Tag Archives: National Hall

Pic Of The Day #541

Flags frame National Hall (Photo/Jaime Bairaktaris)

When You’ve Got It …

Parking is at a premium near National Hall.

Of the few spots, many are reserved by tenants in that building, and adjacent ones.

So it’s not as if this driver is taking up a space that’s available to us normal Westporters.

He’s just taking it from a co-worker.

Or — more likely, since Paganis start at $1.4 million — an employee.

PS: Let’s hope the owner checked the weather forecast before heading in to work.

Pic Of The Day #398

National Hall, and the Ruth Steinkraus Cohen Bridge (Photo/Lynn Untermeyer Miller)

Pics Of The Day #352

The ‘Port restaurant, and National Hall

Vigilant Firehouse, soon to be Oko restaurant

West bank of the Saugatuck River (Photos/Dave Dellinger)

Friday Flashback #61

Westporters have watched with interest as renovations begin on 1 Wilton Road.

That’s the quaint little building squatting underneath the massive Wright Street office project.

Today it’s one of the many frustrating reasons for back-ups at the Post Road West/Riverside Avenue intersection. Plans to move the building to create a turning lane have been rejected (perhaps to rise again, in the future).

Once upon a time, that section of town was less chaotic. Back in the day, a man could stroll down the middle of State Street — past a still-familiar streetscape that includes National Hall (now The ‘Port restaurant).

But I’m sure turn-of-the-20th-century Westporters found plenty to complain about.

Look at that mud! Those rocks, and the wagon ruts!

And I know some folks thought that watering trough didn’t need to be smack in the center of the road.

Arrivederci, Vespa. Welcome, The ‘Port.

In its 2 1/2 years in Westport, Vespa earned the loyalty of many customers.

Unfortunately, they came almost entirely on Friday and Saturday nights.

Owner Bobby Werhane thought there was a demand for “a New York style, modern rustic restaurant” in that location.

There was. But attracting diners on more casual weekdays was tough. Though the 155 seats inside were filled — and in summer, the 60-seat patio was packed — the size of National Hall, plus the difficulty of scheduling employees for both peak and slow times, led to what Werhane admits was “inconsistency.”

“The Cottage and the Whelk are small enough to do well consistently,” he says. “They’ve got a small, constant staff, and a tight menu. Their expenses are manageable. It was a lot tougher for us.”

The Inn at National Hall. Vespa most recently occupied the ground floor.

One of the things he enjoyed most about  Vespa was establishing strong relationships with guests. One was Sal Augeri.

A 14-year Westporter with 2 kids, Augeri — a Wall Street guy — was thinking about the next phase of his life. He’d always been interested in restaurants; he was involved in his town, so …

… welcome to the new spot that’s taking Vespa’s place. It’s called …

… The ‘Port.

It aims to fill a niche that Augeri believew is lacking in Westport’s restaurant scene: an “approachable, authentic experience.” He calls it “a place to go after your kids’ practice, or for a quick bite with friends. But a place that also has a definite local flavor.”

The ‘Port — our town’s sometime nickname — hopes to convey a real Westport vibe. Vespa’s white walls and beautiful surfaces will remain; some banquettes and communal spaces will be added, and “Westport stuff” put on the walls. Soon, the owners hope, the iconic building will be filled with people, 7 days a week.

“Owners” is exactly the right word. Augeri’s company — SMA Hospitality — is the majority owner and operating partner. Twenty-three investors have joined the 10 original Vespa backers. That’s 33 families, all with young kids and town ties.

Local designers Alli DiVincenzo and Michele Cosentino teamed up with Westport architect Lucien Vita of the Vita Design Group to brand and design the interior of The ‘Port.

The restaurant will also hire Staples students as busboys. (The last place that did that may have been the Arrow.)

The ‘Port will be “family friendly.” Augeri says that means “simple, basic, good food that people want”: an excellent burger. The “Port Club” signature chicken sandwich. Fish, pastas, fresh salads, great wings.

Milk and fresh lemonade for children — drinks that are healthier than most restaurants’ sodas and juice boxes.

