This aerial fascinating photo of downtown Westport in the 1930s was posted to Facebook by Bill Stanton.
The view is toward the east (top).
Among the intriguing sights:
At the bottom is National Hall. Just to its north sits a substantial-looking building that must have been torn down long ago. Today it’s the site of Bartaco.
The bridge across the Saugatuck River is much narrower than the current span. The river itself is wider than at present. Parker Harding Plaza has not yet been built. Water laps up against the back of buildings on the west side of Main Street.
The Westport Public Library (now a pop-up art gallery, at 1 Main Street) is the large building just to the left of the eastern end of the bridge.
Look closely (top center). You can see the gas station that is now Vineyard Vines.
Candidates — and their supporters — were out in force early this morning. This crew assembled outside the District 9 polling place: the Westport Library.
Turnout was very light. Then again, it was only 6:30 a.m.
When I noted how quiet the voting area was, someone said, “Well, this is the library!”
The library replaced Saugatuck Elementary School as the District 9 polling place for a complex set of reasons, beginning with the inability of using Kings Highway Elementary for primaries because voters have to walk through the cafeteria. Don’t ask.
And why are ballots cast in the newspaper reading room, not the larger McManus meeting room downstairs?
Because different doors are required for entering and exiting.
It might be the Levitt Pavilion stage. Or maybe years of complaints. Perhaps both.
But this year’s Westport Library Summer Book Sale (July 20-23) comes with a new wrinkle: No more using boxes, or other inanimate objects, to save a spot in line.
Instead, online registration will enable normal people to snag an advance place in line.
Numbers — good for a spot either inside the library, or the tents on Jesup Green — will be available here from noon on Friday, July 12, through noon the next day. Up to 200 people can be accommodated at each venue.
For all others: first-come, first-served.
Don’t worry. With over 80,000 items — hardcover, paperbacks and audiobooks; DVDs, CDs and vinyl — there’s something for everyone.
Though I’m thinking the rare 1610 German Catholic bible, in its original pigskin binding, will go to an early bird.
(The library book sale needs volunteers for set-up, sale days and clean-up July 15-23. Contact Suzy Hooper: firstname.lastname@example.org; 203-434-7344, or click here.)
You can get just about anything at the Westport Library’s book sale. Except a box-reserved space on line.
When Joan Hume earned her master’s degree in English, the commencement speaker said the usual stuff. Joan remembers one line: “Your new life is just beginning.”
She wasn’t sure how true that would be. Graduation Day was also her 50th birthday.
Now, she realizes, “going back to school in the middle of my life gave me new energy. It gave me a very different way of thinking.”
She got a part-time job at the Ridgefield Library, near where she lived. “The director told me I could do whatever I wanted, so long as I didn’t offend more than 70% of the people in town,” she recalls.
Joan wrote newsletters, planned programs, and never crossed that 70% threshold.
After 5 years, she heard that Maxine Bleiweis — director of the Westport Public Library — was looking for a full-time program and community relations head. One qualification: a master’s in library science.
Joan didn’t have it. But she got the job. She started on January 2, 2000 — exactly 2 years after Maxine’s 1st day.
Joan dove into creating programs, designing newsletters and planning development. “It was a very busy job,” she says. “I loved the people. And I learned something new every day.”
This month marks the end of Joan’s Westport Library career. She and her husband are moving to Cincinnati — an interesting city where she has relatives, can make an impact, and spend less than she does in Connecticut.
But leaving will be hard. Westport, she says, “is like a village. I didn’t live here, but people I hardly knew supported me through rough times. They treated me like they’d known me all my life. They gave me wings to fly.” She also loves her colleagues.
In return, the town and library appreciate Joan’s work. They’ve flocked to her programs. One of the most memorable was when Westporter Phil Donahue talked about his documentary on the Afghan war.
“There were veterans in the audience, and things got testy,” Joan remembers. “But Phil made a joke, people laughed, Maxine thanked everyone for coming, and that was the end.”
