Woog’s World / Coleytown not the first fraught school in town
It’s more than 50 years old. It was built hastily, to house the postwar baby boom generation that was flooding Westport schools. A major renovation in the 1990s made its hallways more navigable, its curves less quirky and its classrooms more pleasant.
But it’s tough to fight mold.
Westport is in the first phases of deciding what to do with Coleytown Middle School. Experts are still trying to identify the causes of physical symptoms experienced by students and staff. Reports will be followed by debates. District administrators, the Board of Education, Board of Finance and the public — particularly parents — will weigh in. Can — and should — the school be renovated? Torn down? Meanwhile, what will happen to sixth through eighth graders, who currently share Bedford Middle School and Staples High?
Discussions will be fraught. And they won’t be the first time the public has debated what to do with a Westport school building.
My alma mater — Burr Farms Elementary — was part of that same 1950s and ‘60s construction frenzy. Put up in what seemed like a week, it sprawled here and there, colorful panels hiding the cheapness that even first graders could sense.
But Burr Farms was more than one new school. It was a prototype for U.S. Steel. The behemoth wanted to see if it could develop a new educational model: modular buildings with sections that could be taken apart and moved, as needs changed and situations warranted.
It never happened, of course. I went from kindergarten through sixth grade, and never once did Burr Farms change. It was a wonderful school, with excellent teachers — I am grateful for them even today, decades later — but the move-it-as-you-need-it idea seems to have been forgotten the day the doors opened.
In the early 1980s, when Westport’s school-age population sagged, Burr Farms was on the chopping block. Town officials were eager to take it apart, and sell the metal at a nice price.
It didn’t happen. All the bolts had rusted. The building was bulldozed just like any other. Today, Burr Farms is one more school on the scrap heap of memory. All that remains are the athletic fields — and a mesh fence that was probably there when I was a kid.
Shortly after Burr Farms was bolted together, Hillspoint Elementary School was conceived. That’s the right word. Some architect somewhere came up with the idea of a school in the round. Classrooms were placed on the outside; the centerpiece was the gym and cafeteria. A high, humpback roof soared above it all.
If you’re thinking that an elementary school gym and cafeteria are noisy places, you’re right. If you think that a high roof amplifies sounds, you get extra credit.
The only thing worse than the design was the execution. A week or so after it opened, a large glass pane fell into a classroom. No one was injured. But students went back into double sessions, until someone figured out how to keep everyone safe.
Not every school construction project in Westport ends up awry. Greens Farms Elementary School is a handsome building that looks like a school should. It had normal hallways, stairs and classrooms. Sixty years after opening, It too fell victim to the 1980s hollowing-out of the town’s school-age population. The Westport Arts Center took over, turning classes into studios and the gym into exhibition space.
When the town wanted it back — once again, more kids were coming through the pipeline — the artists squawked. They eventually ended up with their own home on Riverside Avenue. Greens Farms was renovated — brilliantly. Architects retained all its original elements, adding new features without losing any hint of the old. It still stands, stately and proudly, just off the Post Road: a reminder that old and new is not always bigger and better.
Saugatuck Elementary was a similar it-looks-like-a-school school. Built originally of wood, and called the Bridge Street School, it served as the proud alma mater for generations of boys and girls on both sides of the river.
Unlike Greens Farms, it was abandoned during the 1980s. Permanent damage could have been done — including to its famed WPA murals. But wiser heads prevailed. The building was reclaimed. Today it’s senior housing — some of the least expensive, and coziest, in town. More than one Westporter now lives in a building where he or she once went to school.
The saga of Staples High School deserves its own column. Our town’s educational jewel has had quite a journey. From an 1884 edifice and several additions on Riverside Avenue, then off to North Avenue where six separate buildings became nine, then one, and — finally — the three-story building we know today, it’s had quite a past.
Now Coleytown eighth graders are part of it too. Stay tuned for whatever comes next.
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.