Dessert includes homemade brownies and Chipwiches. “I don’t need tiramisu,” Augeri laughs.

Chef Justin Kaplan last worked in Lake Tahoe. This will be the 7th restaurant he’s opened.

He looks forward to “rustic, home-style cooking done right. We’re designing this menu for our guests — not the chefs’ egos.”

Chef Justin Kaplan (left) and operating partner Sal Augeri. (Photo/Allyson Monson)

“Family friendly” means the owners hope The ‘Port will be the place that Staples Players and middle school actors go to celebrate after shows. What about the diner — the current favorite spot? “We’ll do special events for the cast,” Augeri promises.

He will also provide discounts for veterans, police officers and firefighters, along with special post-Back to School Night promotions. Augeri adds, “teachers will be glad we’re there. A lot of times they’re looking for a 4-to-6 p.m. spot.”

A couple of TVs will draw guests for big events, like the NCAA Final Four, US Open tennis or a Champions League championship. But — although he’s deeply involved in the Westport PAL, and he hopes teams will gather there after big wins — Augeri claims, “this is not a sports bar. It’s a restaurant with TVs.”

The projected opening date is a month from now. See you at The ‘Port.

Friday Flashback #9

Wednesday’s fatal accident between I-95 exits 18 and 17 closed the southbound highway for nearly 12 hours.

From 7 p.m. until 7 a.m. Thursday, vehicles crawled through Westport. It took almost an hour to get from the Sherwood Island Connector, down the Post Road and out Riverside Avenue.

Fortunately, it was nighttime. But that meant there were tons of trucks. Traffic was stop-and-go — mostly stop — all night long.

That was the scene nearly every day in the 1950s, until I-95 — then called the Connecticut Turnpike — opened. The Post Road was the only way for trucks to get from New York to Boston.

Newcomers have no idea how bad the traffic was. Oldtimers barely remember.

This week’s Friday Flashback shows a typical scene. It doesn’t look too bad — but it was.

bridge-grille-and-fairfield-furniture

Today the Fairfield Furniture Store is National Hall, with its 1st-floor Vespa restaurant. The Food Mart and Calise’s Wine & Liquors are gone. So — truly unfortunately — is Ye Olde Bridge Grille, one of Westport’s best dive bars.

The intersection of the Post Road, Wilton Road and Riverside Avenue is still bad. But can you imagine what it would be like without I-95, the highway we love to hate?

David Waldman’s Save The Children Project Takes Shape

A crane towers over Main Street. The old Tudor YMCA is being gutted. Concrete is poured near Church Lane and Elm Street.

But even as Westporters await the completion of Bedford Square — David Waldman’s project that will redefine downtown — he’s moving forward on his next project.

Waldman is a partner in the development group that owns the former Save the Children site across the river. Right now, a 60,000-square foot building blocks views from Wilton Road. A few yards away, the brutal Post Road/Riverside Avenue intersection makes that west bank neighborhood a don’t-go-there-unless-you-have-to afterthought to downtown shoppers.

Waldman wants to change all that. He hopes to build an office building and 18 high-end condos on the 2.6-acre site.

He’ll extend the boardwalk from National Hall and Bartaco all the way to the end of his property. He’ll help the town and other interested parties build a pedestrian bridge, linking his development with Parker Harding Plaza or Gorham Island.

Plans for the new west bank project show ... (Click on or hover to enlarge)

Plans for the new west bank project show the new office building and residential condos, extended boardwalk, pedestrian bridge, dedicated left-turn lane and more. (Click on or hover to enlarge)

Most importantly, he’ll move the charming, old (and very much in-the-way) needle shop house from 1 Wilton Road, to his new project. That will allow construction of a left-turn lane onto the Post Road, easing congestion at one of the worst intersections in the state.

Plans have not been presented formally. But discussions are beginning with important town bodies, like the Planning and Zoning Commission.

Waldman is very familiar with the property, and the land around it. Compass Commons — across the street from Save the Children — was developed by his father in 1982.

