Tag Archives: Stony Point

Shakespeare’s Stratford And Westport: A Twice-Told Tale

Early Sunday morning, fire destroyed the American Shakespeare Festival Theater in Stratford.

News reports noted that the 1,500-seat venue — modeled after London’s Globe Theater — hosted performances by Katharine Hepburn, Helen Hayes and Christopher Walken.

When the theater thrived, its garden on the banks of the Housatonic River featured a garden with 81 species of plants mentioned in the Bard’s plays.

The American Shakespeare Festival Theater in Stratford, in its heyday.

Papers reported too that the idea for the theater came from Lawrence Langner. It was not his first rodeo. In 1930 — 25 years before developing the Stratford venue — the Weston resident turned an apple orchard and old tannery into the Westport Country Playhouse.

But Westport’s connection to the American Shakespeare Festival Theater runs far deeper than that.

In fact, our town was almost its home.

In 2014 I posted a story that began with a note from Ann Sheffer. The Westport civic volunteer and philanthropist — who had a particular fondness for the Playhouse, where she interned as a Staples High School student — had sent me an old clipping that told the fascinating back story of Stony Point. That’s the winding riverfront peninsula with an entrance directly off the train station parking lot, where Ann and her husband Bill Scheffler then lived.

Stony Point today (left of the river). The train station and tracks are at top.

Stony Point today (left of the river). The train station and tracks are at top.

Written in 1977, the Westport News piece by longtime resident Shirley Land described a New York banker, his wife and 2 daughters. They lived in a handsome Victorian mansion with “turrets and filigree curlicues.” The grounds included an enormous carriage house, gardener’s cottage, barn and hothouse.

It was the Cockeroft family’s country home, built around 1890. They traveled there by steam launch from New York City, tying up at a Stony Point boathouse.

After the daughters inherited the home, the New York, New Haven & Hartford railroad purchased some of the land for a new train station. (The original one was on the other side of the river.)

The 2nd daughter bequeathed the estate to the Hospital for the  Crippled and Ruptured (whose name was later changed, mercifully, to the New York Hospital for Special Surgery).

But the property fell into disuse. Eventually the hospital sold Stony Point to real estate developers.

Which brings us to Shakespeare.

Around 1950 Langner, Lincoln Kirstein of Lincoln Center and arts patron Joseph Verner Reed had audacious plans. They wanted to build an American Shakespeare Theatre and Academy.

And they wanted it on Stony Point. Proximity to the train station was a major piece of the plan.

The price for all 21 acres: $200,000.

But, Land wrote, “the hand of fate and the town fathers combined to defeat the efforts of the theatre people.” Many residents objected. There were also concerns that it would draw audiences away from the Westport Country Playhouse. (Others argued that a Shakespeare Theatre would enhance the town’s reputation as an arts community.)

The theater was never built in Westport. It opened a few miles away –in the aptly named town of Stratford — in 1955.

It achieved moderate success there. But in 1982 the theater ran out of money (and backers). The state of Connecticut took ownership. It closed in 1985.

The garden turned into weeds. The theater grew moldy. The stage where renowned actors once performed the world’s greatest plays was taken over by raccoons.

The entrance to Stony Point.

The entrance to Stony Point.

Meanwhile, in 1956 Westporters Leo Nevas and Nat Greenberg, along with Hartford’s Louis Fox, bought the Stony Point property for residential development.

It’s now considered one of the town’s choicest addresses. A recent listing for one home there was $14 million.

That’s quite a story. We can only imagine what might have happened had Westporters decided to support — rather than oppose — the American Shakespeare Festival Theater in Westport.

Then again, as a famous playwright once said: “It is not in the stars to hold our destiny, but in ourselves.”

Photo Challenge #211

Our 1st-ever “4-fer” Photo Challenge showed a quartet of ads. All were shot in the 1950s and ’60s by photographer Bill Bell — longtime Westporter Bobbi Liepolt’s father — for the Dunbar furniture campaign. (Click here to see.)

The photos showed, in order:

  • Kathleen Laycock School on Beachside Avenue (now Greens Farms Academy)
  • Fairfield County Hunt Club
  • Nyala Farm, off Greens Farms Road
  • The Stony Point home of Leopold Godowsky (a concert violinist who helped develop Kodacolor and Ektachrome) and his wife, Frankie Gershwin (George and Ira’s younger sister, and a noted painter).

The first 3 sites are all still in Westport, in more or less the same condition (despite, in Nyala Farms’ case, the construction of a massive office building for Stauffer Chemicals’ world headquarters).

The Godowsky home was torn down in 2009, to make way for a larger, more modern home.

