Honoring prominent, but forgotten Westporters
It wasn’t exactly paving paradise to put up a parking lot. It was just a popular restaurant — Villa del Sol — that was part of a land swap. There’s now more parking next to Bedford Square; in exchange, a retail complex with a few apartments is rising across Elm Street, in the Baldwin Parking Lot behind Brooks Corner.
There’s a lot of names there. Bedford, Baldwin, Brooks — they all honor prominent Westporters. Soon, the new lot may have a name too.
As Lynandro Simmons reported last week here in the Westport News, the Board of Selectman has approved honoring Sigrid Schultz, an often-overlooked Westporter, at 36 Elm Street. She was a pioneering female war correspondent, broadcaster and author who risked her life to expose Nazi secrets to the world. She hid her Jewish heritage from the likes of Hitler, Goering and Goebbels, whom she loathed but entertained in her Berlin home for the sole purpose of extracting information.
After Schultz and her mother fled Germany in 1939, they bought a house and barn at 35 Elm Street.She lived there until her death in 1980. It was demolished soon after she died.
The parking lot naming proposal now goes to the Representative Town Meeting, next month. It’s unclear whether Sigrid Schultz would appreciate the gesture — she seems to have kept a low profile regarding her professional accomplishments, though she was active in town affairs — but one thing seems certain: Westporters like to name things after their neighbors.
Baldwin parking lot — where Schultz’s home once stood, where the Kemper-Gunn House (see what I mean about names?) was moved, and where new construction is now taking place — was named for Herb Baldwin. A Westport native, apple farmer and former RTM moderator, he was elected first selectman in 1957. His five two-year terms were notable for his handling of the town’s explosive growth, and the purchase — pushed through several town bodies in a breathtaking 19 days — of the private Longshore Club, for usea town-owned facility.
How his decades of public service translate into being honored with a parking lot has been lost in the mists of history. But while the Baldwin lot is not exactly beautiful or beloved, at least it’s not loathed. Parker Harding Plaza — the broad expanse of asphalt between the Saugatuck River and stores on the west side of Main Street — is one of those places that Westporterslove to hate.
For good reason. It’s ugly. It’s difficult to navigate. And it separates the river from the rest of downtown.
It is, however, the perfect symbol for Westport in the 1950s. The postwar suburban boom — more families! more cars! more consumerism! — demanded action. So the river — which lapped up against the backs of hardware stores, markets and restaurants — was filled in, altering our town forever. The plan was championed by selectman Emerson Parker and Planning and Zoning commissioner Evan Harding. Their names live on, unfortunately, in infamy, though sometimes their creation is called Harder Parking Plaza.
Back across Main Street, meanwhile — and backing up to the back of stores on the east side — is Brooks Corner. ManyWestportersthink it’s named for longtime tenant Brooks Brothers. Good guess - but wrong.
The mini-shopping center by the corner of Elm Street carries the name of its developer, B.V. Brooks. He made his mark on Westport by developing bigger parcels of land — Compo Shopping Center, for example, and Westfair Village (the shops, as well as the roads behind it). But it’s the stores and offices downtown that bear his name — and that bear a connection to this newspaper.
Brooks’ son B.V. Jr. — nicknamed Dexter — established theWestport News in 1964. It was an upstart publication, taking on the established Westport Town Crier. Brooks founded the paper to give a voice to the “Taxpayers” wing of the Republican party. They were dissatisfied with the policies of the Republicans who were then in power — led, of course, by First Selectman Herb Baldwin.
For its first few decades, theWestport News was headquartered in Brooks Corner — first on the ground floor, then on the second. (It later moved around the corner, to Sconset Square; now, after being acquired by Hearst Media, the office is in Norwalk.) But think of the irony: Employees of the newspaper formed to oppose Baldwin parked in the Baldwin lot.
Not all the places named for Westporters have such rich history. Some, like Luciano Park and Pasacreta Park, honor police officers. Grace Salmon Park on Imperial Avenue is named for a founder of the nearby Westport Woman’s Club.
How many of those once-famous names did you know? And — before this column — had you ever heard of Sigrid Schultz?
Now you have.
Dan Woog is a Westport writer, and his “Woog's World” appears each Friday. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His personal blog is danwoog06880.com.