Though Waldman knows the Save the Children site is in a flood zone — and is well aware of the traffic woes — he’s excited by its potential. It’s one of the last remaining developable sites downtown. The native Westporter thrives on challenges like these.

The former Save the Children's Wilton Road headquarters. The 60,000-square foot building now stands empty.

The former Save the Children’s Wilton Road headquarters. The 60,000-square foot building now stands empty.

He and his partners worked for over a year on the concept. It includes residential units, because they’re called for in the downtown plan. Waldman knows there are many empty nesters in Westport looking to downsize, but stay here. Nationwide, older homeowners are relocating closer to downtown areas.

“I tried to hit all the buttons: what the town wants, how to incorporate visual access to the river, and get parking off the river,” Waldman says.

He notes that Save the Children at one point had 250 employees, but only 180 parking spaces. His plan will help add parking for restaurants like Bartaco and Vespa. Eight spots will be available for public access to the water.

His new buildings will be FEMA compliant. (Save the Children is not.)

Waldman is particularly excited by the opportunity to redesign the brutal Post Road/Wilton Road/Riverside Avenue intersection.

He has an option on the house that right now huddles underneath the Wright Street building. He hopes to give that land to the town.

Right now, this cute building at 1 Wilton Road inhibits traffic turning in 2 directions, or going straight.

Right now, this cute building at 1 Wilton Road inhibits traffic turning in 2 directions, or going straight.

The development’s architect — Roger Ferris + Partners — is coincidentally headquartered at 11 Wilton Road. They’d accommodate the redesign, ceding room for the new lane (and a nice pocket park.)

It won’t be easy — or cheap. Waldman estimates the cost of moving the house at $2.5 million. But he relocated Kemper Gunn from Bedford Square across Elm Street. He understands the value of both preservation and change.

He’d need a text amendment to increase the allowable height of his residential building to 48 feet. That would allow underground parking. According to Waldman, it would still be lower than the top of National Hall.

An artist's rendering of the proposed new office building (center) and condos (right) on the former Save the Children property, as seen from Parker Harding Plaza. The Post Road bridge and National Hall are on left.

An artist’s rendering of the proposed new office building (right-center) and condos (right) on the former Save the Children property, as seen from Parker Harding Plaza. The Post Road bridge and National Hall are on left; Bartaco is in the middle.

In the early 1990s, the Tauck family breathed new life into that old building. A century earlier, National Hall was one of Westport’s central meeting places. After Fairfield Furniture’s long run, it stood abandoned and in danger of collapse. Today it’s beautiful, and functional.

The old Vigilant Firehouse is now home to Neat. Bartaco recently infused more new energy into that area.

David Waldman stands poised to do the same. With Save the Children gone, it’s time to Save the West Bank of the Saugatuck.

Missing Fountain Mystery Deepens

First, “06880” wondered what happened to the early 1900s fountain/horse trough located at the intersection of the Post Road and Wilton Road.

Turns out it turned up next to National Hall. Then it was established that it’s no longer there.

The fountain a few years ago, near National Hall. It's gone now.

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.

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.

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 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?

Where is Rod Serling now that we really need him?

(Hat tip: Elaine Marino)

 

Historic Fountain Disappears

Monday’s post about Vespa and Neat restaurants included some interesting back stories about their respective locations: National Hall and the Vigilant Firehouse. It included this photo of the intersection of the Post Road and Wilton Road.

National Hall - Riverside - Wilton Rd - early 1900s

Alert “06880” reader Jack Harder wondered: “Whatever happened to the fountain/horse trough in the middle of Wilton Road?”

That got another alert reader — Elaine Marino — thinking. A Google search led her to this photo:

Westport downtown fountain

It was taken on the boardwalk behind — yes — National Hall and the old fire station.

But a caption from October, 2013 on the website she found it on — Panoramio — reads: “This fountain is gone! I am missing this piece and it should be placed back where it was originally!”

That’s right. The fountain has vanished. Which raises 3 questions:

  • Was the fountain on the boardwalk the same trough in the early 1900s photo?
  • When and why was it removed?
  • Where is it now?

Alert readers who know — or who have memories of the fountain — should click “Comments” below.