Credit: Dave Matlow, “Honoring Our Heritage: Project Return,” published by WestportNow, May 1, 2017
This past spring the Westport Historical Society (WHS) presented Project Return and the Town of Westport with a plaque honoring the heritage of the town-owned house at 124 Compo Road North used by Project Return since 1984. Bob Mitchell, president of WHS, presented the plaque to both Tessa Gilmore-Barnes, Project Return program director, and Jeff Wieser, executive director of Homes with Hope, saying: “We are recognizing Project Return for respecting and maintaining this almost 200-year-old house. We are also recognizing the town for its forward-looking attitude towards reuse of the property since 1901 for the good of the town.”
As the WHS house historian, I researched the origin of the house and its usage from the original built date to its current usage. This house is significant to the town because of the multiple reuse or repurposing since purchasing it in 1901, although it was originally built in circa 1824. Furthermore, the town purchased the house to be used as an Almshouse, also referred to as a “Poor House,” “Poor Farm” or “Town Farm,” as a residence for the towns’ needy. In later years the house was used for many other purposes, but since 1984, it has been a residence for up to eight Westport adolescent girls in crisis in an on-going program called Project Return. Then, in October 2016, the house was again repurposed by Project Return to provide a transitional residence for up to eight homeless young adult women.
BACK IN THE DAY
The property at 124 Compo Road North was purchased by the town in 1901 from Charles H. Kemper Jr. His father was known as the owner of the Kemper Tannery, started in 1835, at “Playhouse Square.” Mary McCahon, an architectural historian in 1988, said Kemper Sr. moved the house to his property at Compo Road North “about 1860” from “Playhouse Square” after he purchased eleven and a half acres from Samuel Gorham. Further research into deeds and Westport assessment tax records places the house move at 1864. Kemper Sr. owned the property from 1864 until his death in 1896, when it transferred to his son, also a tanner. The house that Kemper Sr. moved in c. 1864 was probably the same as the house built by Seymore Taylor in c. 1824. This c. 1824 built date would make it the oldest known house owned by the Town of Westport.
As already stated, the property was purchased by the Town of Westport in 1901 to be used as an Almshouse or “Poor House” for the needy of Westport. This purchase was done after the Annual Town Meeting of October 7, 1901. At that meeting there was a discussion relating to the amount Westport was spending on the needy versus what the other surrounding towns were spending. It seemed that, on average, Westport was spending more money for indigents by renting space in individual residential homes rather than owning a house for their use. A suggestion was made to purchase a “farm of 11 acres, with a house of 13 rooms, in good standing, together with a small out-building 16×20, and a barn 20×30, also fruit and shade trees, cistern and well, centrally located for a sum of $2,750.” Furthermore, it was stated that this usage would “be a saving at least of $1000 a year.” The recommendation to purchase this farm from Kemper Jr. was accepted and now has the address of 124 Compo Road North.
But not much has been recorded about the Westport Almshouse usage and origins, although, historically, almshouses were first established in Britain in the tenth century. The tradition of almshouses was introduced to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania by its founder, William Penn. The support provided for the poor and indigents spread to Connecticut, where, in 1920, 64 of the 168 towns had almshouses, according to Michael Westerfield’s article “The History of Connecticut Poor Houses,” written in 2014. The locations of these almshouses were identified on a 1920 map created by Westerfield, and it included the Almshouse at Compo Road North. But almshouses radically declined in number in the second half of the twentieth century, replaced by other governmental services.
Westport resident and town preservationist, Wendy Crowther, found a reference to a Westport Almshouse in a 1910 report issued by the Bureau of Census entitled “Paupers in Almshouses.” The report stated that there were a total of five inmates (a term used for residents) at the Westport Almshouse: three males and two females. The report further stated that four of those inmates were foreign born. Unfortunately, no address was given. However, as seen in the 1911 map of Westport, there is a notation at the 124 Compo Road North location that is labeled as “Town Poor House.” Therefore, the Westport Almshouse and the Town Poor House were one and the same.
Crowther confirmed that by 1917 this almshouse was still used by the town. She found references to the Town Farm, another name for an almshouse, in the 1917, 1921 and 1923 Westport directories with Lozier Baker listed in 1917 as the “Manager Town Farm,” living on “E. Main near Gorham.” This is the current location of 124 Compo Road North. Then on a 1931 map of Westport included a notation at the 124 Compo Road North location of the “Compo Farm,” which was the location as the almshouse.
PROJECT RETURN ARRIVES
How long the property at Compo Road North was used to house needy people is unknown, but there is information about other uses of the property. We know that after World War II a number of temporary barracks were built to address the housing shortage and torn down by 1951.
The history of the property was further identified by Crowther with the following report in the Bridgeport Post that by 1957 “… town officials were studying the possibility of erecting a new Town Highway Department Garage on the former town farm property on N. Compo Rd.” This idea was dropped and by 1974 tennis courts existed on the site.
The town didn’t leave the property ideal after 1957. One of the most notable tenants was James William Drought, an author and magazine editor who wrote press releases and speeches for the Office of Public Relations for the U.S. Army. Street directories reveal that Drought lived in the house from 1975 until his death in 1983. His family has commemorated his living in the house with his poem mounted on a plaque on a large stone in front of the house.