If there’s been a panel, presentation or discussion in the McManus Room over the past 13 years, odds are that Joan Hume arranged it.
Another tense moment: When Deirdre Imus appeared just days after her husband Don — Phil Donahue’s neighbors, coincidentally — made vulgar remarks about the Rutgers women’s basketball team. Both Imuses arrived with bodyguards. Joan had the Westport police on alert, “just in case.”
Most of her programs are far more mellow — but no less interesting. Her most recent project is the Mini-Maker Faire. “It’s easy to say, ‘Why do something like that?'” she says. “But then you see how it all works, and you know it’s the right thing to do.”
This Friday (6:30 p.m.), the public is invited to say goodbye and thank you to Joan Hume.
But, she says, “I’m the one who should be giving a party for people. They’ve got a contagious energy that has benefited me so much. I’m very lucky to have been able to work here.”
That grad school commencement speaker knew what he was talking about after all.
The iconic building — listed on the National Register of Historic Places — is a perfect counterpoint to the Westport Public Library.
The Pequot Library.
Where our downtown Westport building all hustle and bustle — a hands-on workshop in the Great Hall! language discussion groups! a 3-D printer! Blu-Rays to rent! a cafe! — the tucked-away-in-sleepy Southport Pequot is everything a library used to be. It’s quiet (shhhhh!). Its rooms are cool and musty. Mostly, there are books and (to use a very quaint word) journals.
Westport Library pulses in the image of energetic, innovative director Maxine Bleiweis.
Pequot Library always reminds me of the longtime, legendary Stanley Crane, whose looks, demeanor — even literary-sounding name — came right out of Library Central Casting.
Westport’s library was founded in 1908. Located since 1986 on the river near Jesup Green, it is bright, airy and modern.
Pequot has been around since 1889. It looks like something you’d see on a 19th century New England college campus — or in an old European town — right down to its original Tiffany windows.
There is a place in the world for both the Westport and Pequot Libraries.
But the Pequot Library is in grave danger of closing. Fairfield’s Board of Finance cut all of its funding — $350,000. That’s 1/3 of the total budget. Library officials say there is no way they can raise the entire amount privately. If the cut is not reversed by the RTM on April 22, Pequot will close in July.
In years past, the library has been helped by donations (average gift: $150). In just a few years though, its endowment has declined from $3.2 million to $2.6 million. And $1 million of that is restricted to the rare books collection, not available to fund most operating costs.
Westporters cannot (in good conscience, anyway) plead with Fairfield RTM members to restore funding. But Fairfield residents — some of whom are former Westporters who read “0688o” — can.
Like many non-Fairfielders, I have fond memories of the Pequot Library. I discovered it as a Staples student, writing my junior research paper. I spent hours in the stacks, and went back often in the years after.
If the Fairfield RTM does not restore the $350,000 cut on April 22, I can’t afford to save the Pequot Library. But maybe a few angels in Westport — men and women with similar wonderful experiences there, or who understand its importance to this entire region — have an idea or two.
(Click here for a News12 video on the Pequot Library issue.)
In my time in Westport, I’ve met tons of interesting and unique people. Movie stars, authors, CEOs — they’re all here, and often taken for granted.
But I can’t imagine a greater thrill — or honor — than getting to know Eric von Schmidt.
Eric was one of those bubbling-under-the-surface folks — someone who, for whatever set of reasons, never attained star status, but was far more talented than many super-celebrities.
And Eric did it in 2 very different fields.
Eric von Schmidt, in his folk days.
He first earned renown as an artist. That’s natural — his father, Harold von Schmidt, was a celebrated illustrator. (And a Staples football coach. And a host known for wild parties at his Evergreen Avenue home.)
Eric was selling his artwork while still a Staples student. After a brief stint at the Arts Students League in New York, and service in the Army during the Korean War, he earned a Fulbright Scholarship to study art in Florence.
Back in the States, he ended up in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He painted, and hung out in coffeehouses.
