Parker Harding Plaza, then and now: Photo at left shows rendering of the riverside parking lot as originally designed by Evan Harding, which now hangs in the home of his daughter, Marilyn. At right, a current-day photo of the lot featured on the Downtown Plan Implementation Committee website.

By Gretchen Webster

WESTPORT — Plans to redesign the Parker Harding Plaza parking lot have been hotly debated in recent months until First Selectwoman Jennifer Tooker put a temporary stop to the wrangling to allow time to consider other options for the project.

But Marilyn Harding, whose father Evan Harding designed the lot in the early 1950s, thinks the debate — on all sides — has lacked a clear focus on productive long-range plans for the riverside space and the rest of downtown.

She suggests the town should stick to plans originally laid out by her father, who was an architect, an award-winning landscape designer and a developer and owner of Daybreak Nursery with his brothers. His plan for Parker Harding included green spaces, flowers and more parking spaces than the lot now holds, she said, showing the original drawing of the Parker Harding lot plan that hangs in a room in her home dedicated to her father.

About 15 years ago, Harding’s landscaping touches were removed and 11 more spaces were added to the parking lot, she said.

Going forward, however, Harding thinks planners should take a broader view of parking issues and downtown development.

She believes the 22-acre property known as the Baron’s South property — which she said is “just going to blight” — in conjunction with town properties off Imperial Avenue and Jesup Road, could be part of comprehensive plans for parking and expanding the downtown area.

Rising from the river

The parking lot was named after Evan Harding and then-Selectman Emerson Parker, and built by Paul Kowalsky of the construction firm Kowalsky Brothers. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers monitored construction, because of its proximity to the river, she said.

Evan Harding, photographed in his later years, was an architect, an award-winning landscape designer and a developer and co-owner of Daybreak Nursery. He also served on the RTM and Planning and Zoning Commission.

“When it was finished they said they had never seen anything so beautiful … My dad designed it and he was proud of the project …,” Marilyn Harding recalled. 

“He had not only created parking space for the merchants, but created a whole downtown and opened the Saugatuck River so that it could be seen.”

At the time the parking lot was planned, stores were built directly along the bank of the Saugatuck River and flooded frequently. Part of the river was filled in to create the parking area, which help mitigate flooding in the downtown area, she said.

A civic legacy

Evan Harding served on the Westport Representative Town Meeting for eight years and the Planning and Zoning Commission for over 20, according to his obituary in the Westport Minuteman when he died in July 2000. He is also credited with helping the town acquire Longshore Club Park, and creating the original design for Compo Beach, the obituary said.

But the parking lot on the banks of the Saugatuck River was “one of his most well-known achievements,” according to his obituary.

“Once it was done and designed and put together — my dad was considered a hero … They called him ‘Mr. Westport,’ ” his daughter said.

The Harding family is a four-generation Westport family, moving to Westport in 1913, when Evan Harding’s mother brought Evan and his siblings here from Wales on the famous ocean liner, the Lusitania, to join his father. In Westport, the family lived in several places, eventually settling on a large parcel of land on Cross Highway and opening Daybreak Nursery.

Over the years, Evan Harding received awards for his work and community service, including the Westport Citizen of the Year award in 1985 and inclusion in “Who’s Who in Connecticut” in 1991. Several of Harding’s children still live in Westport.

The Daybreak Nursery, owned by the Harding family, was featured on the cover of The New Yorker magazine in 1955. The little girl in the illustration is Evan Harding’s daughter.

Marilyn Harding tells the story of how her father, who was upset by the plan to build the Connecticut Turnpike through Westport, was flown via helicopter to Hartford by the governor to review the plans.

According to her, Evan Harding kept plans to construct the turnpike — now part of Interstate 95 — from tearing through more of the Saugatuck area than it eventually did.

“You wouldn’t believe it to look at it now,” she said, “but Westport, especially Saugatuck, would have been devoured” if not for her father’s intervention.

The road ahead

Marilyn Harding would like town planners to honor her father’s legacy by keeping the same number of parking spaces in the Parker Harding lot, but fix what she calls a facility that has fallen into disrepair. 

Most importantly, she thinks the town should take more time to make long-range, comprehensive plans before making major changes.

“We have ‘the gimmies.’ We want, and want, and want, but don’t plan,” she said.

“We’re right back where we began” in the 1950s when her father designed Parker Harding Plaza, she said. “People didn’t have enough parking on Main Street then and they don’t now … Why don’t we stop fooling around and have a long-term plan?”

Freelance writer Gretchen Webster, a Fairfield County journalist and journalism teacher for many years, was editor of the Fairfield Minuteman newspaper for 10 years and teaches journalism at Southern Connecticut State University.