Woog’s World: Bedford Square is taking shape
Updated 10:54 am, Friday, February 24, 2017
For two years now, Bedford Square has been taking shape. The Kemper-Gunn building was moved across Elm Street, finding new life as an upscale store in a parking lot. The Weeks Pavilion annex of the Westport Weston Family YMCA — a god-awful concrete maze that was outdated the moment it opened in 1978 — met the wrecking ball. The former firehouse finally fell.
Thankfully, the Y’s Bedford building — a handsome Tudor structure that defines the corner of Main Street and the Post Road — has been repurposed. Its welcoming steps remain; so does its distinctive facade. A broader sidewalk gives the building a more majestic setback.
Inside though, much has changed. Workers are finishing the 40,000-square foot Anthropologie store, including a bridal section, that anchors the new complex. A couple of restaurants are coming in. There’s a big courtyard, around which apartments — also in the final stages — will wrap.
A parking garage and series of newly created entrances and exits will change completely the way Westporters view and use downtown. It’s a big change for all of us, and the ribbon-cutting is just a few weeks away.
The original Bedford building dates back to 1923. That’s when E.T. Bedford ponied up $150,000 to replace the old Westport Hotel with a modern gymnasium, pool tables, bowling alleys, and reading and meeting rooms.
That was 94 years ago. So it’s conceivable some people alive today remember — if very dimly — downtown Westport before there was a YMCA.
If so, they would remember a much different downtown. They’d recall a Saugatuck River whose waters lapped up against the backs of Main Street stores. The quaint scene was marred by pipes from those same shops dumping raw sewage into the river. Parker Harding Plaza, the landfill parking lot that spurred retail development, was not built until the 1950s, long after the Y became a downtown hangout.
Anyone alive when Bedford built his Y would remember Main Street as as much a residential street as commercial. A Victorian home stood where Brooks Corner is now. The pink building that old-timers call the Remarkable Book Store, and newcomers knew as Talbots, was then a family home — and had been since the Revolutionary War.
A few yards from that house were others, on Gorham Island. Nearly 40 years after the Y opened, one of those homes gained notoriety for a July 4 murder. A young man killed his father, then headed to the police station on Jesup Road and opened fire on officers. The bullet holes remain.
More than a decade later, those Gorham Island houses were demolished. In their place rose a large, green-glass office building. Nothing screams “downtown has changed” like that — unless it’s the Wright Street building, towering over Wilton Road across the river like something that landed awkwardly from outer space. Anyone old enough to remember Westport before the Y may have romped in the Wright Street woods, playing in a root cellar that was there in 1777, when the British marched past on their way to Danbury.
I’m not sure what a 1923 Westporter would have seen or done in National Hall. The brick building on the west bank of the Saugatuck River has quite a history. In the 1880s, it was a bank, town meeting hall, the very first site of Staples High School and more. In the mid-1900s it was the Fairfield Furniture Store. Later, thanks to the conservation efforts of the Tauck family, it became an inn, with a succession of restaurants on the ground floor. The latest — Vespa — closed just the other day. Like the Y, National Hall has changed a lot over the years. But it looks much the same as it did, so any person still alive from 1923 would recognize it.
He or she would notice plenty of other changes too, of course. The movie theater directly opposite the Y, just a few years old when Bedford gave his gift, is now Restoration Hardware. The library on the corner of the Post Road and Main Street — constructed on land and with $5,000 donated by Morris Ketchum Jesup, who died four months before its 1908 dedication — has been relocated to what was once part of the river, then as landfill served as the town dump. Gone, too, are the trolley tracks that carried folks to and from the YMCA.
In a few years, Bedford Square will be just another piece of the area too. And 94 years from now, will anyone be alive to recall when Westport had a YMCA smack in the middle of downtown?