For 40 seasons, the Levitt Pavilion for the Performing Arts has drawn thousands of people for an eclectic mix of outdoor entertainment each summer. Now, after years of planning, construction is underway on a new Levitt Pavilion complex, behind the Westport Library, on the banks of the Saugatuck River.
A ceremonial groundbreaking ceremony, attended by Levitt administrators and supporters, as well as town officials, took place Monday afternoon. Preliminary site preparation began several weeks ago.
Mimi Levitt, who with her late husband Mortimer were primary benefactors of the original pavilion, was on hand for the occasion and was cited for her continued support.
"This has been a long time coming," said First Selectman Gordon Joseloff. He joked that it's unusual to have so many wait so long and spend so much money "to dig up a garbage pit." The pavilion is being built on a site of a former landfill and fill from that facility -- which has been dug up and piled high and topped with plastic -- served as a backdrop for the event.
Joseloff also complimented those who put their time and effort into running the events at the pavilion, in particular mother and daughter: Freda and Carleigh Welsh, who mange the pavilion, where nearly all of the presentations are open free of charge. "This is an example of the dedication of these two ladies"
Joseloff said the new pavilion and other plans for downtown Westport, including tentative plans to rebuild the library, plus a proposal to move the Westport Arts Center nearby, a "cultural renewal" for the town.
State Rep. Jonathon Steinberg agreed.
"There's a lot of buzz in the area about downtown Westport today," he said. "All of these projects" will make downtown a "destination spot."
The project received $950,000 from the state, according to Janet Plotkin, board chairwoman of the Friends of the Levitt Pavilion. Steinberg said "this is the kind of investment I would like to see the state do more of."
The Representative Town Meeting, by a 28-3 vote in August 2012, approved a $1.1 million town appropriation for the pavilion project.
Carleigh Welsh said this "active construction phase" of the project will cost an estimated $6.8 million. Additional funding is still needed, she said, although she said it is "sizeable," she was unsure of the exact amount.
Welsh said Levitt officials hope to open the new venue in time for the start of the 2014 season.
"On any given night, a Grammy Award winner is right in your own backyard -- for free," Welsh told those attending. "Come the next night and you'll encounter a group whose tour stopped at Lincoln Center the night before and will visit the Kennedy Center the night after they are here on our own stage."
She said the Levitt Pavilion is "synonymous with a lot of things; summer, free, music, arts, stars. It's also synonymous with Westport."
The new pavilion complex, designed by Westport-based architect Peter Cadoux, will include a stage under a tensile roof, a covered entry pavilion with restrooms, a food concession and hospitality terrace, a new lawn seating area and an extended riverwalk around the site. To prepare for the new pavilion, the site's original bandshell was taken down in 2007 and replaced by a temporary stage.
Plotkin said that while construction is beginning, "We are not done yet." She said the capital campaign to raise additional funds continues.
"There is an opportunity to make a difference at every level -- and, for the record, I am happy to point out that the new hospitality center that will be built is still an available naming opportunity," she said.
"So see me after this and I will tell you more," she said, drawing laughter from those attending.