Historical Perspectives / Ed Chrostowski
Demolition clears the way for new Millport housing
Published 1:05 am, Thursday, April 15, 2010
Another chapter in the long, meandering saga of public housing in New Canaan unfolded last week when the first of the buildings in the 60-year Millport Avenue complex was razed.
Families housed there have been relocated temporarily and the site is being cleared for buildings that will replace the eight being demolished. In addition to the 16 apartments, two in each of those buildings, plans call for some supplementary units.
The $7.8 million project is being financed by grants and low-interest loans from state and federal housing programs. Connecticut law requires communities to make at least 10 percent of their housing stock low-cost or "affordable." New Canaan has been hovering around the eight percent level.
Erected in 1950 under the aegis of the Town Housing Authority, Millport's one-story, flat-roofed brick buildings have deteriorated over the years and in the past couple of decades have been described as "utterly dilapidated." Some units have three bedrooms, others two, but all the rooms are tiny. Cramped kitchen areas are seriously outdated and lack adequate space for appliances.
People have said New Canaan should be "ashamed" to have any of its residents living in "deplorable" conditions that existed under the administration of a town agency. But if the Millport Apartments have been rather inglorious in their final years, they seemed like a veritable Taj Mahal to the young families moving in 60 years ago after living in makeshift post-war quarters.
When scores of young men began returning home after wartime military service and began starting families of their own, there was a desperate need for housing to accommodate them. Six or eight of these new families moved into an old converted house, ready for demolition, that had been on property acquired by the town for what is now the Park Street parking lot. Many more occupied surplus Army barracks and a Quonset hut, one of those semi-cylinder metallic buildings, set up off New Street, a spur off Summer Street.
Edwin H. Bouton, superintendent of mails then, was Town Housing Authority chairman at the time and tried to persuade New Canaan officials to acquire the 40-plus acres owned by the Fisher family and bounded by Husted Lane and Oenoke Ridge for a veterans' housing site. When the Town declined, the land was acquired by Charles Cornell, who built what is now the Heritage Hill condominium complex there. Bouton searched elsewhere and the Town made its small tract near Mill Pond available.
Coincidentally, as the old apartment buildings were being reduced to ruble, other housing matters were on the civic agenda during this same April week in 1962.
The Town Planning and Zoning Commission that week rejected an application filed by Christopher McFadden, a land developer from Westport, for 20 houses on a 40-acre tract off Ponus Ridge, near Jelliff Mill Road. Subsequent proposals were approved, however, and the property is now the Adams Lane area.
Also on the zoning agenda that week was a revival of a previously rejected proposal for a Japanese inn and restaurant, along with Oriental gardens, on 27 acres spanning the Norwalk-New Canaan town line on Route 123 near the Merritt Parkway. Twenty of those acres were in New Canaan and zoning approval of both towns was required. Norwalk approved, but New Canaan, noting that the land here was residentially zoned, did not. The land was owned by Henry Malia of Norwalk and the proposed project was backed by a group of investors headed by Dr. Henry Singer of Westport.
There were evidences also that week that the small-town atmosphere was fading in New Canaan.
For one, the Board of Education officially released its title to the Little Red Schoolhouse on Carter Street, which had been part of the public school system for more than half a century but closed in 1957 when Mary Kelley, a teacher there for 47 years, retired. It was the last functioning one-room schoolhouse in Connecticut and Miss Kelley was a student there herself before becoming its teacher.
A group of neighbors organized the "Friends of the Little Red Schoolhouse" and the Board of Selectmen sold the building to them. A few years ago, the Friends did turn it over to the Historical Society, but it remains in its original site.
Elsewhere, Mrs. David Checkley announced that the League of Women Voters was studying "suitable alternatives" to New Canaan's traditional New England town meeting form of government. The town meeting was no longer viable and should be replaced by a legislative body with more continuity and accountability, said Mrs. Checkley, the LWV president.
Other New Canaan buildings attracted international attention. Executives of a British firm that manufactured nuclear fall-out shelters came to New Canaan to inspect units being installed by many local families in their homes. Civil Defense Director Charlie Morton and Building Inspector Walt Tippman escorted the tour and reported later that the Londoners "were especially in awe" of the railroad box car that a Sleepy Hollow Road family had buried in its yard for a shelter.
During the week, Morton also announced that a Civil Defense "survival meal, palatable and prepared with a minimum of fuss" had become available. It consisted of a steamed wafer of bulgur, described as a kind of wheat kernel similar to rice, and canned chicken.
In the meantime, New Canaan Democrats prepared for their role in the November election. Chairman Al Lutringer said local delegates would go to the State nominating convention "uninstructed" on whether to back Abe Ribicoff or Congressman Frank Kowalski to succeed Republican Prescott Bush in the U.S. Senate. Bush's son and then his grandson later became presidents. Ribicoff, a former governor, was then Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare in President John F. Kenney's cabinet.
Unmistakable signs of spring that week included the annual Palm Sunday Communion Breakfast of the Knights of Columbus, attended by 175 men in the St. Aloysius School Hall. Congressman Abner Sibal and Frank McBride, an ex-FBI agent, were the speakers and radio-television personality Jack Sterling was master of ceremonies. Bill Creed presided as grand knight.
Elsewhere, an estimated 500 boys answered the call to play ball, reporting for try-outs and team assignments in New Canaan's Little League baseball program.
Also honored during the week was Thomas E. Saxe, Jr., of Oenoke Ridge who received the Michelangelo Award from the Italian government in recognition of his support of the Boys Town of Italy.