Sylvan Road House: From Gerber Baby To Historic Plaque

Alert — and preservation-minded — “06880” reader Bill Kutik writes:

Every house in Westport has a history. I’ve been lucky enough to learn about mine from a man who grew up in it — 91-year-old Peter Barlow.

It’s already somewhat famous as the “Gerber Baby” house off Sylvan Road North, though we never think of it that way. We already knew it was built in 1927 by an original New Yorker cover artist and cartoonist, Perry Barlow. Many of his colleagues settled in Westport in the 1920s and ’30s because they had to go into New York only once a week to show their work to the magazine’s art editor. Back then, many considered Westport too far to commute on a daily basis. Imagine that?

Perry Barlow (self-portrait).

Barlow’s wife, artist Dorothy Hope Smith, had a sideline to her book illustrating and advertising work: doing oil paintings of friends’ children. In 1928, Gerber held a contest to find a face for its new baby food. Dorothy sent a simple charcoal sketch of a neighbor’s baby, and offered to paint an oil.

The marketing execs loved the sketch, paid her $250 (in 1929 dollars), and starting in 1931 the Gerber Baby turned into the longest running advertising symbol in American history – 90 years and counting. Imagine, if instead, they had given her a small payment every time they used it?!

Dorothy Hope Smith’s “Gerber baby” sketch.

After buying the Barlow House in 1998, my then wife and I dithered over its 2 painting studios. The larger one is part of the house with a 2-story ceiling, a huge north-facing window made of 77 individual panes of glass, and a soaring brick fireplace. The other is a separate building with much the same (including a bathroom and kitchen), but a smaller north window with 25 panes.

We needed historical precedent: Which artist used which one?

I opened the Westport phonebook (remember those?), and found Peter listed. He cheerfully answered my question: “My mother used the studio in the house.”

It became my office, where I have been delighted to work at such a historic intersection of art and commerce. After 30 years in the software industry – as columnist, consultant and impresario – I am close to finishing my first book. It was written largely in Dorothy’s studio.

Bill Kutik, at work in Dorothy Hope Smith’s former studio. (Photo/Nancy Moon)

My wife Nancy Breakstone has made Perry’s former studio into her photography studio. She frames and displays incredible photos of abstract patterns she finds everywhere: in the volcanic sand of Costa Rica’s Pacific beaches, in coral and even in modernist buildings like the TWA Hotel at JFK. You may have seen them at one of the 50+ local art shows she exhibits in every year, or online.

Perry Barlow’s studio is now used by Nancy Breakstone Photography.

So the “artists’ studio” tradition of the Barlow House continues.

I lost touch with Peter when he left Westport after 70-plus years to move closer to his daughter Dorrie Barlow Thomas in Pawcatuck. But I thought of him when I contacted Bob Weingarten, house historian and plaque coordinator since 2003 for the Westport Historical Society (now the Westport Museum for History & Culture). He immediately did an incredible deep dive into historical research. and determined the Barlow House qualified.

Happily I saw Peter commenting on a blog in “06880.” I answered his comment with my email address, and began a voluminous correspondence. We found half a dozen things in common over the 20 years separating us, including boating and typography. That’s in addition to his childhood home, which we both love.

Peter has been a professional marine photographer his entire working life. He shot editorial and advertising pictures for leading magazines, including Yachting and Motor Boating, which also published his 1973 book The Marine Photography of Peter Barlow (still available). For 17 years, he created his own 2-page spread of photos and copy every month in Soundings.

Peter was involved in every step of the plaque approval process. When COVID restrictions eased and spring weather arrived, Dorrie drove them both 90 minutes to Westport. We spent a great few hours together touring the house and studio, hearing how everything used to be, having lunch outside, and hanging the plaque together.

(From left) Nancy Breakstone, Bill Kutik, Peter Barlow and Dorrie Barlow Thomas, with the newly hung plaque at the Sylvan Road North home.

But first we recreated what he most enjoyed as a teenager: driving at top speed the original and still-unpaved uphill driveway to the house. It sits on top of what I’ve been told is the second highest hill in Westport. Peter confirmed that 85 years ago, you could see Long Island Sound from his 2nd-floor bedroom. How can I start a deforestation program to my south? I drove us up the driveway at reckless teenage speeds. He roared with delight — and told me I should have gone faster.

11 responses to “Sylvan Road House: From Gerber Baby To Historic Plaque

  1. Pegeen Gaherin

    Brilliant!!!

    A great pleasure to read. Thank you.

  2. Thanks, Dan, the pictures and drawings look great. Why not take the rest of the day off and make this your only post for the day?

  3. Wonderful story.

  4. Chip Stephens

    and we were always told the Gerber baby was Humphrey Bogart as a baby.
    oh well

  5. Bobbie Herman

    I would love to see a photo of the house itself.

  6. As a boy, growing up on Owenoke, and a wharf rat at Compo Basin, I recall seeing Peter Barlow’s regular comings and goings on his photography boat named Focus. I always admired his dedication and talent. I have his book on my shelf and one of his boat portraits hanging on my wall. Nice to read this backstory.

    • In case Peter doesn’t get to the comments, he told me Focus is still in the water, and he single-hands it to get new photos.

  7. Such an awesome and inspirational story. It’s what makes Westport so rich in architectural history. We need more of these wonderful homes preserved.

  8. Lorraine Harrison

    I have one of the collectible Gerber Baby dolls that came out over 40 years ago. Anyone know if it has value? no box but doll in great conditions.

  9. Wendy Crowther

    Great story, great history, great people. Thank you all for appreciating that every vintage house has a story (often many stories) to tell. By saving these houses and digging into their past occupants, Westport’s fascinating history is further revealed. As the house continues to stand, that history remains tangible and accessible to current generations. No teardown can do that.

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