Friday Flashback #51

I remember many old, long-gone buildings from my childhood.

I’m fascinated by our 2 sanitariums, downtown (now Winslow Park) and on Long Lots Road (Hall-Brooke).

I’m sorry I never got inside the original Staples High School, on Riverside Avenue (the current site of the Saugatuck Elementary School auditorium).

And I hear that whatever happened at the Compo Inn, stayed at the Compo Inn.

But nothing fascinates me like the Penguin.

I’m not talking about Le Penguin — the French bistro in Sconset Square. It’s a very good restaurant, mais oui.

But it’s nothing like the Penguin.

Nothing was.

A white building with a nautical theme — portholes and a big anchor outside — it sat proudly on the crest of Hillspoint Road, just south of the train tracks.

The Penguin.

The Edgewater Commons condos are there now. But for several decades — from the early 1900s through the ’40s, I think — the Penguin was the place to be.

I heard it was the first air-conditioned jazz club between New York and Boston. I heard it was a speakeasy during Prohibition. I heard there were white tablecloths and a crystal chandelier, and that George Raft and James Cagney were frequent guests.

I heard it was also a hotel, and once you left the bar for your room, anything — and everything — could happen.

By the time I got to junior high, it was long since past its prime. It looked seedy and abandoned — though it was really just an apartment building.

But word on the 8th grade street was that it was a “whorehouse.” On a dare, some friends and I walked inside. It was dark, musty, and scary as hell.

We had not thought through what we would do if we met an actual “whore.” Suddenly, a woman wearing a frumpy housecoat stepped into the dim hallway.

We fled. We did not stop running until we got to Old Mill Beach.

But boy, did we have a story to tell our gaping classmates the next day.

The Soundview Hotel. (Photo courtesy of Paul Ehrismann)

Oh, yeah: Before it was the Penguin, it was the Miramar. Before that, it was the Soundview Hotel.

I don’t know too much else about the Penguin — or whether my knowledge of it is fact, fiction or a combination of both.

But if I ever have a chance to time travel back to the Westport of yore, I’ll head to the Penguin.

I’d hear great music. I’d eat and drink. I’d head to my room. And then … 😉

35 responses to “Friday Flashback #51

  1. Celeste Champagne

    Dan, you have a book to write–perhaps a novel–based on this intriguing story you outlined. It’s a movie in the making. Can’t wait for it!

    • I wonder how much to believe of that ad, considering it referenced “Campo Beach.”

      • I’ve seen many references to Compo beach in the late 1800s and early 1900s show up as “Campo” – not sure if there is a story there, but it’s always caught my eye

      • Yes, wasn’t there a postcard posted here reading “Campo”?
        Anyway, where did the name “the Penguin hotel” come from? — it was air conditioned, cosmopolitan? Those “portholes” are life preservers …

      • My step father always referred to it as Campo Beach too. He was a Weston old timer but maybe it has WW11 reference?

    • Noting Fred’s 1920 items – the ad for the Miramar Inn lists D. Vetromile as the manager. He must be an early relative of Peter Vetromile who ran Peter’s Bridge Market at Riverside Ave. and Bridge St. for years and later moved the store to Weston, where it may still be.

      • Peter had a Westport store and a Weston store. He sold the Westport store and later the same people bought the Weston store. I miss the Westport store.

      • Wendy Crowther

        Mr. Barlow, you are correct about D. Vetromile being a relative of Peter Vetromile of Peter’s Bridge Market fame. When I was doing historical research on the Saugatuck Swing Bridge (Cribari Bridge), I delved into the Vetromile family a bit. Peter’s father was Domenico Vetromile. Domenico and his wife Mathilde were immigrants who met and married in NYC but moved to Westport in the early 1900s. In 1917, Domenico had a liquor store on Franklin and resided above it. By 1919, he was the proprietor of the Miramar. There were troubles in the marriage (and at the Miramar) so Mathilde took her two young boys, Peter and William, to Italy where she had relatives. They returned after their schooling. There were divorce proceedings in 1925 because she felt that the Miramar was not a “decent” place for them to live. By 1930, the family was living on Washington Ave. and Peter was the manager of a grocery store which later turned out to be Peter’s Bridge Market (by 1939). Peter died in 1973.

  2. So cool!

  3. Vanessa Bradford

    Wow Dan! Did you jog a memory peg! I grew up nearby on Edgewater Hillside and the mystique of the Penguin was felt years before you and I were in the 7th/8th grade. I went to Hillspoint and for some reason my K bus stop was in front of the hotel. I was five years old and my Mother was late picking me up one afternoon and I freaked, thinking those “shady” people would come out and abduct me. Imagine! Later in the 7th or 8th grade a small group of us went into the Sanitarium in Winslow Park. It was creepy and rather sad. We left after finding and reading some personal letters from a patient who had been there decades earlier. It was very invasive of us, and we left with feelings of remorse.

    • I too was in the Westport Sanitarium, and it too was scary as hell. Dusty straitjackets, creaky doors and floors, old hypodermic needles (from when junkies shot up there — after it was abandoned) — we were too scared to feel remorseful.

  4. One of my friends lived there in the 70’s. I stayed there with him for a week or so, and it was pretty nice! Not seedy at all…

  5. Don, get busy on a book or screenplay. Your introduction left me wishing for more.

  6. I rented a small apartment there for about three years when I was a young man in the late 1970’s. Good memories of living there with all the neighbors and Compo Beach a short moped ride away.

