Easter and Passover are coming. Alert “06880” reader — and Staples High School Class of 1973 grad — Chip Stephens is thinking about those holidays, and the flowers associated with them:
Back in the 1960s there were many greenhouses — Fillow (on Clinton Avenue), Daybreak (on East Main Street), Parsell’s (now the new “Geiger” retail and residential complex), and the Flower Farm (South Turkey Hill, now Flower Farm Road).
Daybreak Nurseries, back in the day.
They all grew their own flowers. And they all had big annual flower displays.
The community event — combining art, nature, retail and people of all ages — was a much-anticipated treat for my family. I remember walking through those hot, humid greenhouses, viewing the previews of spring flowers and the summer that would follow.
After church — usually Palm Sunday — we drove to every florist. Each greenhouse was filled with geraniums (soon to be handed out at churches to kids), Easter lilies, hyacinths and many other fragrant flowers.
Families wandered through the greenhouse labyrinths, enjoying coffee, donuts and treats provided by the owners. It was a wonder walk, heightened by displays like Daybreak’s waterfalls.
Today the last of those great greenhouses — Daybreak — is being carted away to the dump.
The last of Daybreak Nursery gets carted away, earlier today.
With the arrival of spring, I’m considering the loss of all those greenhouses, and their replacement by McMansions. How do we balance that, keeping the character of Westport that many enjoyed growing up, and many others move here for?
Let’s welcome both spring and the new, while incorporating and saving the treasures and memories of Westport that remain.
If you’re new to Connecticut, you may not know about our charter oak. They don’t teach state history in school — I don’t think so, anyway — and most of the state quarters that were minted nearly 20 years ago are out of circulation.
But longtime residents know the charter oak. And one of its descendants may still live in Westport.
The story involves a large white oak tree that dates back to the 12th or 13th century. Apparently our royal charter — given by King Charles in 1662, to the Connecticut colony — was hidden in a hollow in 1687, to prevent the governor-general from revoking it.
Connecticut’s charter oak.
The tree was destroyed in 1856, during a strong storm. But its legend remains.
So, supposedly, do many of its seedlings.
In 1965, a “Committee for the location and care of the Charter Oak Tree” was formed. Its purpose was to “accept the seedling descendant of the Charter Oak from Mr. John Davis Lodge, care for it during the winter, select a location in which it can be planted in the Spring, and organize a planting ceremony.”
Lodge — a former governor of Connecticut and ambassador to Spain, and future ambassador to Argentina and Switzerland — lived in Westport.
Minutes of a November 20, 1965 meeting show that a seedling was intended to be donated to Staples High School in the spring.
Legend has it that the seedling was planted in the school courtyard on North Avenue. No one today knows authoritatively if that was done, or exactly where. If it ever existed, it was bulldozed away during construction of the new building more than a decade ago.
The committee also discussed the best location for another seedling, downtown. Members — including representatives of the RTM, Westport Garden Club, Veterans of Foreign Wars, American Legion and Daughters of the American Revolution — agreed that Jesup Green was the best area. It could be “the first step in setting a centrally located civic center.”
Discussion then turned to the erection of a plaque, commemorating the gift to the town by Lodge.
“It was agreed that watering and care after the planting should be delegated to a Town employee who would be responsible for its care,” meeting notes read.
Arbor Day in April was suggested as a good time for the planting, and that school children should be involved.
The committee then went outdoors to study possible locations. They agreed to store the 2 seedling oaks in the “cold barn cellar” of Parsell’s Nursery. Garden center owner and civic volunteer Alan U. Parsell was a committee member.
And that’s the last bit of information I dug up about Westport’s charter oak.
Like many Westporters, alert “06880” reader Wendy Crowther has been watching the departure of Geiger’s with sorrow.
Unlike most of us, she’s done more than just drive past the former garden center property. Yesterday she wrote:
What you see in the photo below represents about 3 days of work, done in fits and starts.
This morning I saw some people on the roof of the main barn. They appeared to be removing roofing tiles. By noon today they were gone.
Several days ago, guys in hard hats removed a small portion of the roof from the smaller, east addition. Yesterday they removed the rest. Now you can see the supporting rafters.
They appear to be going at a turtle’s pace, which could be a good sign. Hopefully they’ll index/mark everything as they remove it (a good deconstruction process).
I’ve put out feelers to Coastal Development a few times (via P&Z hearings and your blog) in hopes of getting answers to 2 important questions.
1. Have they hired a barn expert to guide them through the deconstruction process? Ordinary builders make terrible mistakes if left to their own devices.
2. How is Coastal Development planning to store the deconstructed pieces until new uses are found? Hopefully it won’t end up in a giant pile under a tarp somewhere.
The Geiger barn in 2013. (Photo/Wendy Crowther)
My heart sinks as I see this barn come down. It has sat in that exact spot for at least 150 years.
Only a few owners lived or worked on the site during all that time. Those owners ranged from the Coley/Burr family (who farmed in the area), to 2 pastors of Greens Farms Church, to the Winterton/Harris family, who lived on the property for 100 years (long enough that the corner was once known as the “Harris Switch” – a trolley stop). Then came the most recent proprietors: Parsell and Geiger.
Westport loses another part of its history as this barn comes down. For some it was an eyesore. For others it was a treasure – a reminder of Westport’s evolution from the days of early settlers and farmers, to those who left New York City in summer and on weekends to escape the heat and crowds, to budding entrepreneurs who, in quaint ways, brought flowers and shrubs into our own backyards.
Today, commercial developers are the “new entrepreneurs.” Some care nothing of the past and seek only to build their own profit margins. Coastal Development did at least try to save the barn, but zoning regulations made that hard to do. I hope our zoning regs might change in the future to better encourage preservation.
The former Geiger’s Garden Center, just south of the barn.
I hope that Coastal will treat this barn with care as they dismantle. For me, it is one of their biggest litmus tests. Will they walk the talk?
Whether they do or don’t, my heart will continue to break a little bit each time I drive by. The corner will look drastically different next year at this time.
Westport is losing another piece of its rural, agrarian past. Some will forget that soon enough as they pull in to do their banking.
PS. When I pulled in to take this photo, I noticed that all of the glass was removed from the greenhouse. Does anyone know whether someone took advantage of the “free greenhouse” offer? Perhaps those who took the glass are coming back for the structure? If anyone knows, please let us know.
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