Saugatuck recalled during area walking tour
By Mike Lauterborn
(for Westport News)
Saugatuck, CT – First it was the railroad that muscled its way into town, then the Connecticut Turnpike. With each intrusion, the tiny enclave suffered losses. But, like a stubborn weed, it would not disappear. Now former residents are spotlighting it, introducing others to its charms and sharing many colorful memories.
Less than a half-mile square, the Saugatuck neighborhood of Westport is defined by the Saugatuck River to the east, the New Haven railroad line on the south, Saugatuck Avenue on the west and the join of the aforementioned with Riverside Avenue to the north. Its earliest residents resisted the arrival of the railroad, which chugged through in 1848 and actually brought new jobs to the infant community and helped the area thrive. Many of the workers that first arrived there were Irish. Later, workers from southern Italy appeared, and settled permanently, and Saugatuck took on the nickname “Little Italy.”
The area thrived, until 1958, when again it was literally bisected, this time by Interstate Highway 95. Buildings and homes – even a church – were demolished to make way for the asphalt, concrete and steel behemoth. The community, though intact, would not be the same and, while it retained its name, was swallowed up into the new town of Westport.
“The train’s leaving in two minutes,” announced Helen Klisser During, Director of Visual Arts at Westport Arts Center (WAC), addressing a couple dozen people that had gathered late Saturday afternoon in the lobby of the Saugatuck train station. All had come to enjoy a tour led chiefly by Loretta Santella Hallock and Allen Raymond. Hallock, now in her 60s, was born in Saugatuck around the time the new highway was being built, while Raymond summered locally for many years. They were both walking archives of information about the buildings, people and happenings in this special riverside hamlet. WAC, the Westport Historical Society (WHS) and The River House restaurant collaborated to bring them together and make the event possible.
Hallock was a genuine native daughter, the brother of Lou Santella, who was president of the Westport Sons of Italy, and a first cousin of the late police chief Sam Luciano, for whom Luciano Park is named. “The joke at town hall – where I’ve worked for 30 years – is that I’m related to everyone,” she said.
Hallock’s recollections were many. “When I was young, I would attend the Feast of St. Anthony,” she said. “My mother, Elizabeth, a Capasee, was born in Saugatuck, on Franklin Street, one of nine children. My father, John Santella, was a barber who came here from Italy when he was 20. They married, purchased Riverside Barber Shop and raised seven kids in a big Victorian home (located where the overflow lot for the train station now is). When I-95 came through, the state moved our home to Gillette Circle, named after Dr. Gillette, my doctor. Dr. Gillette was a great man. When it came time to pay, he would say, “Give me whatever you have… a dollar? Two?”
She continued, “I would sweep the floor of my father’s barbershop and he would give me a few quarters. I’d go to Franny’s soda shop. My mother’s cousin owned Mario’s (at 36 Railroad Place), which is still there. Singer Martha Rae used to hold court there. I went to school with Michael Douglas and Martha Rae’s daughter… I have so many stories my mom told me, of trolley cars, the Franklin Market, which my grandfather owned, and Luciano Park, which was a great place to play.”
Stepping from the train station, built around 1880 in an Italianate style, Hallock passed the tour baton to Raymond. Eighty-eight years young, he told the group that, though he was born in Buffalo, New York, he had spent every year of his life in the Saugatuck area, beginning with summers at Compo Cove in 1923, the year he was born. “I remember huge town meetings with the president of the railroad (N.Y. Central) when they were raising the commuting rate from $15 to $18 a month,” he said. Now the rate is $380/month. “None of the parking lots by the station were here – there weren’t that many commuters. A bunch of guys and me that rode the train – we called ourselves the Beefeaters – would go over to the Arrow Restaurant (near Charles Street). Jimmy Melton, an opera singer in New York City, stored all his antique cars on the second floor of the grain building (at the corner of Railroad Place and Franklin). The cars went up there in the grain elevator… Saugatuck was a wonderful community, no chichi stuff like now… the beginning of this town. I-95 changed it a lot,” said Raymond.
The group wandered up Franklin Street, and gazed over at the new Tarry Lodge enoteca pizzeria, at 30 Charles Street. In the 1920s, it was the site of Esposito’s, a vendor of gas, provisions, tobacco, tires and ice cream, as well as being a taxi stand. The group trod on, passing under the massive supports for I-95, which shadowed a few of the remaining neighborhood homes, which were showing their wear. A building that had once been home to St. Anthony’s Hall spurred Hallock to recall, “On Friday night, the women of St. Anthony’s Society would make pizzas and sell them.” Raymond added that the hall was a place “where Italians had parties and dances and hosted a parade. Everyone would go.”
Hallock explained that her “mom and dad spoke to each other in Italian, but discouraged us from speaking it. They wanted us to be American.” Nick Zeoli, a peer of Hallock’s, said the children in that immediate area would go “into any house on the street and were treated as part of the family. They were mothered by all the mothers.”
A surprise drop-in on the tour was Peter Romano, who lives at 31 Franklin Street and is a partner in Land-Tech Consultants, environmental scientists and engineers. “I grew up down the end of the road, on Ketchum Street,” he said, standing on a rise looking down on Riverside Avenue, the Saugatuck River and Saugatuck Hose Co. Romano spoke about the Gault family’s much-publicized project to level the road where he stood and erect 21 townhouse units by the first quarter of 2012. The Gaults had already revamped the waterfront, replacing popular DeRosa’s restaurant with a multi-use commercial property and boardwalk.
Another assault on poor Saugatuck some wondered, as Hallock recalled sliding down the fire pole at Saugatuck Hose. More likely the introduction of a new generation of industrious families who would one day share their own happy memories of life in this unique neighborhood.