No one got all 4 right. The school was the easiest; Andrew Colabella, Dana Brownell, Barbara Sherburne, Rick Leonard and Bob Grant all quickly identified the iconic, Ivy League-looking main building.

The Hunt Club seemed to be the second easiest. Fred Cantor and Rick Leonard got that one.

It took a while to identify Nyala Farm and Stony Point — but Evan Stein got ’em both. Congrats to all!

This week, we “welcome” old and new readers with this Photo Challenge:

(Photo/Seth Schachter)

If you know where in Westport you’d see this, click “Comments” below.

Kunepiam

Ed and Cameron Castillo have lived in Westport less than 4 months.

But they’re discovering a lot about their new town. Thanks to “06880,” for example, they learned the history of their home: the carriage house for The Cockeroft family’s country estate on Stony Point Road, that hidden gem on the west side of the train station.

(The red door that separates their yard from the parking lot makes for a fantastic commute, Ed jokes.)

But one thing stumps them: an engraving just above the door, on the side facing the station.

Kunepiam

“Kunepiam,” it reads — surrounded by what look like Native American pictograms, and perhaps settlers.

Ed’s Google search for “Kunepiam” returned absolutely nothing.

So he’s turning to an even better source: the “06880” crowd.

If you know what the word means — or where the engraving comes from — click “Comments.”

And that traffic jam you see the next time at the station, near Ed and Cameron’s house? That’s the “06880” crowd too, looking even more closely at this mystery.

Hark! Shakespeare Didst Nearly Come To Stony Point

In many communities, no one wants to live next to the railroad station.

Westport is not “many communities.” Here, Stony Point is one of the most desirable spots in town.

Ann Sheffer — a longtime resident of that winding, riverfront peninsula whose entrance is directly off the train station parking lot — sent along a Westport News clipping that tells the fascinating back story of Stony Point.

Stony Point today (left of the river). The train station and tracks are at top.

Stony Point today (left of the river). The train station and tracks are at top.

Written in 1977 by Shirley Land — who knew everything about everything — it describes a New York banker, his wife and 2 daughters. They lived in a handsome Victorian mansion with “turrets and filigree curlicues.” The grounds included an enormous carriage house, gardener’s cottage, barn and hothouse.

It was the Cockeroft family’s country home, built around 1890. They traveled there by steam launch from New York City, tying up at a Stony Point boathouse.

The Cockerofts’ was one of “the 3 great showplaces” in Westport. The other 2 were the Hockanum mansion on Cross Highway, and the Meads’ estate on Hillspoint.

After the daughters inherited the home, the New York, New Haven & Hartford railroad inquired about purchasing some of the land for a new train station. (The original one was on the other side of the river.)

The sisters agreed, but only if the railroad built a solid brick wall, 1675 feet long, to provide privacy and quiet.

The Stony Point wall today. It separates the peninsula from the train station.

The Stony Point wall today. It separates the peninsula from the train station.

When the 2nd daughter died, she bequeathed the estate to the Hospital for the  Crippled and Ruptured (whose name was later changed, mercifully, to the New York Hospital for Special Surgery).

But the property fell into disuse. Eventually the hospital sold Stony Point to Birmingham and Asti, real estate developers.

Around 1950, Lawrence Langner of the Theatre Guild, Lincoln Kirstein of Lincoln Center and arts patron Joseph Verner Reed tried to build an American Shakespeare Theatre and Academy there. Proximity to the train station was a major piece of the plan.

The price for all 21 acres: $200,000.

But, Land wrote, “the hand of fate and the town fathers combined to defeat the efforts of the theatre people.” Many residents objected. There were also concerns that it would draw audiences away from the Westport Country Playhouse. (Others argued that a Shakespeare Theatre would enhance the town’s reputation as an arts community.)

The theater was never built in Westport. It opened in the aptly named town of Stratford, Connecticut in 1955, and was moderately successful until ceasing operations 30 years later.

In Westport, the Cockeroft estate remained empty.

The entrance to Stony Point.

The entrance to Stony Point.

In 1956 Westporters Leo Nevas and Nat Greenberg, along with Hartford’s Louis Fox, bought the property for residential development. Before they could start, however, vandals attacked the main house. They ripped out bathtubs, hacked up fireplaces, and smashed mirrors and statues. The developers asked the fire department to burn what remained to the ground.

All that remains of the original estate, Land wrote, is “the charming gate house, an immaculate gray and white Victorian structure just inside the gate; a pair of antique marble urns on the site of the old mansion where a newer home now stands; and the fine carriage house-garage, remodeled to be sure, but bearing the visible imprint of bygone grandeur.”

Oh, and a few small doors set into the long brick wall. Once upon a time, they must have provided an amazing view.