if they are not continually groomed and manicured.”

Another important component of Peters’ designs was the marriage of the house and its surroundings. He wrote a great deal about this and was especially enamored with the brooks, hillsides, and woods of Connecticut.

Adam Stolpen — who lives in a Frazier Peters house — adds:  “He was our first ‘green architect.  And he was completely self-taught.

“These are definitely not cookie-cutter McMansions.  They are homes meant to be lived in.  And each one has a bit of whimsy.”

A Frazier Forman Peters house on Charcoal Hill. (Photo by Alan Goldfinger/Westport News)

The exhibit includes photographs of his houses; artifacts, and a model of stone construction method and materials.

But it would not have come about had it not been for a modern Westporter with an affinity for history — and a connection to Frazier Peters homes.

A few years ago, longtime town volunteer Mollie Donovan wanted a plaque for her son’s family.  Dan and Nicole Donovan had just bought a Peters house near Charcoal Hill — one of Peters’ favorite areas.

Most homes with a historic plaque are at least 100 years old.  But Bob Weingarten — the WHS member in charge of authorizing plaques — realized that the style, beauty, and placement of the Donovans’ house warranted one.

His interest in Peters was piqued.  He searched for other houses.  Each time he found — and verified — one, he sent a note to the WHS (and Mollie).

After a dozen, she decided Peters should be honored too — with an exhibit.

Frazier Forman Peters died in 1963.  Mollie Donovan passed away last April.

But — thanks to both of them — an intriguing, informative exhibition lives on.

So do Frazier Peters’ houses.  According to Bob Weingarten, of the 36 houses he’s found that were designed and built by Peters, only 1 has been demolished.

In today’s Westport, that might be Frazier Peters’ most enduring legacy of all.

(The Westport Historical Society exhibition runs through December 31.  Click here for details.)

Another Frazier Forman Peters house view. (Photo by Alan Goldfinger/Westport News)