Domenico Castiglia, Frank Costello And Sundial Farm

This week, we’re awash in the 100th anniversary of the sinking of Titanic.

Less noticed — not at all, in fact — is that 2012 marks the centennial of the purchase of 24 acres of land at the intersection of Lyons Plains and Coleytown Roads.

Newly arrived in America. Domenico Castiglia is seated at left.

The buyer was Domenico Castiglia. Part of the wave of Italian immigration in the first 15 years of the 20th century, he came to Westport because all along Lyons Plains lived people from his village in Calabria. By 1912 he had enough money to buy a parcel from the Coley family. He paid $2,000.

Domenico designed a house, and 2 years later  it was built. Jeff Wilkins –Domenico’s grandson — remembers a fortress-like structure made of stone from the nearby river.

Six generations of Castiglias lived in “The Big House.” They ranged from Domenico’s mother-in-law to his great-great-granddaughter.

"The Big House," as it faced Lyons Plains Road.

Gradually, the property was subdivided.  Three of Domenico’s 4 children built on it; half remained open fields. There was room in the homes for renters. Teachers were favored tenants, as the Castiglia family valued education. (Most of Domenico’s descendants went to Staples.)

“My grandfather’s vision was an escape from the city,” Jeff remembers. “He entertained busloads of people who slept on the floor.”

Frank Costello (right) and Lucky Luciano, pretending to spar at The Big House.

Frank Costello — who changed his last name from Castiglia, and was Domenico’s first cousin — was a frequent visitor (until Domenico told him to stay away). He’s the same Frank Costello was headed one of New York’s “5 Families.” He made his money bootlegging with Joe Kennedy during Prohibition, and it was his voice Marlon Brando imitated in “The Godfather.”

“It was almost like a 19th-century farm,” Jeff says of the property. “They had cows, so they must have sold milk. And they had 100 chickens, for eggs.”

“At that time, people ‘did for themselves,'” Jeff notes. Jeff’s mother helped build her own house. Family members contributed carpentry, electrical work, plumbing and heating.

All around there was haying, log cutting, deer and partridge hunting, apple picking, grape harvesting and wine making.

Jeff Wilkins' Aunt Laurie, celebrating the end of World War I.

The Castiglias fed themselves plentifully, and well. Fresh mozzarella, homemade sausage, sopressata, bread, butter, ice cream, milk, veal, chicken, eggs, applejack, wine, grape juice, root beer, turtle soup, and all the vegetables they could preserve — all were part of life at what was called Sundial Farm.

“They lived in a sort of communal arrangement that, through the lens of memory, seems idyllic,” says Jeff. “They were not wealthy, so they made their own entertainment.” Evenings were spent playing cards, or singing around the piano.

Not all the Castiglias stayed on the farm. Jeff’s Uncle Louie owned a tailor shop on Main Street.

Over the years, Jeff says, it became harder and harder to hold on to the land. Sentiment was not reason enough to keep it — particularly as real estate values rose.  There were more subdivisions over the years.

Domenico Castiglia, behind The Big House with his dog.

Eventually, the Big House piece was divided. Finally, it too was sold. In the early 2000s it was dismantled. A new house took its place.

Today only a handful of Westporters recall the stone house, farm and open fields that lined Lyons Plains, near Coleytown, starting 100 years ago.

Jeff Wilkins is not yet 60 years old. But he remembers well.

Say what you will about “modern” Westport. We’re not very far removed from our past.

18 responses to “Domenico Castiglia, Frank Costello And Sundial Farm

  1. When I came here in the 4th grade from Queens and went over to Jeff’s to play in the enormous open fields they had, I remember being amazed at how much property there was. It did not feel like suburbia at all.

  2. We live on Lyons Plains Road and passed that home a thousands times (more, in fact) and it broke my heart to see it go. I think a little building in the back is still there and the remnants of the stone steps remain, but I think of that great stone fascade almost everyday. Now there is a bit of a backstory to add to those thoughts as I pass by to run my errands in town.

    • Susan – There was a little building in the back – a chicken coop that had been converted into a tool shed. As a kid I loved that building; it was just my size. Jeff Wilkins

    • Jeff Wilkins

      Susan – You’re right, there was a little building in the back – a chicken coop that had been converted into a tool shed. As a kid I loved that building. It was just my size.

