On the radar? Historic merit of Nike missile installation studied
A snapshot in time from another era of American history rises right in the middle of town, a somewhat unsettling reminder that preservation-minded residents hope to safeguard.
On Tuesday, a small tour group visited the former Nike missile radar facility at 180 Bayberry Lane, in conjunction with a study of the property’s historic status. Industrial archaeologist Bob Stewart of West Suffield, who specializes in Nike facilities’ history, was there to gather information for a report on its historic merit.
“It’s some of the best adaptive use I’ve seen,” he said regarding the Rolnick Observatory, which for several years has been housed in one of the two former radar towers at the top of the hill. “When I write this up I’m going to give some particular attention to this modification,” he said. “It looks like a very successful one.”
The Westport Astronomical Society, which leases space for its observatory from the town, started the ball rolling in November when it requested the Historic District Commission to consider designating the site a local landmark. The study is being funded by a grant from the state Department of Economic and Community Development’s State Historic Preservation Office.
The front section of the site, at one time the barracks and facilities for U.S. Army personnel at the missile base, currently is home for offices of the Westport-Weston Health District, as well as some Town Hall record storage. The town also maintains a yard waste dump on the property.
The property was originally given to the U.S. government by Ralph Sheffer, then-moderator of the Representative Town Meeting, who insisted it be returned to the town if the nation’s Cold War-era military strategy changed. A battery of Nike missiles was sited on North Avenue, in proximity to the radar installation, where Bedford Middle School now stands.
The missiles were deployed as part of a strategy to safeguard the nation’s largest cities and defense facilities against attack, with the greatest threat presumed to be Soviet bombers.
Doug Meier, a third-generation Westporter who helped guide the tour, recounted that his parents had told him how students during that era practiced drills where they ducked under tables at Staples High School for shelter in case of an attack. “They would stand up the missiles at lunchtime, and the drill was you had to get under the tables when you heard the whistle.”
“It was part of the Cold War,” he said.
Selectman Helen Garten, who is helping to spearhead the study, said the site presents a valuable opportunity to the town. “I think education is really the most important thing,” she said, noting that as one of 15 Nike missile sites in the state, “It’s really for the town of Westport to celebrate its history.”
“Westport fought the Nike development here, but unsuccessfully,” she told Stewart as they toured the two large radar towers and grounds. “There are some people around who still remember.”