Ed Vebell, Austin Briggs, And A Wonderful Studio With Northern Light

In 1953, Ed Vebell was starting to make a name as an artist. He’d spent World War II as an illustrator/reporter for Stars and Stripes. He stayed in Europe a while, covering the Nuremberg trials and drawing 18-year-old Grace Kelly.

Now he, his wife Elsa Cerra and their 3-year-old daughter Vicki lived in New York. He hung out at the Society of Illustrators, eating and schmoozing with well-known artists.

One day, he spotted a bulletin board notice of a house for sale. He knew nothing about the town — Westport, Connecticut — but it had an artist’s studio with a large north light window.

That was huge: No shadows or highlights on the canvas or drawing board.

The artist’s studio.

The seller was Austin Briggs. A renowned illustrator — he drew “Flash Gordon,” worked for Reader’s Digest and the Saturday Evening Post, and was later elected to the Society of Illustrators’ Hall of Fame — that was enough to assure Ed that he was making the right move for himself and his family.

He bought the house, for $29,000 — sight unseen.

When Ed arrived for the first time, he looked down the end of Roosevelt Road. Something blue caught his eye. What was it?

“That’s Long Island Sound, sir,” the broker replied.

Okay, he thought. That’s nice.

Ed Vebell wrote his memoirs — and illustrated the cover.

The house served Ed and his growing family well. Working in that wonderful studio — enjoying the large north light window — he contributed to Time, Reader’s Digest and other publications. Specializing in military art, he drew uniforms from around the world for encyclopedias and paperback publishers. He worked for MBI too, illustrating the history of America from Leif Erikson through the Pilgrims, the Founding Fathers, and every war up to Vietnam.

Ed designed US stamps too — some with military themes. The studio was strewn with uniforms, helmets and boots. There was not even enough space for Wild Bill Hickok’s hat. So Ed stashed it in the bathtub.

Last February — less than 2 weeks after appearing at a Westport Historical Society show honoring his long career — Ed Vebell died peacefully, at home. He was 96.

It’s taken his daughters a year to clear out the house, and auction his collections.

But now the home — 9 Quentin Road — is on the market.

Ed Vebell’s home, 9 Quentin Road,

Audra Vebell says she and her sisters hope to find someone with “an appreciation of the history and special nature of this house.”

It really is special. For nearly a century, not one but two of America’s most famed illustrators lived and worked there.

In fact, just before he sold it to Ed, Austin signed his name in the garage concrete. It’s still there.

So history — and the spirit of 2 of Westport’s most prominent citizens — still remain.

When it comes to Ed Vebell and Austin Briggs, there must be something in the water.

(Click here for the real estate listing.)

10 responses to “Ed Vebell, Austin Briggs, And A Wonderful Studio With Northern Light

  1. Know the house well – I was the Vebell’s baby sitter & grew up at 5 Roosevelt Rd. All The neighboring kids modeled at one time or another. Don’t forget the Weaties boxes… love to the girls! PeachK

  2. Eric William Buchroeder SHS ‘70

    This just HAS to be declared a historic site. There is no excuse not to.

    • Great house. Great social history. Too bad it wasn’t landmarked.
      I hope to be proven wrong but the likelihood of it ending up in a landfill is pretty high. If 16 Minuteman Hill wasn’t safe, then nothing is.

  3. Morley, is it possible for those of us who feel the same way could draft something for P&Z and HDA. to broach the subject? Ann Chernow

    • One could always ask HDC to place the matter upon the agenda of its next public hearing. But first make sure that you would enjoy the support of the Vebell family. That would be, I think, the fair and respectful way to possibly proceed with a plan to make sure this fragile cultural resource is preserved.

      As an aside, I think this house is within the bounds of a (rapidly vanishing) National Register District. Not that it matters. Obviously.

      • I believe one of Mr Vebell’s daughters serves or has served on the HDC and/or the P & Z and that she has been an advocate for regulations to encourage preservation of homes otherwise susceptible to teardown.

    • William Strittmatter

      Interesting. I’d imagine that if Mr. Vebell or his heirs wanted a monument to him or to preserve the house, they would have taken the steps to do so. I didn’t know him but I’d imagine from what I’ve read, Mr Vebell wasn’t that vain. While it sounds like his daughters would prefer to sell to someone who will keep the place intact, they probably don’t want to make it a tough sell by limiting potential buyers to only those that would. Seems like a sound economic decision.

      Part of the problem is since the property is in a flood zone, any significant renovation (much beyond interior cosmetics) could easily trip the threshold requiring bringing the property up to current FEMA compliance. In this case, I believe that would include filling in the basement, probably moving mechanicals and oil tank into what is now living space and might require elevation of the house as well. Once you go there, unfortunately tear down and complete rebuild to something more modern is probably more economic not to mention appealing to a buyer.

      Morley is right. Before you go down the path of forcing preservation, you really should check with those that would bear the burden. Maybe that is what they want but just didn’t remember to file the papers. But if you do approach them, please don’t bully or try to guilt trip them into doing something against their interests.

  4. Not well remembered today is the pejorative moniker: “Palooka.” as in “He’s a real Palooka.” Some undesirable town or place was a “Palooka-ville.” The term originated with the comic character Joe Palooka. The strip was drawn by Hammond “Ham” Fisher. Fisher lived and (and maybe worked) out of a studio at his home along Fanton Hill Road, in Weston. I collected each and every issue of the comic books about the boxer who went to war. Through some connection I no longer recall, my father knew Fisher — maybe the two of them commuted in the same bar car into the City — but my dad asked Fisher if he would draw a picture of Joe for me — a head-shot, which he did.(Fisher, himself, usually drew Joe’s head; inkers did the rest.)

    During the War Years, Joe Palooka was Among the top five most popular comic strips. According to Wikipedia, however, in Fisher’s early career he hired several inkers to draw the strip, one of whom was Al Capp — later of L’il Abner fame. As L’il Abner outshone Joe Palooka, the two artists declared war on each other in public. Capp despised and denigrated Fisher and for two decades the pair waged a donnybrook in gossip columns. Fisher ended it in 1955 by taking his own life.

    Some time in the 1980s I was at a Comic-con and mentioned to one of the collector-vendors that at one time I had the complete set of Joe Palooka comics from the World War II period, and asked what the set would have been worth at the present time. North of around $40,000. Spoiler alert: After WW2 my mother tossed out my entire collection as unbefitting material. Oi!

  5. Ms. Vebell was on the Planning and Zoning Commission. My interactions found her to be a lovely person but I have no idea if the family intends to establish an historic designation for the house. My guess is that the F.E.M.A. rules will not pose a problem if it is desired to preserve this charming house. I also note that Morley Boyd usually has both visionary and practical comments regarding historic preservation. Morley is an important asset to Westport.
    Don Bergmann