Woog's World / A vision for the Saugatuck riverfront
Updated 4:10 pm, Thursday, January 17, 2013
Save the Children is up for sale.
Well, not the nearly 100-year-old international aid organization. They'll continue to do good things, in immediate and slow-boiling crises, for kids around the world.
But -- very quietly -- last month Save the Children put its Westport headquarters up for sale.
For the past couple of decades, they've occupied 2.6 acres in a two-story office complex on Wilton Road. It's unobtrusive, easy to miss -- even if you're stuck in traffic, with nothing else to look at -- but the site has quite a history in Westport.
Before Save the Children, 54 Wilton Road was headquarters for Famous Artists School (and its less-famous offspring, Famous Writers School and Famous Photographers School). Thanks to magazine ads and matchbook covers, budding artists, writers and photographers around the world looked to Westport to launch their artistic careers.
Famous Artists began in 1947. Albert Dorne -- a very successful illustrator -- gathered famous peers, including Norman Rockwell, Stevan Dohanos, Al Parker, Ben Stahl, Harold von Schmidt and Austin Briggs to create a learn-at-home, send-stuff-in-and-get-our-famous-input instruction course.
Some of the famous artists lived in Westport, so our town was a no-brainer for the headquarters/post office drop. The original site was the Old Sasco Mill Building on the Post Road at the Southport border. But the lure of instruction by famous artists was great, so as the number of wannabe artists boomed, the company soon needed new space. Wilton Road was the perfect spot.
At one point, Westport was headquarters for 800 salesmen. There were 55 "faculty members," and -- with 65,000 enrollees (many on the GI Bill), a rather daunting student-to-staff ratio of 1,181-to-1.
But a series of poor acquisitions, the sudden death of founder Al Dorne, an economic recession and a very negative story in Harper's Magazine brought Famous Artists down to earth. Famous Artists filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 1971. Two years later, a Philadelphia plumbing company bought the business.
Yet Famous Artists School still lives. Cortina Learning International acquired the company in 1981. In 1990, the offices moved from Riverside Avenue -- where they'd downsized, after Wilton Road -- to Newtown Turnpike. In 1995, Famous Artists decamped to Wilton. They're there today, with a warehouse and shipping facility in Danbury.
Westport never knew quite what to make of Famous Artists School (and the many famous artists, writers and photographers who worked there, or lent their name to it). The famous artists were a visible presence in town, hanging out at restaurants, drinking at bars and popping up at parties.
They were creative, lively and fun, and they added to Westport's reputation as a famous "artists' colony."
Yet there was always a whiff of something unseemly about Famous Artists School. There was the commercial aspect of "selling" art -- particularly, selling the idea that anyone who paid money could learn how to become a famous artist, writer or photographer. The rather cheesy ads -- including late-night TV -- did not help.
Save the Children has no such problem. The organization enjoys a stellar reputation, and it's been a good corporate citizen. Executives have been quick to help local causes, in a host of ways.
But as good as Save the Children is for the town, no one has ever said it's a beautiful building.
It's big. It's boxy. It blocks what otherwise would be a nice view of the Saugatuck River. If you're standing in Parker Harding Plaza -- admittedly, no architectural gem itself -- it dominates the west bank.
So, as Save the Children prepares to depart, Westport has a rare opportunity to seize back at least a portion of the river.
Rumors on the street -- that's just a phrase; we're not actually talking about Wilton Road -- point to possible development of the site as townhouses. That would mean, presumably, demolition of the existing structure. We'd get a chance to create a bit of open space that would benefit new residents, and anyone driving past.
Lou Gagliano, chairman of the Downtown 2020 committee that's exploring new town plans -- including traffic patterns -- would love to jumpstart a discussion involving a pedestrian bridge across the Saugatuck. Such a bridge would be a huge selling point for residential development on the Save the Children site. At the same time, it would be a boon to merchants on both sides of the river.
The Saugatuck is one of Westport's town jewels. Ever since the wharves disappeared, though -- and, later, a parking lot was built on landfill behind Main Street -- we haven't done much with it.
In fact, even though famous artists (lowercase and capitalized) worked right on the river, it wasn't something they ever thought about painting.
Now -- as Save the Children gets ready to leave -- we have a chance to go back to the drawing board.