  7. Peter Gambaccini

    I heard the tales of ill repute about the Penguin, too, but I doubted them because I knew a very successful and very diminutive publicist who lived there and he seemed “wholesome.”

  8. Fred Cantor’s entry (in his comment above) to the Green Book, as my dad used to call it, is invaluable, and a treasure house of old memories of the New England i remember driving through, the old inns and tea rooms.
    dig it.

  9. From 59 to 86 while on the WPD, there were few calls to the Penguin. I recall that either Bill Stefan or George Call lived there when first married. Nick Restaino was the former owner at one time. There was a golf driving range across the street operated by Gil Giannitti. In my memory, there was never anything significant about the Penguin ecept for the rumors over the years. – Dick Alley

  10. My dad used to refer to The Penguin as a “roadhouse”. not sure how much time he spent there, he never said.

  11. A classmate of ours told me when we were in 8th grade that her older sister lived there and that she was a “professional woman”. She didn’t use those words but they were crafted to make a point!

  12. Ooops. I know you’re Dan:-)

  13. Back in the 70’s this completely riveting place was on our morning carpool route to school and was easily the 2nd highlight of my day.

    The first was the Westport Sanitarium; an utterly baroque bus wreck of a scene. It was impossible to look away. I had no idea what it was but I couldn’t get enough.

  14. Mary Cookman Schmerker Staples '58

    Fascinating. I remember fondly Peter’s Bridge Market and the Sanitarium was always a place of mystery . I date back to 1940, although I was an infant, I never heard or saw a reference for Campo Beach. However, I still want to say it is Cedar Point Yacht Club with the copula on top where we “Spotted Planes” during the Korean War. Dan, you could and should write a book.

  15. In the course of family research I have seen “Compo” spelled a few different ways. I think my favorite is “Compaw”.

    On another note, Morley Boyd, would you email me at jacques.voris@gmail.com ?

  16. Laura Lawhon-Butler

    My aunt and uncle, Nick and Alyce Restaino owned The Penguin, the large house between the railroad tracks and The Penguin ..the private drive continued around and there was The Annex, also apartments and several other decent rental residences…They owned it my entire life, from at least 1955 through to when it was sold to become the condos..Uncle Nick passed away in the early 1970’s and Aunt Alyce managed the properties until the sale..In the 1960’s my dad … Aunt Alyce’s brother, Pete Horelick, renovated one of the apartments ..the entrance was on the far right of the photo..he did such a great job that Uncle Nick said he’d have to raise his rent… it was a nice place to live as kids (before moving to Southern California with my mom,(Rose Borchetta) because my cousin, Howard Jaderlund lived in one of the apartments with his wife Rosemary before they moved to Arizona, another cousin and family lived within walking distance..it was old time Westport..lots of family get togethers at the big house..it was so big it had a baby grand in the dining room..and a huge long table that sat all the extended family… The basement of The Penguin was where the “speakeasy” had been…it was always dark and abandoned by the time we explored it…but even then you could still see the character, the quality red leather curved booth seating… and imagine the people all decked out in their finest…they revived it once for a huge party..maybe late 60’s…not a whorewhouse ..just a bunch of sweet older people with great stories about their past lives… one, Ruthie, inspired me as a small child to visit the Cote D’Azure from all her beautiful photos and stories…I’ve been there many times since…I met her because the thermostat for the entire building was in her apartment and I was the designated one to go ask her to turn it down or up…

    • I remember Alyce and the house she lived in when I moved in in 1977 and I lived in the apartment to the far right facing the street that was entered from the front porch, not the common hallway. Jim Randall bought the property and changed the name to Ocean Point before the building was torn down and condos were built. Thanks for your history and bringing back some memories.

  17. Lori Winthrop Dockser

    I sooo remember my parents telling us to stay away, I do believe whorehouse was I the reference … lol

  18. Sally Campbell Palmer

    I wonder if “Ruthie” with the thermostat was Ruthie Williams. She and my Mom worked together at the Town Crier in the 50’s and we frequently took her home to the Penguin. A Very nice, and obviously once very beautiful lady who had been married to a wealthy man and had done much traveling. I was too young to pick up the whole story but it always seemed sad. However, The Penguin was always an interesting place to me because Ruthie lived there.

  19. Terry brannigan

    If someone does write the book i want to contribute! I knew alice restino because i grew up accross the street and was clise childhood friends with Robert, Darin and Wayne Smith who lived on Groves Point Rd and were her nephewes from their mothers side.

    We had a minibike gang and we did countless circles around that place and the Annex out into the “mud flats”, onto the fire path along the railroad tracks and all around the neighborhood.

    Im still friends with all if them Steve Gargiulo, keal Evans, Robert Nimpkoff, Bed Dossett etc. I delivered news papers there, caught the school buss there and got taken home by the police from there for throwing snowballs off the roof at anything pasding by. (And always missing btw)

    Someone told me the historical society has the actual penguines from the facade

    I explored the basement for hours ant it was in fact still set up like a speakeasy. Booths, a small stage in the form of a boat bow and a carved minature of a ship’s captain in the wheel house.

  20. Loretta Santella Hallock

    Sad they demolished it. I live on the old driving range. I remember the day they took it down.Maybe we could learn something from this and try to preserve a little bit of old Westport /Saugatuck.

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