In the early- and mid-1800s, Saugatuck was the commercial and financial center of town. Then Horace Staples opened a bank upriver, built a couple of wharves and National Hall, and the area around what is now called “downtown” flourished.
In the 1950s Saugatuck — by then an Italian-American community — was ripped apart (physically and emotionally) by the construction of I-95. Main Street got its mojo; Riverside Avenue became an afterthought.
Now — with a renovation project bringing new restaurants, retail, apartments and street life to the area — Saugatuck is hot. Downtown is firing back, with a renovated Church Lane and $500,000 Main Street initiative on tap.
So this seems as good a time as any to revisit the New York Times of December 2, 1923.
“Urge That Westport Be Saugatuck Again,” the headline read.
And the subhead: “Many Citizens of Connecticut Town Think the Old Indian Name More Distinctive.”
In the 1920s, Esposito’s gas station and taxi company stood on Charles Street. Today it’s Tarry Lodge…
The story described a drive by “leading citizens here in another attempt to restore to this village its original name.”
The major selling point: There were 18 other Westports in the US, and 4 more around the world. That led to “confusion of the mails and the long-distance telephone calls.”
There was only 1 other Saugatuck, however — a Michigan town that took its name from ours.
With Westport, Connecticut growing — the Times called the town of nearly 5,000 “the largest and most noted art colony” in the country, home to “a dozen different industrial plants” and a brand-new, $300,000 YMCA — there was “agitation for the restoration of the town’s old name of Saugatuck.” The drive was led by John Adams Thayer, with support from state legislator Harry M. Ayres and “many other prominent citizens.”
…while a couple of miles north, the Saugatuck River lapped up against the back of Main Street stores.
The Times reported that the name Saugatuck came from the Indian “Sauki-tuk,” meaning “outlet from a tidal river.” The town of Saugatuck was founded in 1640, and called itself that until the incorporation of “Westport” in 1835.
That was the Times’ 1st — and only — report of the proposed name change. There is no word on when, how or why the idea sank to the bottom of the river.
(Hat tip to Fred Cantor for unearthing this New York Times story.)
Phase II of Gault’s Saugatuck redevelopment project is almost done.
Saugatuck Craft Butchery is getting ready to move across Riverside Avenue, into much larger quarters (with tables and seats). Cocoa Michelle will follow with an expanded gourmet market, from around the corner on Railroad Place.
All of the 1-bedroom apartments on the west side of Riverside have rented; only a few 2-bedrooms remain. They’re high-end, with handsome finishes and intriguing layouts.
Sidewalks are being extended; outdoor lamps will be installed.
And — very importantly — Ketchum Street is open to traffic.
The hump has been almost eliminated. Riverside Avenue and Franklin Street are once again connected — now visually, as well as vehicularly.
Newly engineered Ketchum Street makes walking in Saugatuck fun.
That’s good news for the small businesses nearby. And great news for anyone who cares about this tight-knit, walkable neighborhood. It’s back — and more vibrant and varied than any time since I-95 tore through.
That construction ripped the heart out of Saugatuck.
The New York Times Sunday real estate section holds a strange fascination for people in the tri-state area.
It doesn’t matter if we’re actively buying or selling, or dying in the same house our great-grandparents were born in. Like realtors drawn to obituaries — that means a potential listing! — we pore over the real estate pages. We can’t help reading about pets in co-ops, which Brooklyn neighborhood is next on the hot list, and of course who paid how much for what.
Every Sunday, the Times singles out a town or neighborhood for its “Living In” feature. This Sunday, it will be Saugatuck.
Bridge Square rocked last September, at the “Slice of Saugatuck” festival. (Photo by Terry Cosgrave)
Titled “What I-95 Hasn’t Put Asunder,” it describes the mid-1950s construction of the Connecticut Turnpike as “a battering ram.”
Houses came down; so did a church. Blacktop replaced Turtle Pond, a favorite place to ice-skate. A rumbling overpass halved Franklin Street, a residential locus for Italian-Americans (who today account for about 20 percent of the population).
“You know that progress has to happen,” said Cathy Romano, whose childhood home, a porch-wrapped wood-frame house on West Ferry Lane, became a dorm for highway builders before being razed for a parking lot. “But it was traumatic.”
