At 75, the Merritt Parkway wears its years well. But the parkway, marking three-quarters of a century this year, is more than just a "pretty face" among the nation's highways.
Two exhibits celebrating both the parkway's beauty and its history opened Friday at the Westport Public Library, showcasing the road's iconic architecture and adaptation to the landscape, as well as its pioneering role in the nationwide transportation network. The Merritt, in recognition of those attributes, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and has been designated a National Scenic Byway.
One of the new library exhibits, displayed on the Riverwalk level, are paintings of the parkway by artist Cynthia Mullins, and the other is a retrospective that details the highway's origins, construction, bridge design, landscaping, opening in June 1938 and miscellaneous facts.
Chris Timmons, the library's exhibit coordinator, said, "A year ago, Jill Smyth, executive director of the Merritt Parkway Conservancy, told me about the anniversary and asked if we wanted to do the exhibit," she said. "This has been more than interesting. The history of the Merritt is endlessly fascinating. I drove the parkway for 16 years in a previous position as a book and magazine editor. I always loved it, but didn't know much about it."
Timmons had a particular vision for the show. "At the outset of the exhibit, I wanted to see really big beautiful details of the bridges down our hallways, and wondered where I could get them. I happened to be looking at filmmaker Lisa Seidenberg's `The Road Taken,' about the Merritt. Lisa mentions a photographer who has been documenting the parkway, N.W. Gibbons. I visited his amazing website and then realized that Gibbons -- Nate -- is one of two fire inspectors in Westport."
Timmons contacted Gibbons, who volunteered to reshoot all the bridge details Timmons wanted. He spent three or four weekends shooting to capture 12 photos for the exhibit, which are interspersed between information panels throughout the display.
Timmons also had seen Mullins' paintings at Wendy Nylen's Westport gallery and decided her parkway-themed work should be featured in the exhibit as well.
After all the time spent creating the exhibit, Timmons said, "I drive the Merritt differently now. I hope the show opens others' eyes to its wonders. It's a jewel of a road."
The exhibit spurred many memories among visitors Friday.
Joel Davis, a former president of Westport Library, said, "In 1957, I was courting my wife and we were returning to New York from Boston ... Our car broke down right on the Merritt in Westport. It was a Sunday night and traffic was bumper to bumper. No one stopped at first until a passerby from Springfield shuttled us to a gas station.
"That was my introduction to Westport and we ended up living a mile away from the parkway," he recalled.
Westporter Jean Tighe said, "We lived in Trumbull, near the Merritt, and on Sunday afternoons in the summer in the late '40s, the whole neighborhood would go up on the bridge and watch the traffic go by."
Fairfielder Rochelle Bernold related an unnerving experience: "In 1969, I was driving our '63 Volvo on the Merritt headed north to Fairfield. It was raining heavily and I hit an oil slick and spun around, hitting a tree. Two nuns came over to the car. I thought I was dead, but I wasn't hurt at all it turns out.
"A gentleman stopped to help and drove me home, not knowing who I was or anything," she added.
"Painting the Merritt: Cynthia Mullins Celebrates the Parkway" will be on display through Aug. 15 at the Westport Public Library. "The Merritt Parkway Turn 75: Photographs by N.W. Gibbons" will be exhibited through Sept. 1. For details, check http://www.westportlibrary.org