Woog's World / Post Road's changing face: A sometimes rocky road
At its Tuesday meeting, Westport's Historic District Commission will consider 14 applications to waive the balance of the 180-day waiting period for demolition of a home or other structure.
The requests are necessary for buildings over 50 years old.
Two of those applications involve the Geiger Garden Center on the Post Road, directly opposite Greens Farms Elementary School. For years it's been rumored that the garden center would close, to be replaced by a commercial and residential complex.
If that occurs, the Post Road -- Westport's main street, far more than the short strip that's actually called by that name -- will change once more. We'll lose the ever-morphing display of shrubs, flowers and trees gracing the corner of North Morningside Road. It happens. As much as we think of the Post Road as fairly immutable, it constantly reinvents itself. Sometimes the changes are big and noticeable. Other times they're more subtle.
Certainly, we've lost open space. Back in the day, shopping centers, strip malls and standalone stores were broken up by open fields and private homes. Think about Fresh Market and the businesses nearby. Just to the east stands the Linxweiler House. Now owned by the town and administered by Homes with Hope, it's a rare reminder that real people once lived in actual Post Road houses. Through the 1950s, it belonged to a blacksmith, who plied his trade right there in the back.
On the other side of Fresh Market lies Terrain. That garden center (which may be a contributing factor in the proposed demolition of Geiger's) bought property that once belonged to a car dealer and prettied it up nicely. But Terrain also tried to tear down a building on the crescent by Crescent Road. It had been abandoned for years, but before that it was a cute dress shop.
The house had little historical value. But it had something equally important: It contributed to the streetscape. It broke up the harsh, almost-unending view of stores and offices now littering the Post Road, from the Southport line to Norwalk. Actually, that's the Post Road story throughout southern Fairfield County (and well beyond).
Gone are the days of vacant lots. (One exception: the small corner on Roseville Road, just east of McDonald's.) As late as the 1960s, the several acres between South Morningside and Church Street (next to Dairy Queen, then Swanky Frank's, soon to be the Little Barn) stood empty. It did not look particularly pretty. But every May, a traveling carnival landed there. For a week, the place came alive with Ferris wheels, tilt-a-whirls and unwinnable games of chance. Then, like Brigadoon, it vanished.
That lot is well-used today, by customers of Barnes & Noble, Angelina's and several other businesses.
As we've lost open space, though, we've gained trees. A "Greening of the Post Road" project in the 1970s and '80s has borne great fruit. Trees planted a few decades ago, along the roadside and throughout parking lots, offer shade and beauty. The contrast with Norwalk -- same road, different zoning, no "Greening" project -- is stark, and quite noticeable as soon as you cross the line.
But as older shopping centers are renovated, and some older trees have been removed. Fresh Market is (again) an example. New trees have been planted, but the look is not the same. In the 2030s and '40s it may be -- though there is no guarantee.
Near downtown, the Post Road looks vastly different than it once did. The white house in the back of Colonial Green was once located just a few yards from the street. Across the way, Saugatuck Congregational Church stands handsomely, framed by a lovely lawn. It's the quintessential New England scene. But it's been that way for only a few decades. In 1950 -- in a project chronicled by Life magazine -- the church was moved, over 10 hours, on logs from its longtime Post Road home near the corner of South Compo. There's a gas station there now, and a brick bank that (one more change) recently replaced wooded hills.
I know that area well. I live nearby. In fact, my condo is one of those 1980s-era structures that replaced a much more interesting old home. It was a rambling Victorian that later became a rooming house. It sat back from the Post Road, behind the Westport Country Playhouse. All that's left now is a towering Norwegian spruce.
In front of that old house -- at what is now the entrance to Playhouse Square -- there was the Crest. It certainly was not much to look at: just a 1950s-era drive-in. But it served as a legendary hangout, for generations of Westport teenagers. They're well into their Social Security years, but they still remember it fondly.
Which just proves that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Behold that, Post Road!