Last week’s Photo Challenge’s honored Sigrid Schultz.
As the Chicago Tribune‘s Berlin bureau chief — the first female bureau chief of any major newspaper, anywhere — the pioneering reporter, social justice activist and longtime Westporter played a key role in exposing the growing Nazi threat during the lead-up to the war, and beyond.
A plaque memorializing her was unveiled last year, near her former residence. (Click here for the photo.) Where, the Challenge asked, was that?
The plaque is at Serena & Lily — the lifestyle store in the former Kemper Gunn House. It was moved across Elm Street in 2014, to make way for Bedford Square.
Schultz lived a bit behind the site of the present store, in what is now the Baldwin parking lot. Her home was demolished, to make way for cars.
Dick Lowenstein notes that in 2019 the RTM unanimously named the area “Sigrid Schultz Plaza,” though there is no signage to that effect.
Others who identified the site correctly were Fred Cantor, Linda V. Velez, Wendy Cusick, Wendy Schaefer and Judy Reid.
This week’s Photo Challenge is another plaque. It’s appropriate, because tomorrow is Presidents Day.
If you know where in Westport we honor our first president — and why there’s a Westport tie to him — click “Comments” below.
A year and a half ago, the New York Times said Bleecker Street “looks like a Rust Belt city.”
On 5 blocks from Christopher Street to Bank Street, more than a dozen storefronts sat empty.
“Where textured-leather totes and cashmere scarves once beckoned to passers-by,” the paper reported, “the windows are now covered with brown construction paper, with ‘For Lease’ signs and directives to ‘Please visit us at our other locations.'”
Eighteen months after its obituary, that same 5-block stretch of the West Village is “full of cool, vibrant people doing interesting things.”
“Big-name luxury labels” are gone. Their storefronts are now filled with “young, digitally native brands….a well-curated mix of small brands with big ideas.” Many are run by women.
Hill House Home on Bleecker Street shows that a bit of creativity can produce wonders — and entice shoppers. (Photo/Stefania Curto for New York Times)
The sudden switch was no accident. Brookfield Properties bought 4 properties with 7 storefronts last April — “after exorbitant rents and a dearth of shoppers had driven out most of the businesses.” The new owners “immediately set to work rethinking the landscape.”
A creative strategy firm helped plan short-term leases — and revenue sharing.
Nell Diamond — the founder of bedding and bath retailer Hill House Home, an early arrival — did not believe retail was dead.
“Bad retail is dead,” she clarified.
Bleecker Street’s new stores have become destinations — and community centers. They offer hot cocoa, and host podcasts, educational events and book club meetings. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand held a book signing at Lingua Franca, which sells cashmere sweaters hand-stitched with political slogans.
So why is “06880” highlighting a story about 10012?
Because some of the descriptions about last year’s Bleecker Street resonate with this year’s Main Street.
There are some great, fun stores downtown. You can lose yourself — and find nearly every gift you need — at Savvy + Grace, and The Brownstone. Bedford Square is filled with shops like Savannah Bee Company. Serena & Lily has brought new energy and creativity too.
Serena & Lily draws crowds of shoppers, just off Main Street.
But there are too many “windows covered with brown construction paper.” Landlords still hold out for sky-high rents, and refuse to consider options like short-term leases and revenue sharing.
I know, I know. Apples and oranges. Westport is not New York. Main Street will never have the foot traffic of Bleecker Street.
But we don’t need all those empty storefronts either.
If Greenwich Village can find a way out of its retail doldrums, our village can too.
(Click here for the full New York Times story. Hat tip: Michelle Sinclair Colman)
Two years ago, when Bedford Square developer David Waldman proposed a deal to save Kemper-Gunn — moving the 1889 Queen Anne Victorian house from Church Lane to the Baldwin parking lot — the town imposed several conditions.
One was that he could not rent to a retail tenant operating more than 5 stores.
Serena & Lily — a California-based lifestyle and home decor brand with branches in the Hamptons, San Francisco and Los Angeles — was interested.
Aaron Mutscheller flew east from Sausalito headquarters. His first impression of Westport — driving over the Saugatuck River bridge — was great.
Then he saw the building.
“It was dark and smelly,” he recalls. “There was a dropped ceiling, falling plaster and rotten shag rugs. It hadn’t been touched in years.”
But Mutscheller is not the chief creative officer for nothing. He poked around the old house. He traveled around Westport. Gradually, he realized that Serena & Lily could make the property as unique — and different — as its other 3.
Serena herself — Dugan, co-founder and chief design officer — was not so sure. She thought it was haunted.
But she trusted Mutscheller. The deal was done.
Now — 23 months later — the public is about to see what Mutscheller and Dugan have done.
It’s pretty impressive.
Serena & Lily, ready to open on Elm Street.
The duo (and their team) have turned a 19th-century house into a 21st century design destination.
Mutscheller calls the building “our way of saying ‘we get Westport. Here’s our version of it.'”
Which means what, exactly?
“Westport doesn’t feel like the West Coast perspective of Connecticut,” he explains. “It’s not a hedge fund town. It’s really an eclectic mix of lively, creative people.”
Mutscheller hopes that Westporters see the repurposed old house — now a bright, fun retail store — and realize they can update their own living space.
“Change happens. But it doesn’t have to involve demolition,” Mutscheller says. “You can do a 2.0 version, without tearing everything down to the ground.”
Dugan adds, “We’ve paid a lot of respect to the original architecture. But we’ve made it applicable to today’s living. We’ve tried to show we can blur the lines and evolve, in an honest way.”
A fireplace and mantel in the Kemper-Gunn House has been beautifully preserved.
The Serena & Lily renovation was complete, and careful. Stained glass windows and casework were preserved, beams uncovered. Crown molding shows off the hand-carved center staircase. Rooms were opened up, creating a fresh, clean look — without sacrificing the building’s great old bones.
The store’s products — bedding, bath, furniture, fabric, rugs, lighting, nursery and art — are shown in actual settings like a dining room, living room and bedroom.
The 1st floor features a kitchen and nook. A swatch-filled design shop on the 2nd floor is where designers work with customers. The 3rd floor — formerly an unused attic — was transformed into a dramatic “kids’ space,” filled with funky delights.
The original windows enhance the new Serena & Lily.
Serena & Lily enjoys a unique position in town. They occupy prime downtown real estate. They’re the 1st tenants of Bedford Square (sort of). They bridge old Westport, and new.
They take that role seriously. They’re sponsoring an artist for next month’s Art About Town. They’ll contribute to organizations like Near & Far Aid (15% of all sales this weekend), Project Return and Pink Aid.
Before that though, they’ll welcome Westporters. The official opening is tomorrow (Friday, April 29). There’s a ribbon-cutting (9:30 a.m.), and a weekend filled with balloons and face painting, coffee and treats from SoNo Baking, a gelato cart and more.
Westport watched warily as the Kemper-Gunn House was saved. We watched with wonder as it was moved into the parking lot. We worried what would come next.
Now we know.
But don’t take my word for it. Check out the old/new building for yourself. See what a bit of vision and creativity can do to a place that — just a couple of years ago — seemed not only doomed, but haunted.
Click here to help support “06880” via credit card or PayPal. Any amount is welcome — and appreciated! Reader contributions keep this blog going. (Alternate methods: Please send a check to: Dan Woog, 301 Post Road East, Westport, CT 06880. Or use Venmo: @DanWoog06880. Or Zelle: email@example.com. Thanks!)