Woog's World: When it comes to Westport architecture, there's no accounting for taste

There’s no accounting for taste. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure. A man’s home is his castle.

Clichés all. And sure, we should avoid clichés like the plague. But, as we emerge from an actual plague, Westporters turn their attention once again from matters of life and death to more subjective matters. Take architecture, for instance. All around town, we’re debating the good, the bad and the ugly.

One of the frothiest debates is brewing at Old Mill Beach. There, a half-finished home stands on one of the most visible (and valuable) properties in Westport. For months, the structure has been swaddled in blue protective wrap. A construction fence keeps out intruders; weeds grow in the driveway and sand.

Work has been halted because of permit violations. A new architect offered revised plans, with a gambrel roof and changes to the exterior, then presented them to neighbors as a goodwill gesture. They were not pleased, with either the height or the footprint.

Nearby residents would prefer a smaller structure — one like two new homes constructed a few years ago, just north of the now-halted construction.

But that’s what they had before. The building was not a home. It was a two-story restaurant, called Positano’s. Before that it was Café de la Plage; even earlier, a market.

Those uses were grandfathered in, zoning-wise, but when the restaurant owners wanted to add a few tables to a patio on the town-owned beach, some neighbors objected. They worried about noise and added traffic. Positano’s eventually closed and moved next to the Westport Country Playhouse.

The new owners of the property — the ones building the home — first wanted to resurrect the restaurant. Again, they were stymied. Now it seems they’re haunted by that old cliché: “Be careful what you wish for.”

Taste-wise, many Westporters seem to love a bungalow just around the Old Mill corner. It’s gray, it’s old, and it sits on the spit of the Compo Cove peninsula most visible from well, the site of the old Positano’s restaurant. Built in 1917, it’s the oldest original cottage of the 20-plus that once lined the footpath between Sherwood Mill Pond and Sherwood Island State Park.

Nearly all of those homes have been demolished. Some were wrecked by hurricanes; others fell victim to changing tastes. The Compo Cove vista — a favorite of folks walking between Old Mill and Compo — has changed dramatically over the years. Larger homes replaced smaller ones. Nearly every house has been raised, to meet flood codes.

But the gray house closest to Old Mill remains. Now it’s on the market, along with its companion “pirate shack” cottage, built in 2008 — for $7.9 million.

The seller hopes it will be bought by someone who loves historic properties, and will retain its key features. Of course, there’s no guarantee that will happen.

Though all of Compo Cove is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, individual homes are not. It could become another teardown. It would quickly become one more example in the long-running Westport real estate debate: “Beautiful new construction, or garish monstrosity?”

From long-established neighborhoods like Old Hill and South Morningside, to mid-20th-century ones like Colony Road and High Point, smaller homes are giving way to larger ones.

The wrecking ball knocks down Colonials, Cape Cods, split levels and ranch houses with equal abandon. It demolishes structures from the 1800s, 1900s, and the early 2000s. Rising in their places are new homes with many gables, lots of angles, and bulges where once there were corners.

The new homes are mocked by many. The old epithet “McMansions” has given way to “houses on steroids.” But no one would build them unless someone was buying them. They’re selling like hotcakes, to trot out another cliché.

And — though I hate to be the skunk at preservationists’ garden party — who is to say that an older home is necessarily better? Some of the teardowns are truly beautiful (to my taste, anyway), but some have clearly passed their sell-by date.

What did people say in the 1950s, when all those post-war new homes were being built? Who were the tastemakers then? What did the old Yankees and longtime Saugatuck residents think about the large-for-their-time houses popping up on what must have seemed like every vacant lot in town?

I don’t know. But — in the words of one cliché — whatever goes around comes around. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. And - once again - there’s no accounting for taste.

Dan Woog is a Westport writer, and his “Woog's World” appears each Friday. He can be reached at dwoog@optonline.net. His personal blog is danwoog06880.com.