Woog’s World: Revelations after a walk in a Westport park
Updated 4:35 am, Friday, May 20, 2016
A friend emailed me recently. He’d had some time to kill while waiting for a CVS prescription, and wandered over to Winslow Park. He’s lived in Westport for years. Somehow, though, he’d never walked the 32-acre property that the town bought — saving it from becoming a B. Altman department store and shopping center that would have forever altered how this town works and plays.
My friend was amazed at the varied topography of what has now become one of Fairfield County’s most popular dog runs: rolling meadows, dense forests, wide fields of grass, all linked together by asphalt and dirt paths.
Why asphalt? Back in the mid-19th Century, Winslow Park was a gorgeous estate. Richard Winslow — one of Westport’s most prominent citizens — built a beautiful home on North Compo Road, surrounded by gardens. There were fireworks on July 4, and guests like President James Buchanan.
Years later, long after Winslow died, his mansion became a sanitarium. By the late 1960s and early ’70s it was abandoned, a decaying “Hush … Hush Sweet Charlotte”-type building filled with old straitjackets, dusty medical equipment and falling-apart furniture. It was a creepy place my junior high friends and I dared each other to explore, on our way to and from downtown.
I told my Winslow Park friend all this. He was amazed. But he was he even more surprised when I described another town-owned property, the 22-acre Baron’s South sandwiched between South Compo Road and Imperial Avenue.
Like many Westporters, he’d heard vague mention of the place. He knew it had been considered as a site for elderly housing. But though he drives by it every day, he had no idea exactly where it is. Nor did he know he was free to walk the property whenever he likes (sunrise to sunset, please).
Baron’s South is named for a self-proclaimed “baron,” Walter Langer von Langendorff. The Austrian-born chemist created several iconic perfume scents, including White Shoulders. (The baron also owned, at one time, the land that is now Winslow Park.)
He built a home — Golden Shadows — for his wife, in the middle of the heavily wooded, very hilly South Compo land. The house looks quite dated now — it would be a teardown anywhere else in Westport — but it’s ours. We’re still trying to figure out what to do with the house (and several nearby buildings), as well as all the land. Until we do, my friend — and everyone else — can hike up and down it. Hey, we paid for it!
The town owns several other hidden-in-plain-sight properties. Among them: Grace Salmon Park on Imperial Avenue, across the street and not far from, the Baron’s South entrance; Eugene Pasacreta park, a popular fishing-and-just-sitting spot on Riverside Avenue across from Saugatuck Elementary School, and Luciano Park, the scruffy patch of playground equipment on Charles Street, next to the railroad station parking lot.
Westport is blessed with several other little treasures — tucked away, scarcely known, but open to all. Not all, though, are owned by the town.
For 50 years, Aspetuck Land Trust has preserved more than 1,700 acres of open space — including farm and forest land — in Westport, Weston, Fairfield and Easton.
Eight parcels are in Westport. The biggest is the Newman-Poses Preserve (entrance between 307 and 313 Bayberry Lane). Named in part for — and donated in part by — Paul Newman’s family, it includes woods, wetlands, open fields, stands of old white pines, and trail beside the Aspetuck River.
The Gary and Edna Haskins Preserves — 16 acres on Green Acre Lane, off South Compo — may be the most amazing Aspetuck Land Trust site of all. Nestled in a quiet neighborhood near downtown, the land features woods, meadows, two ponds, a stream, dams, and a spectacular assortment of rare trees. Many were brought back by the Haskinses, from their world travels.
If hedge funds are your thing, check out the Leonard Schine Preserve and Children’s Natural Playground. It’s next to the Glendinning property off Weston Road — now the tranquil headquarters setting for Bridgewater, the world’s largest hedge fund. The play area is constructed of all natural materials: red cedar, logs, saplings and the like. Kids can built forts, dig, climb towers, make nature collages and stack sticks. They (and you) just have to know it’s there.
Other Aspetuck Land Trust properties include the Guard Hill Preserve, not far from Leonard Schine’s spot, on Ford Road; the Eno Marsh Preserve (primarily wetlands, with enormous tulip trees) on Saugatuck Avenue; the Allen Salt Marsh, on the western side of Sherwood Mill Pond; the Hilla von Rebay Arboretum (named for the Guggenheim Museum co-founder) on South Morningside Drive, and Peter’s Gate Preserve (wetlands and a walking trial bordering Fairfield at Sasco Creek).
I didn’t tell my friend all that, of course. He discovered Winslow Park on his own. Let him do the same for so many other Westport treasures.