  3. Dick Lowenstein

    As notorious as he was, Frank Costello was a piker compared to Lucky Luciano, referred to by Time magazine as the “criminal mastermind” among the top 20 most influential builders and titans of the 20th century. Regardless, an interesting pair of house guests!

  4. Jane Nordli Jessep

    I went to a birthday party in first grade at the big house. At the time, a sister from the Castiglia family was living there with her children. Later on, the mother of that family died and the two sisters, one of whom was my friend for years, lived in one of the smaller houses on that original huge parcel of property. As well, I was good friends for many years throughout childhood with Dennis Castiglia, we graduated from Staples in 1965. It was kind of a sad moment when that old stone house disappeared. This was a touching story.

  5. I am so happy you wrote this. It’s nice knowing that the Westport my grandparents & their siblings shared with me is well-rooted & still appreciated.

  6. Betsy Miller

    As a great-granddaughter of Domenico and Jeff’s cousin, I spent many holidays and vacations in Westport, going from house to house visiting with different relatives. My great aunt Concetta (known affectionately as “Zuc”) would welcome us with open arms – she lived in the house built by my grandparents, Charles and Marion Sorisi, where my mom Marcia and aunt Carla grew up. Cousin Jeff taught me to ride a bike in the fields adjacent to 52 and 54 Lyons Plains Road, and as a kid, I was never bored – I could go visit with my aunt Alba and uncle Frank (at 56 Lyons Plains), head up the hill to see aunt Virginia and uncle Bruce, hang out with Zuc, or go visit aunt Laurie and uncle Leon, and Leon’s mom Mrs. Lachat in Weston. As sad as it was to see the houses go, it was the people who made it truly special, and I will always have wonderful memories of them.

  7. Mia Castiglia

    As one the great grandchildren, Dennis Castiglias daughter, I was lucky enough to spend a majority of my life growing up on the property. I spent a great deal of time running through the fields to see my Nannie Alba. I was sad when we had to sell the property but heart broken when the big house was torn down. It just isn’t the same, but the memories will last a life time.

  8. I just love this post. Its such a warm, genuine perspective.

  9. Don Willmott

    As a Riverfield Drive resident, I saw this house every day for 18 years but knew none of this. Fascinating. My question: the next house to the north on Lyons Plains was a cute little house in which an old lady lived in the ’50s and ’60s. Was she a part of the clan. Was she Zuc?

    • Jeff Wilkins

      Don – Yes, that was Zuc. The family called her “zia Concetta” (“aunt Concetta”). This got shortened over the years to “zu’concett” and, finally, just “Zuc”. That’s how she was known throughout the neighborhood.

  10. Peter Castiglia

    Dan, I was delighted to learn that this month marks the 100th anniversary of the property purchase. For some reason growing up on the family land, I had it in my mind that the house was built in 1909, which would obviously not be the case. Reading your post brings back wonderful memories of “the big house” and the land. Domenico was a smart man to escape from the City. I enjoyed growing up in Westport immensely and was very fortunate to have family close by.

    • Dana Ferraro

      Hi Peter, I came across this article on the Castiglia’s.. I am a decendant of Frank Costello,, My great grandmother (Maria) was his sister.. I very curious to know if we are connected somehow..

  11. Evelyn Gold Windsor

    Aunt Alba celebrated her 80th birthday in that house. I have warm fuzzy feelings thinking of Lyons Plain Road…

  12. Wendy Crowther

    Loved this story. Oddly enough, I am in the midst of doing some research on another Italian family from the Calabria region who also came to the USA in the early 1900s but settled in the Boston area.

  13. Arlene Avellanet

    In ’84 we bought the big field behind the stone house and built our home. Our children and grandchildren have also enjoyed playing in the fields and river. Nice to know even more stories about the Castiglias and the land. It adds to the history of our home as well.

  14. Sorry I missed this post. I lived across the street at 2 Riverfield Dr. (up the road from Don Wilmott) and loved looking at the “Big House”. Sadly, our family never knew anything about its history or we would have appreciated it much more. We always speculated who lived there because of its unique stone design. I am forwarding this story to my family since my heritage is Italian. They will love this.