Focus On: Edward F. Gerber

A recognizable figure around town, Ed Gerber has lived in Westport for 10 years although his roots go much deeper. With a passion for historic preservation and the arts, Gerber has been instrumental in creating a renewed interest in the artistic legacy of local artist George Hand Wright, who is largely considered the “grandfather” of the Westport Art community. 

“I was born in Bridgeport, Connecticut and divided my youth between North Haven during the school year, and a cottage on Fairfield Beach in the summers. The majority of my family never left the state, so I had and have a number of cousins in the Bridgeport metropolitan area. However, I spent most of my life in Washington, DC, but after more than 40 years, I returned to Connecticut, settling in Westport. My reason for doing so was to save a historic house – the Sturges–Wright House on Cross Highway. It was built in 1764, and occupied continuously by the Sturges family until the artist George Hand Wright bought the property in 1907.  Ownership passed at Wright’s death in 1951, to his nephew Frank Boylan, who was my dad’s best friend, my namesake (Edward Frank Gerber), and my godfather. His widow Constance was a dear family friend and my adopted godmother. When she died in 2010, I stepped forward and purchased the house from her heirs in April of 2010.  

I think my passion for historic preservation began with family trips to the charming and very historic town of Woodstock, Vermont. In the evenings after skiing, I spent my time in the library researching how Woodstock managed to protect so much of its historic core. When I went to college at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, I found myself living in Georgetown, which I still believe to be the most beautiful and successful historic district in the USA. Imagine what it was like for a boy from the suburbs of Connecticut to find himself walking on Georgetown’s pre-Revolutionary War sidewalks, gazing into federal style homes, many only recently owned by members of the Kennedy family and their circle.  For a liberal democrat like me it was like finding heaven.  

After graduating, there was no question that I would stay in Georgetown. I quickly became involved with DC’s preservation groups, initially Historic Georgetown Inc. which interestingly was created to preserve several late 18th Century commercial buildings in Georgetown and to prevent Georgetown University from expanding into the residential area. So, I became involved with town and gown disputes on the side of the town!  

I purchased a house in Georgetown, with the stipulation that I put a scenic historic facade easement on it, effectively preventing the university from destroying it, altering its use and/or modifying it, without the approval of a board of preservationists. At roughly the same time I became involved with the Woodrow Wilson House Museum, a property of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and the last home of President Wilson. I was asked to join its Advisory Council while in my 20s, which was very unusual at that time. Now many years later, I am still on its Advisory Council.  

Preserving Georgetown as a living breathing community should be of great importance to the current and future generations. At one time I volunteered weekly to give walking tours of the neighborhood to raise money for the legal expenses of the Citizens Association of Georgetown, the official watchdog of the area. This was logical, as I had become chair of its Historic Preservation Committee!  There were, and continue to be, pressures from developers to change Georgetown, unscrupulous landlords who allow buildings to deteriorate in order to then have them declared unsafe and unsanitary so that they may be demolished. Because the preservationists prevailed in so many cases, Georgetown continues to attract scores of tourists interested in its history, architecture, dining, and shopping, as well as investors who see it as a prime residential location. I still enjoy giving walking tours of Georgetown, and I believe it is important to give factually accurate tours, based on my own experiences there as a student, a preservationist, and a property owner. 

When I moved to Westport and bought the Sturges-Wright House, I was well aware of its history and importance to the town. The property was maintained by generations of the Sturges family as a working farm, until 1907, when George Hand Wright and his bride Ann Boylan Wright moved in. Wright had intended to move to Paris to pursue his career as an illustrator, but after visiting an artist friend in Westport, he and Ann fell in love with the Dutch Colonial farmhouse, along its large plot of 30 acres, three cows, a horse and several out-buildings, one of which became his studio. Wright doubled the size of the house by adding a new kitchen, increasing the living room’s size, and adding two bedrooms and baths. The Wrights entertained and encouraged artists to move to Westport. In short order George became known as the Dean of Westport Artists, while Ann became involved in the women’s suffrage movement.  

When I moved in 2010, I had all of the rooms plastered and painted, installed central air conditioning, remodeled the kitchen, added a bluestone patio, and removed several layers of asphalt roofing shingles and replaced them with more appropriate cedar wood shingles. I greatly enjoy showing the house to anyone interested in history; I opened it for the former Westport Historical Society’s house and garden tours five times since 2010.  

I think it is important for Westporters to see that historic houses are livable and town treasures. In order to ensure its future, I had my property declared a Historic Landmark of Westport, and recently I gave a preservation easement on it to the organization Preservation Connecticut, and had it added to the National Register of Historic Places.  None of these designations are designed to make it into a Williamsburg-style house museum, as alterations will be considered by the Local Historic District Commission, and the staff of Preservation Connecticut, whose Board I joined after my terms as President of the former Westport Historical Society and Vice-Chairman of the Westport Historic District Commission ended. 

It continues to give me pleasure when passers-by stop to relate how they have admired the house and gardens for many years, and to thank me for my efforts.  

I think that I have lived an interesting life, although compared to “young” people today mine has been fairly routine. I have only lived in Connecticut and Washington D.C. Professionally my life was most interesting during two periods: one was when I was Vice-President of a minority-controlled Savings and Loan Association in DC, founded in 1968 immediately after the civil disturbances following Martin Luther King’s assassination. Our goal was to combat “red-lining” in lending. In my first job out of college I worked for a conservative commercial bank, where I saw a map of DC marked with a very obvious red line separating the city into parts in which the bank would lend money to would-be home owners, and other areas of the city that were considered credit risks, largely along racial lines. The Savings and Loan where I worked did not do that, and it was a profitable institution for many years. 

