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Six years later, Chabad of Westport prepares to cut the ribbon on its (historic) new home

By Dan Woog

A large mural inside the building gives energy to the teenagers’ space.

WESTPORT – In early 2012, Chabad of Westport announced plans to acquire the former Three Bears restaurant and turn into a Chabad Lubavitch synagogue. The 9,180-square foot property sits on 2.73 acres, at the corner of Wilton Road and Newtown Turnpike. The historic site will be used for prayer services, educational programs and other meetings.

That’s where the restaurant – with six fireplaces – operated from 1900 until 2009. It reopened for about five seconds as Tiburon restaurant, but the property was soon abandoned. Weeds sprouted on the once-stately site – parts of which still stood from its days as a stagecoach stop, 200 years earlier.

As reported in the Jewish Ledger in 2013 (“Chabad of Westport Purchases Historical Connecticut Restaurant,” Feb. 14, 2013), the move to the former restaurant in early 2012 was not without controversy. First, it resulted in a notice of violation issued by Westport town officials, as Chabad had not received prior approval to occupy the building. When that issue was resolved and, in July 2012, a site plan for Chabad was approved by the Planning and Zoning Commission, the complaints from neighbors started pouring in.

A story that appeared on my blog, “06880,” noted that complaints had been made by a neighbor about work being done without permits, and bright security lights infringing on neighbors. Other concerns included traffic, wetland impacts, and exterior alterations to a historic building.

The story ran at a time when the blog still permitted anonymous comments. It drew a record 217 responses, both for and against. (The record still stands.) Readers noted Chabad’s mission, good works, and religious tolerance/intolerance in general; zoning issues, such as the permit process the impact on residential neighborhoods, traffic patterns, historic structures and more.

What a difference six years makes.

As Chabad of Westport prepares for its grand opening celebration May 3 – including a ribbon-cutting ceremony with First Selectman Jim Marpe – the neighborhood has changed hardly at all.

Three Bears Inn, in its heyday. (Photo courtesy of  Westport Historical Society)

The exterior of the Three Bears has been preserved. Some of the interior wood beams and other features remain as well. More than 10,000 square feet have been added, but the extension lies in the back of the facility, barely visible from the front. The work is all done in traditional New England style, with a barn-type feel.

Even the parking lot has been redesigned, eliminating a dangerous entrance near Wilton Road.

The renovated space – designed by Robert Storm Architecture, and carried out by Able Construction – includes seating for 300, in a light-filled multi-function synagogue; eight classrooms for Hebrew school; event spaces, with a special area for teenagers; a large library; and a state-of-the-art commercial kosher kitchen.

Eight apartments above can be used by visiting lecturers, and Orthodox observers attending events on the Sabbath who are too far away to walk home. (The apartments – completely renovated – were once leased to Three Bears dishwashers.)

The building process has reinforced for local Chabad leaders the importance of its site. Over the centuries, the property has been not only a restaurant, inn and stagecoach stop, but also (possibly) a house of ill repute, says congregant Denise Torve.

To honor its history, Chabad of Westport director Rabbi Yehuda Kantor and Torve are seeking artifacts to display, and memories to showcase. Photos and recollections can be sent to DeniseTorve@aol.com.

Chabad has come a long way from the days when members met in the basement of the rabbi’s home, and rented the Westport Woman’s Club for High Holy Days services.

Dan Woog is author of the blog “06880” (www.06880danwoog.com). This article is an edited excerpt of an article that first appeared on the blog.

Chabad of Westport’s grand opening celebration is set for Thursday, May 3, 6 p.m. at 79 Newtown Turnpike. It includes a ribbon cutting, mezuzah affixing, ushering in of the Torahs, buffet dinner, music and dancing. The event is open to the community.

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