As a teenager — hearing Leadbelly sing “Goodnight Irene” on the Grand Ole Opry radio show — Eric had gotten into old blues and folk songs. His mother, Forest Gilmore, encouraged him to visit the Library of Congress, where he discovered archival blues music.
Eric’s timing was perfect. In the late ’50s Cambridge was filled with exciting young performers, like Joan Baez. Tom Rush called him a major influence.
Bob Dylan did more. In his 1962 debut album, Dylan — with whom he’d “traded harmonica licks, drank red wine and played croquet” — credited “Ric” with teaching him “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down.”
Eric wrote songs like “Joshua Gone Barbados.” He recorded 8 albums, with the likes of Richard Fariña. His “Folk Blues of Eric von Schmidt” sits atop of the records on the cover of Dylan’s “Bringing It All Back Home.” In 1965, when Dylan shocked his fans by going electric at the Newport Folk Festival, Eric played there too.
Eric von Schmidt created this cover art for his own 1977 album.
Meanwhile, he was painting and drawing. Eric created record covers, children’s books, and more.
His works got bigger and grander. In 1976 — the centennial of Little Bighorn — he completed 6 years of work on”Here Fell Custer.” An enormous acrylic work, and the product of prodigious research, it was chosen by the National Park Service as the official depiction of General George Custer’s infamous “last stand.” Action-packed, but filled with intricate details, it is now displayed at Last Stand Hill, and in the NPS brochure. Why it is not nationally well known is beyond me.
A few small details from Eric von Schmidt’s “Here Fell Custer.”
Eric went on to research and paint 2 more large historical works: “Osceola and the Treaty of Seminole Removal” and “The Storming of the Alamo.” Both are as stunning as “Custer.”
Then there is “Giants of the Blues.” The 7 large canvases portray the evolution of American music, from delta music through jazz, bluesmen like Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker, Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters, the Memphis influence and much more.
“Blues Piano Players” — one of 7 wonderful works that make up “Giants of the Blues.”
It is truly spectacular. There was talk of donating it to the Smithsonian.
Instead it hangs in the Staples High School auditorium lobby. Students pass by every day; theatergoers see it on their way to shows. Hardly anyone realizes its significance — or thinks about the artist.
I think about Eric von Schmidt often. I was fortunate enough to know him, late in his life. He’d moved back to Westport in the mid-1980s, after his parents (“Reb” and “Von”) died.
Eric von Schmidt, with “Storming the Alamo.” (Photo by George R. Janecek)
He spent most of his time in his Evergreen studio. It was a magical place. Canvases — completed, half-finished, mere sketches — hung in every nook and cranny. Brushes, palettes and every kind of art implement filled the rest of the space.
There was also a bed. Eric rented out “The Big House,” and lived in his studio.
He’d lost his vocal cords to throat cancer a few years earlier. No sadder fate could befall a musician.
Talking was very difficult. He communicated mostly by fax — Eric never liked computers — and he was in pain from a new nemesis: Lyme disease.
But he kept working. He was excited by a Lewis and Clark project. He was thrilled that “Custer” and “Alamo” were seen on the History Channel.
His daughter Caitlin moved into “The Big House,” and cared for Eric. He fell, broke a hip, had replacement surgery, then suffered a stroke in August 2006. He spent time in hospitals and rehab centers.
Eric von Schmidt
Word got out, in the art and music worlds, that Eric’s health was failing. When he died on February 2, 2007, the news was reported in the New York Times, by AP and on NPR.
Most of the stories focused on his music.
I never heard Eric von Schmidt sing live. I knew him best as an artist. Now, in Westport — at Staples — his art lives on. Even if hardly anyone recognizes it for the remarkable work it is.
Or recognizes the man who lovingly, painstakingly, painted this masterpiece.
Finally, though, some long-overdue recognition comes from the Westport Library. An exhibit of his paintings will be displayed in the Great Hall from tomorrow (Friday, March 29) through June 26. A reception is set for next Friday (April 5), at 6 p.m.