Later, when I worked for the Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corporation during the infamous S&L crisis of the 1980s, I organized nationwide teams that closed insolvent thrift organizations. I learned a great deal about crooked banking practices, and was glad to participate in resolving the crisis and helping countless people who had lost part or all of their savings. I learned the importance of “people skills” at this time as well. 

I was in DC during the civil disturbances in 1968, which were the product of systemic racism. We smiled when we saw expensive shops in Georgetown with plywood covering their windows and signs saying “Soul Brother.” The protestors were mostly African-American, while the shopkeepers, whose property was destroyed, were all white. From the tallest building on the GU’s campus, my friends Michael Moore, John Donohue and I saw fires throughout our downtown commercial areas. One elderly British Jesuit who joined us remarked that the blazing horizon reminded him of London during the Blitz. There were very few black-owned businesses in DC, and nearly all of them were untouched. One famous black-owned eatery that is still very popular today with a multiracial clientele is Ben’s Chili Bowl. Its owners fed rioters and police alike through the long weekend.  

All college classes were cancelled, and my friends and I left DC at 6:00 am in one of the few cabs operating. It was disheartening to see Georgetown’s commercial streets lined with National Guard Troops.  

A few years later I was awakened early one morning by the sound of helicopters overhead looking for anti-Viet Nam War protesters. I put a garden hose in front of my house for the marchers to wash the tear gas out of their eyes.  It was a scary time indeed. The anti-war protesters were almost all white. Even the demonstrations of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s were segregated. In contrast, I believe that the current Black Lives Matter demonstrations have been on the whole more positive in that they have attracted overwhelmingly multi-racial participation. This is as it should be.  

As I look around Westport today, I cannot help but wonder what my grandparents thought when they moved here from Bridgeport in the 1920s. My mother attended Bedford Elementary when it was in the Town Hall building, and had her First Communion at Assumption Church. But was moving to Westport a sign of upward mobility or not? Remember that the Bridgeport that they left was a thriving city. All Bridgeporters had to do was take a bus downtown for the best shopping, dining, amazing movie palaces showing first run movies, hotels, and the crown jewel – Seaside Park. There were many employment opportunities as well. In contrast, Westport comparatively had not much to offer. I guess my grandparents agreed with this analysis, because after five years they returned to Bridgeport. My uncle who wanted to finish his senior year in Westport at Staples, had to ride the trolley daily to do so. 

As I look at Westport today, it still does have a thriving arts scene, which George Hand Wright played a major role in establishing over a century ago. The number of artists here (led informally by everyone’s favorite Miggs Burroughs) heartens me. However, I regret that we continue to lose important buildings often because their owners have not agreed to designate them as historic. Sadly, Main Street, even with its stunning Bedford Square, continues to fight the commerce vs bricks-and-mortar battle that we see nationwide. I hope that small independent shops like Savvy and Grace will survive and prosper.  

I have been a volunteer with ABC – A Better Chance for several years. If you are not familiar with it, go to their website or call them. Briefly, they provide housing, wonderful meals and a safe studious but not boring environment for eight smart non-white boys from across the nation, whose local school systems do not provide an atmosphere in which they can thrive academically compared to the academic advantages they experience at Staples. They need all sorts of volunteers to help make these boys’ experiences in our town successful ones, so volunteer! 

New developments like our Museum of Contemporary Arts, the new format at the Westport Museum for History and Culture, and of course, our amazing Library are all positive developments. The Westport Country Playhouse has closed down for this season. My first experience at the Playhouse was during their “Summer Stock” productions as an usher at the age of 16. Since then the Playhouse has evolved into a year-round venue and offers Westporters theatrical productions comparable to any in the nation. I certainly hope that it will reopen soon. 

Another positive development in town has been the increasing number of international homeowners. I am surrounded by a fascinating collection including a Spanish wife and her German husband, a multigenerational Russian family, a Kenyan wife and Norwegian husband and a household led by a Swedish father and New Jersey born mother. Imagine how much their kids are teaching one another about the world. 

The current COVID pandemic has been a real challenge for me, because I like to go out to eat, go to movies, theater, New York, the beach and gatherings with friends. I have been advisedly cautious, but I was delighted when my barber reopened. I have not even been back to my second home in Washington D.C. 

I feel that Westport is a transient place as evidenced by the fact that every neighboring house to mine, but one, has sold once and sometimes as often as three times in my ten years back here. 

Contrary to popular belief there is much more residential stability in D.C. than here in Westport.  I had the same neighbors for 20-plus years in my last neighborhood in D.C. Sadly, it is especially hard to interest such a transient populace in our town’s history, especially now that most activities are by necessity on zoom. 

I wish I could say that I learned Spanish, which was a goal of mine during the lockdown. Instead, I spent a lot of time preparing my garden for the summer. My wonderful yardman Manny Mondujano worked with me on this project throughout the period.  I helped two non-citizens do everything required to become citizens during the lockdown.  It is an increasingly complicated and expensive process, but I can only hope that changes in the White House in 2020 will make it easier for longtime hard-working residents to become citizens. I organized and sorted files and renewed friendships with old friends. Due to a family emergency, I housed my cousin for two weeks, which was a wonderful opportunity to see her and help resolve the family problem. 

Perhaps most importantly I studied the roles and duties of Historic New England and was asked to join its Board of Overseers serving as one of its Connecticut ambassadors . Unfortunately the pandemic has delayed the actual start of my duties!

 I am ready to resume a normal life, but sadly do not see that occurring any time soon! 

Explore More of “Westport In Focus”

To read more of the museums long lens oral histories please visit the Westport In Focus page.