Yet Saugatuck — which before the Italians arrived was the commercial center of Westport — has reinvented itself. And the Times takes notice.
Bustling and dense, with a number of restaurants and some shops, Saugatuck can feel almost urban, especially when compared with leafier, sleepier Westport areas like Coleytown, which has two-acre residential zoning. But there are plenty of people who would rather be squeezed in than spread out.
Yards away from the bustle, a serene Saugatuck scene. (Photo by Bobbi Liepolt)
The piece describes the Gault family’s “$18 million attempt to ease the effects of I-95’s divisive presence: Saugatuck Center, a mixed-use four-acre redevelopment project….In a community with hardly any housing beyond single-family homes, 27 new apartments amount to a lot.”
The Times includes Saugatuck Shores in its Saugatuck roundup, which seems a stretch. But here’s the connection:
Recovery of another kind is on the minds of some homeowners in Saugatuck Shores, a low-lying, compressed area. Hurricane Sandy dealt it a punishing blow, as have other big storms.
The houses perched atop carports seem to have come out unscathed. But more modest properties — especially along Harbor Road, which is separated from Long Island Sound by a jumble of boulders — seem hurt. On a recent visit, a few had plywood in their windows, and the storm had strewn oysters across lawns.
Hurricane Sandy devastated Saugatuck Shores.
Because this is the Times real estate section, money matters. Readers learn that the most expensive home on the market — a 5-bedroom 2000 colonial on a 2-acre waterfront lot with a tennis court — is listed at $10.99 million.
Last year, the average price for all 29 single-family homes sold in Saugatuck was $1.22 million. Hopefully, some of those sales were by families who held on — and thrived — in the decades after I-95 sliced through.
Finally — buried at the end of the story — was some intriguing news. There are 1,064 reserved parking lots at the train station, and the waiting list is 4 years. But — who knew? — the town is planning “an online effort to cull outdated names.”
(Click here to read the entire New York Times story on “Living In Saugatuck.”)
For many people, the Black Duck epitomizes Saugatuck. (Photo by John Kantor)
“The Whelk” is the name of the newest restaurant in town. Located across from the old Doc’s on Riverside Avenue, it’s the latest addition to the funky mix of Italian, Mexican, seafood, steak and Mario Batali-type places that are fast making Saugatuck an actual lively place to be.
The owner’s name — Bill Taibe — is familiar. He also owns leFarm, the highly acclaimed Colonial Green restaurant offering fantastic local produce, fish and meats.
Bill Taibe serves up his octopus, squid and fries in beef gravy dish.
His newest venture is similar — much of the food is locally sourced — but very different. The Whelk’s menu spotlights oysters, clams and shrimp.
There’s smoked fish pate, salmon jerky and lobster rolls, along with chilled seafood salads, a tuna burger and blackened fish sandwiches. I recommend the spectacular (and innovative) octopus, squid and fries in beef gravy.
Meat (for dishes like the lamb burger) comes from just across the plaza — the mouth-watering Craft Butchery — while general manager Massimo Tulio (you know him from Fat Cat Pie and Fountainhead) has designed an extensive list of hand-crafted wines. “All the growers have their hands in making it,” he says proudly. “There’s nothing with chemicals.”
Like the rest of the Saugatuck development, The Whelk is light and airy. There’s a long white marble bar, a couple of large communal tables, then plenty of window tables. There will be outside dining too (whenever).
Last night, the place was filled for a private party. Bill plans a soft opening next week. It should fill quickly, as many new restaurants do.
But The Whelk will have staying power. And when spring and summer finally arrive, it and the entire Saugatuck neighborhood — including a new Asian cuisine and sushi bistro around the corner in the former Peter’s Bridge Market — will be rockin’.
They’ll do it 2012-style. But in many other ways, Saugatuck will be just as alive as it was 50 or 100 years ago.
If the battle for Westport’s heart was a prizefight, today Saugatuck knocked downtown out of the ring.
Or — to put it another, perhaps more maritime way — the original business center of Westport blew the long-time reigning champ out of the water.
