Woog's World: Reflecting on Long Lots' history as officials consider its future

Long Lots Elementary School, in a file photo. A district official said the school was evacuated Wednesday, May 25, 2022, after a strong odor of smoke in the building.

Long Lots Elementary School, in a file photo. A district official said the school was evacuated Wednesday, May 25, 2022, after a strong odor of smoke in the building.

Chris Marquette / Hearst Connecticut Media

For 70 years old, Long Lots looks pretty good.

The elementary school on Hyde Lane is not Westport’s oldest. In fact, it’s the newest of our five. Kings Highway, Saugatuck and Greens Farms are all at least 30 years older. Coleytown is a contemporary.

But the first three have all had major upgrades. Long Lots has been tweaked over the years. Until now though, it hasn’t gotten much attention. And certainly, very little love.

Long Lots was built in the 1950s, as a junior high school. In those frenzied post-war years, young families poured into town. The one junior high – Bedford (now Kings Highway) – sat clear across town.

The new school in the east end of Westport was built quickly (and cheaply). There was no auditorium; a stage at the end of the gym served that purpose. The football field shared the baseball outfield. The school’s one notable feature was a large mural, hanging on the side of the gym.

But what it lacked architecturally, it made up for academically and in spirit. Principals Bob Lane, Joe Koeller and Dan Sullivan assembled stellar staffs. I was a student there in the 1960s (and, ahem, student body president. Part of my platform was getting a new auditorium. I failed miserably.) 
I was challenged by some of the best teachers I ever had. I made lifelong friends. And even though our soccer team had to play home games at Greens Farms Elementary (our practice field was a patch of grass out back), we didn’t care. Long Lots was our home, at a time in our lives when feeling supported and loved was desperately important.

Soon after I graduated, new athletic fields were hacked out of the woods on the property’s north end. (The drainage problem of the wetlands there was not addressed, though. It still remains, 50 years later.)

One night in 1974, a troubled eighth grader set fire to the school. An entire wing – constructed, basically, of tin – burned to the ground. Students spent a year shuttling to nearby St. Luke Church for some classes. A new, better constructed wing took its place.

An auditorium was added too. It’s big and beautiful – and seldom used. That’s because, in 1983, Westport made a major educational shift. Ninth graders moved up to Staples. The high school’s population had dropped to just 900, so there was plenty of space. The three seventh through ninth grade junior highs – Long Lots, Coleytown and Bedford – became middle schools. Originally housing grades five through eight (now six through eight), they shifted pedagogical focus. They were no longer “junior” high schools; now they were more akin, educationally speaking, to elementary schools. (Among the big changes: the elimination of interscholastic sports teams.)

A few years later, Bedford Middle School moved from Riverside Avenue to a sparkling new home adjacent to Staples. After major renovation, the old Bedford became the new Saugatuck El. (The old Saugatuck Elementary on Bridge Street was converted to elderly housing. It’s complicated, I know.)

Around that time, Long Lots transitioned to an elementary school. Some modifications were done. But it retained the bones of a junior high school.
Now – seven decades after it opened – the building shows it age. Between always-evolving educational ideas at the elementary level, the need for new technologies, and the fact that the original facility was constructed cheaply, educators and engineers have determined that something must be done.

It’s still not certain what that means. A building committee (including Don O’Day, the former Board of Education chair who recently led the very successful renovation of mold-ridden Coleytown Middle School into a sparkling new facility) is exploring whether to renovate, or build an entirely new structure.

Westport’s first “new” school since Staples High in 2005 is an exciting prospect. It will be the first to consider green technology, and the first to grapple with post-COVID ventilation questions.

There are logistical issues too. If the decision is made to renovate, where will students go during construction? If a new school is built: where will it be? The lower athletic fields pose wetland issues (and nearby neighbors are sure to howl). Usurping the Community Gardens to the south — where 100 people have devoted years of effort — would provoke a major battle too.

Cost is one more consideration. The bill is likely to dwarf Staples’ $74 million price tag of the early 2000s. And this is not Westport’s only major project. Downtown and Longshore improvements are in the pipeline too.

The process has just begun. But – as a Long Lots graduate, who missed out on the auditorium but loves the current one – I have one thought. If there is any way to keep that part of the school, let’s do  it.

It’s one of the most underutilized, and best-kept, secrets in town.

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 danwoog06880.com.