10 Things To Love About Washington Depot, CT
By Christine Adams Beckett
As its name suggests, The Depot was once a major hub of the Shepaug Valley Railroad when the area was bustling in Industrial Age commerce, but has now evolved into a community of sophisticated permanent and weekend residents whose mark is well observed in the town’s eateries, shops and cultural institutions. Long a favorite amongst New Yorkers yearning for more bucolic countryside with an air of chic sophistication, Washington Depot provides it all: beautiful farms, cottages, country estates with their accompanying breathtaking views and all the diversions to satisfy the most cosmopolitan tastes, as well as the simple joys that come with the changing, seasonal landscape.
1. The Hickory Stick Bookshop is a mainstay in town, and has been for over 70 years. Regular readings by local authors dot the calendar, and once boasted William Styron and Arthur Miller on its docket. For my family, it is a destination on a rainy day, when a hike in Steep Rock is not ideal, when we can browse the handsomely displayed stacks and talk books with the staff, which collectively has 100 years of experience, according to the store’s website.
2. And speaking of Steep Rock Association, there are three trails in Washington, one of which, Hidden Valley, is within walking distance to the Depot. The Trust was established by renowned architect Ehrick Rossiter in 1889, when he discovered plans to clearcut trees in an adjacent property while breaking ground for his own country home. The Association now boasts more than 2700 acres of hiking trails with sweeping views and dramatic features, like the “clamshell,” an old quartz quarry and the retired rail bed of the Shepaug line, including its tunnel which might inspire you to come up with your own life metaphor.
3. The architecture of the Depot’s businesses and cultural institutions, not to mention the private homes that spread out farther and farther as you move out of the town center, is inspiring. From the Greek Revival Gunn Memorial Library and Bryant Memorial Hall, to the quaint stretch of storefronts spilling petunias from their window boxes, to the stately summer homes of the turn-of-the-last century, renovated mills and rolling farms, the area’s structures reflect the intangible: this is a community of people who appreciate art, literature, natural beauty and history.
Note: For an insider’s glimpse of Ehrick Rossiter’s legacy, which remains in the area’s stately homes, there’s a book devoted to the man’s work: Rossiter: Country Houses of Washington, Connecticut.
4. The Judy Black Memorial Park and Gardens are a testament to local business people and citizens’ thoughtful repurposing of vacant buildings. Once a gas station that long sat abandoned, The Park and Gardens is now a stylish center for residents to enjoy cultural programming, a weekly farmers’ market (run by a local whose family can trace their lineage back hundreds of years), movie nights and community gatherings. Most appealing: what was once an eyesore is now a green space open to all, providing a “welcome to the Depot” for neighbors and visitors, and an enticing swath of land that my children love. Area artist Mark Mennin’s sculpted bench, which flanks the lawn, is a conversation starter as well: a long carved piece of marble that he somehow made look plush (and is)!
5. The Washington Arts Association is another long-honored cultural institution in town, offering exhibits by emerging and established artists and classes for all mediums of visual art. You can pop in anytime and see something that will inspire you, but a favorite of mine is the annual student exhibition, where my family and I can stand agape before evidence of a neighbor’s talent. At Christmastime there also is a fabulous gift fair, a relic of which still decorates my 18-year-old son’s bookcase: a hand-carved wooden toy truck cum rough-hewn piece of folk art.
6. The eateries. Whether you crave local organic fare in a casual setting that feels like glamping (Hidden Valley Eatery), long-established gourmet surrounded by kitchenware for sale that make anyone want to viens à table (The Pantry), or upscale pub fare which seems to attract the arts crowd on Tuesday nights (The GW Tavern), the Depot is your place. Marty’s Café is open seven days a week for a sandwich and a great cup of coffee if the quiet of the surrounds leaves you craving for quick social contact. If dining in is your thing, come to Judy Black Park (see #4) on Saturday morning to buy your own locally grown produce for all that you need to entertain your guests.
7. The Gunn Memorial Library is another established cultural institution in the Depot that offers all of what you’d expect: book discussions, story hours for children, a local history research room, any title you’d like to borrow. But its annual fundraising events have become ones to plan for, including the Library Luminaries event, where local talent is celebrated and toasted at small dinner parties throughout the town, preceded by a cocktail in the gorgeous stone Greek Revival building. In the fall, it’s the Design and Antiques Show, which offers booths from local dealers and all the treasures they have to offer. The venue for this event is the Washington Primary School, which turns its gymnasium into a chic exhibition hall on Columbus Day weekend — the unofficial start of leaf-peeping season — when the brilliance of the foliage will leave you in awe.
8. The Gunn Historic Museum will put the Depot into a clearer perspective for you. Yes, as is suggested by the name, the General did sleep here (and the tavern that hosted him down the road still stands as a private home), but the Depot’s history holdings are far more interesting than the expected Revolutionary New England olde pewter mug. At one time, Washington was mostly a farming community, but the power of the Shepaug later turned the industry turbine of the age: mills, ironworks, factories and quarries. After the advent of different forms of commerce, the town — with its proximity to New York City, its distinct architecture, natural beauty and unique community — reinvented itself. See it all for yourself in the newly installed Washington History Room at the Gunn, located in a bequeathed Colonial home that was renovated this year.
Photo: Jim Ross
9. The annual traditions. Christmas fairs and fall antique shows aside, there are more campy aspects to the Depot, like the annual Memorial Day celebration which will leave you looking for Normal Rockwell and his easel, and which you’d expect from a town that hosted and is named for the Man Himself. Think memorial wreaths tossed into the Shepaug in memory of our fallen naval veterans, readings of “In Flanders’ Fields” by a local veteran, and parades led by antique fire trucks and lined by treat-wielding children with flushed faces.
10. Grace Mayflower Inn & Spa. For those with the most discriminating tastes, the elegant Grace Mayflower is situated on 58 picturesque acres and surrounded by an additional 3,000 acres of nature preserve just outside the Depot.
Photo: Serge Detalle
A member of the Relais & Châteaux association of the world’s most enticing hotels, the Grace Mayflower also offers a luxurious and world-renowned spa with all the expected services, as well as a few unexpected ones like meditation, sound therapy and Blue Heron Insight, helping guests “realize their strengths and motivation” thereby strengthening one’s interpersonal relationships. For locals, it’s a special venue for cocktail hour in the tap room or dinner in the elegant dining room.