The 1st annual Slice of Saugatuck Festival — the brainchild of area resident Matthew Mandell, with the collaboration of dozens of restaurants and stores — drew thousands of residents to that pizza slice-shaped, still semi-Italian, and fairly funky neighborhood.
EMTs eat well, thanks to the Saugatuck Rowing Club's Boathouse chef.
Free food (and beer, wine and margaritas) were a main attraction. But there was much more: music, kayaking, hairstyling, fire truck sitting, fly fishing, tae kwan do, people-watching…
In other words: fun.
Down Under offered free kayaking, on a gorgeous afternoon.
I’m a native Westporter. I’ve always loved Saugatuck. But until today — when I strolled its very stroll-able streets, and wandered its alleys and shortcuts — I didn’t really think about how much is packed into that small space.
The range of restaurants — from the Black Duck to the Boathouse; Mansion to Mario’s; Rizzuto’s to Tarry Lodge and Viva’s — is remarkable. There’s room for Saugatuck Grain and Grape, plus Saugatuck Wine & Spirits.
And — as the 2nd phase of redevelopment begins — there’s even room to grow.
Of course, new projects are planned for downtown too. From the Church Lane restaurant/retail complex to National Hall across the river — and, at some point, whatever replaces the Y — new restaurants and businesses could bring refreshing energy to that much-maligned area of town.
Riverside Avenue or Main Street? The real fight may just have begun.
Music was a key element of Slice of Saugatuck. This duo performed outside Rizzuto's Restaurant.
Outdoor tables were a prime attraction at Tutti's.
Near Mario's, this bench bore a sign: "Yankee's Fans. Bullpen bench from the original Yankee Stadium. $7,500. See Fred."
The line was long outside Tarry Lodge. Great appetizers served by roving waiters eased the wait.
A lack of volunteers and sponsors doomed the 27-year-old institution — itself a revival of the long-running St. Anthony’s Feast.
But Westporters are intrepid. And though the carnival rides, fried dough and Johnny Maestro are gone, we can have our own Italian Fest this summer.
Or at least, we can celebrate the reason we had a festival in the first place: Saugatuck.
Rather than riding roller coasters, eating unhealthy food and listening to bands without most of their original members, let’s honor the place that meant so much to so many, for so long.
The Arrow Restaurant was always packed.
You can drive to Saugatuck, and ride along its still-familiar streets. You can walk around, and — though the smells and sounds of the 1930s, ’50s, even the ’70s are gone — still see the remnants of what was once Westport’s most vibrant neighborhood.
Or just sit back, close your eyes, and think back to the days of the Arrow restaurant, Lou Santella’s barber shop, and small grocery stores and other shops everywhere.
Construction of I-95 sliced the Saugatuck community in half.
Think of the grape arbors, plum trees and beautiful gardens of years gone by. Some survived construction of I-95, when it sliced through the heart of this tight-knit community. Many did not.
Recall Dr. Gillette Circle. It’s a strange name — but it memorializes the family doctor who served Saugatuck so well.
Think about the old Sons of Italy hall on Riverside Avenue. Next to it — once upon a time — was a cable grip factory. Nearby were farms, a shirt factory, homes that housed multiple generations and houses with multiple families.
Not far away is the train station. The 2nd set of tracks was built by Italian immigrants. It’s an important part of the community that’s still there.
Carole and Robert DeMaria in Saugatuck (now Luciano) Park. In the background is Esposito's Gulf station (soon to be Mario Batali's Tarry Lodge). On the corner is Arcudi's grocery story (now the 21 Charles Street office building.) (Photo courtesy of Terry Santella Anzalone)
So is Luciano Park. Both the park, and the station parking lot, were apt sites for the Italian Festival when it thrived.
The thousands of fair-goers may not have realized they were standing on a patch of history — that’s tough to do when you’re playing whack-a-mole, scarfing down pizza frites and dancing to do-wop — but it’s the way the world turns.
Still, it doesn’t hurt to think back — particularly this 2nd weekend in July, the traditional date for Festival Italiano — to what it was, and why it was there.
So spend a few minutes remembering the Italian Fest, and its the entire Saugatuck community.
You can travel back there in real life, or go there in your mind’s eye.
“06880” reader Wendy Pieper was in Saugatuck the other day. She did not like what she saw.