After the Drought’s death in 1983, the house was unoccupied and deteriorated rapidly. According to Susie Basler, initial board member then in 1986 became the Executive Director for the next thirty years, “there were holes in the roof. You could see the sky from the front hall. Squirrels, raccoons and other animals were living there as well. You could certainly understand the town wanting to tear it down!”
At about that time, Kate McGraw, an assistant superintendent of special education for the Westport school system, came up with the concept for Project Return. McGraw saw a need to house and educate students, notably girls, whose parents were unable to keep them at home for any number of reasons. McGraw said, “The only way we could do that was to have a residential program for them so they could go to the Westport public schools.” She thought that rather than sending them out of town to an institution, at town expense, keeping them local with parental support would be more productive. This environment would allow the girls to remain part of the local community, attend Staples High School, and get help from family members.
According to Basler, “Kate McGraw and Barbara Butler, the Second Selectman, had been meeting for many months about Kate’s idea of starting a group home for girls. They decided to form a board of directors—they had only the idea: a home for teenaged girls. I lived on Wright Street and was Kate’s neighbor. She knew I had a degree in social work and was passionate about helping teenagers, so she recruited me to be on that initial board. Butler heard about the town wanting to tear down 124 Compo Road North. She spoke to Bill Seiden, the First Selectman, about this project that wanted to start a group home, and he eventually agreed.”
Basler added, “After we went through all of the approvals and the legal contracts, we had this dilapidated house with very little money. Then the magical part came. Somehow on the initial board we discovered we had wonderful resources…all that we needed! On that initial board was architect Ed Campbell. He had been in the Army and had built a barrack by horse trading with other armed services. A group home was no problem, said Ed.”
The McGraw idea was met with wide acceptance in the town, and a plan was created to create Project Return. The idea was to renovate the house at 124 Compo Road North to house up to eight adolescent girls in crisis, ages thirteen to seventeen, for up to a year. They would be provided with 24/7 clinically trained professionals to recover from loss or trauma, to develop and maintain positive relationships, and/or disengage from destructive behavior. The program enabled them to avoid being sent to various institutions outside of their town at tax payers’ expense, saving approximately $8,000 per student in school town tuition. But the major benefit would be to assist the girls, so they could re-enter into their family environments, while participating in the community.
At the time that renovation was being considered, the house had the following appearance:
As compared to it 2017 appearance:
PROJECT RETURN FACES CHANGE
The house renovation estimate was put at $100,000. Basler was the chairman of fundraising. “From the very beginning, this project has met with the most extraordinary enthusiasm,” she said. “This project was meant to be. It seems to have a life of its own.” The town government—including the First Selectman Bill Seiden, who was credited with saving the old farmhouse from demolition—was deeply involved and supported this project. The second Selectman Barbara Butler was instrumental in receiving town approval for this project with a lease for $1 a year. Although this lease amount is still in effect, Project Return pays for all house interior, exterior maintenance and utilities.
According to Basler, “All of this community effort was so unique! Word spread, and ABC’s morning show came to film a segment on us. They told our story and the message to other communities was, ‘They could do it too!’”
In June 2016, due to major budget cuts, all Connecticut State funding for group homes was eliminated. Project Return, which relied on the Connecticut Department of Children for 70 percent of the program’s budget, needed to find another way to support its mission of helping young women in crisis rebuild their lives. After thirty-two years as a small, independent, therapeutic group home for adolescent girls, Project Return became a program of Homes with Hope. Homes with Hope, a highly regarded community-based non-profit organization, which has been meeting the needs of the homeless population since 1983. As a program of Homes with Hope, Project Return now serves homeless young adult women, ages eighteen through twenty-four.
On May 1, 2017, the Westport Historical Society presented Project Return with a plaque and recognized the Town with honoring the heritage of the building.
At the ceremony First Selectman Jim Marpe presented Project Return with a proclamation saying that with “deep appreciation we recognize Project Return’s longstanding and unwavering care and support to young women facing dire and troubling personal circumstances.”
Gilmore-Barnes said: “For over thirty years this house has been a safe, warm, and nurturing home for adolescent girls in crisis. More than 160 girls have been helped by Project Return to rebuild their lives. Due to the elimination of state funding for group homes for youth as of June 30, 2016, and the resulting increase in homelessness among young adult women, Project Return has adapted its program and is partnering with Homes with Hope.” Furthermore, “The house really seems to have a power of its own that has served the public and drawn people together for more than 100 years to better the lives of those in need. The building itself has survived dramatic upheavals and continues to stand strong, proud, and inviting. It is truly a proud accomplishment of a caring community!”
Jeff Wieser, executive director with Homes with Hope, said: “Project Return partnering with Homes with Home is a natural progression. Both agencies are well-respected, have deep roots in the community, and an amazing network of supporters who make the work we do possible. Together, we are even stronger in meeting the critical needs of this growing population.”
Francis Henkels, chair of the Westport Historic District Commission, stated: “It reminds us that the town is the steward of a number of historic structures. It’s encouraging to see an example of how, through creative re-use, Westport can help retain its historic character and features while also serving the evolving civic needs of the town.”
For more information about Project Return and/or Homes with Hope: www.hwhct.org.
For more information about the Westport Historical Society: www.westporthistory.org.