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Tuesday, March 20 Opinion

Woog's World: As Westport Weston Family Y preps for move, a look back

In four weeks, the Westport Weston Family Y opens at 5:30 a.m. Early birds will swim, ride bikes and run on treadmills, then head to work. Later arrivals will take Zumba and fitness classes. Kids will come, followed by the post-work crowd. It will be business as usual for members and staff.

Except it won't be. Aug. 29 marks the opening of the new facility at Mahackeno. For the first time in 90 years, the Y will not anchor downtown.

When you see the new building for the first time, you'll be impressed. It's light and airy. The pool, gym, workout areas are modern and fresh. There's room for kids to play and the rest of us to sit and relax. There's plenty of parking, and it's all right there.

Plenty of folks are already complaining, of course. (This is Westport.) There are no squash or racquetball courts. There is no gymnastics or child care. The men's and women's health centers are gone.

We can debate the pros and cons of the new Y until the cows come home. (Whether they find it easier to do that using the new access road by the Merritt, or by meandering down Church Lane, is a question for another column.) But as the Y prepares for its first big move, let's take one last look at the building that has stood for the past nine decades in the heart of downtown.

The landmark Tudor structure sits on the site of the old Westport Hotel. E.T. Bedford -- a town leader and Standard Oil executive tired of all the (Prohibition Era) drinking that went on there -- purchased it with plans for more constructive use. He built the Y (then called the Young Men's Christian Association) for $150,000. It was dedicated in 1923. (Bedford also donated half of the $36,000 needed to build a matching fire station next door.)

Each year, Bedford, for whom the original Y building was eventually named, spent $15,000 of his own money on the Y. He tossed in $2,000 more for a women's center. In 1929, he paid for an indoor pool.

Bedford died in 1931 at age 82. His trust fund continued to support the Y for many years.

In 1939, the Y opened a day camp at Doubleday Field on Riverside Avenue. The cost was 30 cents a week. According to legend -- and the Y's online history timeline, from which much of this information comes -- a janitor recommended the site that in 1942 eventually became part of Mahackeno. The camp opened with 60 boys. There was no drinking water, and electricity was inconsistent.

The Y bought the entire 30-acre Mahackeno property in 1944. Bedford's estate paid half of the $10,000 cost. In 1946, at the request of the Y founder's son, the name was changed from Bedford Camp to Camp Mahackeno. The name honors "Mahackemo," chief of the Norwalke Indians, who used the site as a summer lodge. There is no explanation for the new spelling.

Women and girls first joined the downtown Y in 1949. In 1955, a period of rapid growth, the Y commissioned a study on whether to sell the building and move elsewhere. The organization stayed.

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In 1969 -- the same year girls were allowed at Mahackeno -- the board rejected the idea of selling the camp property for over $300,000 to a developer.

The Weeks Pavilion -- an oddly shaped building with entrances on Church Lane and a back parking lot that includes the Stauffer pool, squash and racquetball courts, locker rooms and a running track (later a gymnastics center) -- was completed in 1978. The Y also took over the firehouse in between the old and new facilities, converting it to cardio and fitness rooms. Creating one coherent whole from three separate buildings was not easy. There were narrow halls, twists and turns, and, by one estimate, over 30 separate elevations.

Nearly 20 years ago, in 1995, the Y began searching for a new site. The downtown facility was considered old and inefficient. Approximately 30 locations throughout Westport were considered, but the Baron's South property, between Imperial Avenue and South Compo Road, was deemed most desirable. Four years later, the town purchased that property from the estate of Baron Walter von Langendorff, founder of Evyan Perfumes. A planning committee voted against allowing the Y to use the land. First Selectwoman Diane Farrell concurred.

The Y searched for new sites. It particularly liked the Imperial Avenue parking lot. But that did not work out either, in part because of pollution from its earlier use as a garbage dump.

In 2002, Y trustees voted to move to Camp Mahackeno. They knew the decision would be controversial, and figured it would be five or six years before they moved in.

In fact, it took them twice as long. Four weeks from today, that long journey finally ends.

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 www.danwoog06880.