We stopped at the light at Peter’s Corner in Saugatuck. (I call it that because Peter’s Market sat at this location for what seemed like forever.)
I’m not sure I would have seen the atrocity if we weren’t stopped for that brief moment, but I glanced up and saw the familiar logo that graces every mile (or less) up and down the Post Road: Dunkin’ Donuts.
I couldn’t believe it. My heart stopped — it literally missed a beat. I was overcome by that feeling you get when you learn someone has died. There were no words; just open-mouth gasping.
I can’t believe Dunkin’ Donuts is in Saugatuck.
My husband and I rented a cottage on Riverside Avenue when we were first married. A quick walk to the train, Viva’s, Peter’s Bridge, Mansion Clam House, the Duck, Desi’s corner, the post office, Depot Liquor, DeRosa’s, etc. What more could you need?
Not a Dunkin’ Donuts, that’s for sure!
There was a charming quality to the Saugatuck area — and there still is, hidden there waiting to blossom again. There is a heart and soul, a feeling of community. It’s something different than downtown, sorta fishy, sorta quirky, definitely a real feel of the river. The last bits of old Westport are there.
We’ve given up so much of this town. Do we have to sacrifice the last parts? Do we really need another faceless, nameless shop? When you’re in a Dunkin’ Donuts you could be in a mall, a truck stop, an airport — a place of nothing, devoid of locale. Heartless.
I can’t tell you how many sandwiches, coffees and egg sandwiches I’ve grabbed from Peter’s. I took them to the beach, or escaped on a boat.
The old Mansion Clam House has a new neighbor.
This little enclave was a place to restock and revive. You’d see everyone there from town on their way to enjoy the beach or Longshore, or off to New York.
The parking lot was always crowded. All the proprietors knew your face. The deli people welcomed you. There was a community. You knew you were in Westport.
I spent a zillion hours at Juba’s (the old coffee spot in Peter’s) when my second daughter was born, trading stories and receiving encouragement from other moms. I assure you you will not find this at Dunkin’ Donuts.
I can’t believe the town approved this. McDonald’s and Arby’s received more scrutiny than this! Did someone get paid off? There was no prior notice, just another operation done under the cover of night — very cloak and dagger.
How is Doc’s going to survive? Don’t we want to see the success of the local businessman?
We deserve more in this town. For such an educated and eclectic group, we are sadly pacified with what is easy and common. Where is our spirit, our individuality? How could we have let this happen to another place? How can we give up Saugatuck to more of the same?
How could the owners of this property ignore the history and charm or Saugatuck? How could they be so short-sighted?
I am so saddened by this, as I’m sure many others are.
That was Wednesday. Wendy had a night to think about Dunkin’ Donuts’ coming to Saugatuck.
Yesterday morning, she was still upset. She wrote again:
I’m just so sad. Once a Dunkin’ Donuts or the like go in to a place, they never leave. You see abandoned stores everywhere, but somehow they manage to stay there with their stale coffee smell, chewy old bagels and napkins scattered on the sidewalk.
Will funky Doc's survive now that DD's has moved in?
It might be time to think of moving. I can’t believe I grew up here, spent every summer on this shore, chose to build my life here with my family, and slowly I watch the decay of town. I just don’t understand. I wish there was something to do. Is it greed?
I find myself in Fairfield more these days, because somehow they have managed to find a balance between the chains and the locals. I’m afraid Westport will soon look and feel like Westchester County. Maybe that’s what everyone wants, and I’m not the norm — my husband points that out to me often.
Am I living in a fantasy world? Too Pollyanna? I point out so many spots to my daughters, and preceding most comments is “There used to be this great place…”
Fill in the blank: Ship’s, Soup’s On, the movie theater. Even the strategic placement of Friendly’s in Playhouse Square was good — you could always find someone there after a movie.
Sorry to lament so early in the morning. Any solution? Is it too far gone?
This Dunkin’ Donuts seems to have put me over the edge. I know I will get over it, move on and and find something wonderful again in town that I love and that keeps me here.
But in the meantime I shall say a prayer that others may feel the same — that we may all try to hold on to our beautiful town, and all that makes it unique and special.
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