Eric’s art is reason enough to go. But I’d love to hear his music, too.
The gallery and classrooms would create “a cultural campus” downtown, on the river. The WAC has hired architect Henry Myerberg, who is also designed the library’s “transformation” renovation.
The arts center would like a 99-year lease of Jesup Green, Schott reported. The project would include “burrowing” Taylor parking lot into part of the green. That current riverside lot would be replaced with “greenery.”
The new WAC — which officials hope to begin constructing in 2015 — would cost between $5 million and $7 million. Three donors have already pledged several million dollars, Schott reported.
In the summer, the Westport Public Library lends croquet, bocce and badminton equipment, for use on adjacent Jesup Green.
It’s an exciting concept — and it comes at a time when major redevelopment plans are afoot for the entire downtown area.
But a number of questions have been raised.
Aesthetically, how will the area change? Will a new “green” on the flat current parking lot look as nice as gently sloping Jesup Green — with mature trees — does now? What happens when a 10,000-square-foot building — and “burrowed” parking — gets added to the mix?
How about traffic flow? What happens to parking when the library and WAC have big events simultaneously?
Speaking of the library, where will its major fundraiser — the Summer Book Sale — go?
What other options has the WAC looked at? (I already know what certain commenters will say: “Winslow Park!”)
This is the 1st major change to Jesup Green in years — since the library moved next door, in fact. (And eliminated a road that sliced directly through the green — who remembers that?)
Once upon a time, Jesup Green was bordered by a Little League field — and the town dump. Controversial landfill — and construction of the library, Levitt Pavilion and Riverwalk — have enhanced that area immeasurably.
You gotta hand it to Westport. When this town embarks on a project, it’s not half-assed.
Take WestportREADS. The 10th annual program — in which everyone reads the same book, then joins in a month of activities related (sometimes, um, tangentially) to it — begins next month. This year’s selection is The Great Gatsby.
In addition to the usual (a discussion of The American Dream; a reading by Frank Deford; films about the ’20s; a headband-making workshop; Charleston dance lessons, and much more), there’s a talk by former Staples High School English instructor (and Gatsby expert) Dr. Gerry Kuroghlian.
What’s so great about that last one?
Oh, not much. Just that it’s in the house Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald lived in in 1920. Where, it is said, he got the inspiration to write — you guessed it — The Great Gatsby.
F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, in front of what appears to be their Westport home.
I hope there’s wine and cheese. Because being as realistic as possible — bringing back Prohibition — is just not a good idea.
(For the full WestportREADS program of events, click here.)
Its latest project is a new Maker Space, on the main level. Designed as a venue for creativity and production, it’s the 1st of its kind at any library in Connecticut.
The Maker movement — introduced in April at the Library, with a fair that attracted over 2200 people — is a reaction to a long historic period in which innovation and invention were reserved for specialists. As more individuals become inventors, Maker Faires and Spaces are popping up everywhere.
Though not yet in any Connecticut library.
The Westport Library Maker Space will be a place for anyone — and everyone — to create content as well as consume it.
Why the library? According to a press release, the Maker Space — like a library — is “an incubator for ideas and ventures.
“In this era of hands-on learning and interaction, libraries should provide experiences that take people from imagining to actually producing.”
And for those Westporters — you know who you are — who think the town spends too much money on unnecessary “stuff,” Maker movements are seen as economic engines. They encourage entrepreneurs to emerge and thrive.
The Westport Library’s 1st Maker project is the construction of two 15-foot wooden airplanes. Maker-in-residence and builder Joseph Schott invites anyone interested to help him craft these planes this summer. (Two random people have wandered in already, and joined him.)
Additional planning is underway. Library programs will feature talks by “Makers,” including a Westporter who made his own life-sized functional robot.
Also ahead: the purchase of a 3D printer (to print 3-dimensional objects from digital files).
The Westport Library will discuss all this — and more — at a press conference next Monday (July 2, 11:30 a.m.).
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