Tag Archives: Peter Barlow

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.

Ramblin’ Jack Xerxes

I know a lot about Westport’s musical history.

I was there when the Doors, Cream, Yardbirds and many other bands played at Staples.

I remember when Johnny Winter lived here, and hung out at Players Tavern. And of course, REO Speedwagon wrote “157 Riverside Avenue” about their former home across from what is now Saugatuck Elementary School.

But I had no idea Ramblin’ Jack Elliott spent time here too.

Ramblin’ Jack Elliott

He had a profound influence on generations of musicians. Arlo Guthrie says that because he was young when his father died, he learned Woody’s songs and performing style from Ramblin’ Jack.

Jack’s interpretations of Woody Guthrie’s songs made a great impact on a young Bob Dylan. Jack later appeared in Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Review concert tour. He also influenced Phil Ochs.

Peter Barlow not only remembers Ramblin’ Jack’s Westport days — he was an important part of them. Peter writes:

Ramblin’ Jack came a lot to Westport in the late 1940s and early ’50s. He saw his friends Ric von Schmidt, Bill Frey, Bob Keedy, several others I can’t remember, and me. We were all in our late teens.

We knew him as Xerxes. He had no other name and no explanation, though if pressed he was Jack Elliott.

His real name was Elliot Adnapoz. He lived in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. His father was a surgeon. I met his parents there. They were constantly worried about Elliot, and somehow thought I was a good influence (!).

He met my parents too. I brought Xerxes over to my house one evening. He played and sang a song for my father, who was very impressed.

He played guitar and sang incessantly. I never knew there were so many verses to those folk songs.

Xerxes had 2 other interests: rodeo and sailing ships. It was the ships that connected us to each other.

In 1969, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott sailed to Westport with Pete Seeger, on Seeger’s new 106-foot sloop Clearwater. Seeger performed in Westport, though Ramblin’ Jack stayed on board. The morning after the concert, Peter Barlow took this photo — with Ramblin’ Jack on the 20-foot bowsprit — in the pouring rain. (Photo copyright Peter Barlow)

I didn’t see Xerxes for a long time after those years. He became very successful, without compromising or going commercial. He’s still performing concerts.

Although Jack Elliott rambled many places — including Westport — that’s not how he got his name. Apparently, it came from his tendency to tell long, drawn-out stories.

Folk singer Odetta claimed her mother gave him the nickname, saying, “Oh, Jack Elliott, yeah, he can sure ramble on!”

Friday Flashback #58

Last week’s Friday Flashback featured an intriguing aerial photo of downtown Westport, circa 1955.

That was right before the Saugatuck River was filled in, creating Parker Harder Plaza.

At the time of that photo — and ever since there businesses on Main Street — the river lapped up against their back doors.

Just like this:

(Photo/Peter Barlow)

Peter Barlow’s 1947 photo shows the Tally Ho restaurant. It was located — according to this 1950 matchbook — at the corner of State Street (now the Post Road) and Main Street.

That’s probably the site of the noted 1960s-’70s restaurant, West Lake. In modern terms, it’s next to the stark concrete plaza directly opposite Anthropologie (Bedford Square).

The not-to-scale map calls Main Street “Route 57.” Apparently, that’s its official name.

If you’ve got any memories of the Tally Ho — what kind of food it served, the type of customers, what it meant to be a “cocktail lounge” back in the day — click “Comments” below.

Friday Flashback #37

Saugatuck is in the news a lot.

Consultants are devising a “Transit Oriented District” plan, to redevelop the area around the train station. There’s talk of dredging the Saugatuck River. And of course the Cribari (aka Bridge Street) Bridge is very much in play.

Which makes this the perfect time to look at “timeless Saugatuck.”

Peter Barlow’s view of Franklin Street — heading toward Saugatuck Avenue — was taken from the brand-new Connecticut Turnpike (now I-95) overpass in 1958.

But — except for the cars — it could almost have been taken any time in the 60 years since then.

Hey. I said “almost.”

Click on or hover over to enlarge. (Photo/Peter Barlow)

[UPDATE] Friday Flashback #36

Sconset Square is seldom in the news. But now — as the small Myrtle Avenue shopping center seems poised for redevelopment — Westporters suddenly see it with new eyes.

It’s been around a long time. Originally called Sherwood Square — a name with far more historical meaning here than the faux-Cape Cod “Sconset” — it included stores like the Paint Bucket, in this 1966 shot.

Click on or hover over to enlarge. (Photo/Peter Barlow)

The view above is toward the west (Church Lane). As photographer Peter Barlow notes, it was an anchor store that sold many kinds of paint, decorating supplies and picture frames.

It also featured an art gallery — and that very cool “palette” sign.

In later years, these buildings became CamerArts. And wasn’t Carousel toys in there at one time too?


UPDATE: 12:25 p.m. After seeing today’s Friday Flashback, Seth Schachter sent along his own Paint Bucket photo. He’s told it’s from the 1950s, but wonders with the wild colors if it may be ’60s-vintage:

Friday Flashback #22

In the early 1950s, Peter Barlow took this photo:

westnor-diner-1950s-peter-barlow

Here’s the back story. The car-carrying  truck was parked outside the Westnor Diner one evening. The Westnor was on the corner of Post Road West and Sylvan Road North — where J. Pocker and Belmondo are now. The diner’s name comes from its Westport location, near Norwalk — get it?

In those days — before I-95 — all trucks traveled on the Post Road. It was a mess. As much as we loathe the highway, it’s taken tons of traffic off our streets.

Peter — who took this photo with an amateur camera (using a flashbulb) — figures that with all the snow on the truck, the driver was inside “having a leisurely meal.”

This is a serene scene. But directly across the street, a few years earlier — on May 2, 1946 — a truck blew a tire, smashing into a drum filled with vulcanizing cement.

The resulting explosion set off a spectacular blaze. Fire chief Frank Dennert, former fire chief Francis Dunnigan, and 2 other firefighters were killed. Eight people were injured. It was one of the worst disasters in Westport history.

Oh My 06880 — Photo Challenge #69

Most readers thought last week’s photo challenge — a stone-spangled wall — was either the old Town Hall on the Post Road (next to Restoration Hardware).

Most readers were wrong.

Only Roger Wolfe knew that Peter Barlow’s intriguing image showed the gatepost on Spicer Road at Beechwood Lane. (Spicer runs behind Five Guys and Dunkin Donuts, connecting Park Lane and Hillspoint Road.)

Peter says there were originally 2 stone gateposts on Spicer, next to a brook. In the 1970s, the driveway was overgrown with weeds and foliage. Through the end of the century, the gateposts deteriorated further. One disappeared; the bowl on the top of the other was broken.

Recently however, neighbors saved and restored as much as possible. The gatepost was relocated to the corner of Beechwood and Spicer, where it stands as an obelisk.  (To see the photo, and relive history, click here.)

Perhaps this week’s photo — by John Hartwell — will be easier.

Perhaps not.

Either way, give it your best shot. Click “Comments” below.

(Photo/John Hartwell)

(Photo/John Hartwell)

Oh My 06880 — Photo Challenge #68

Drivers, joggers, nearby residents — many of you knew that last week’s photo challenge showed the bridge on Lyons Plains Road near the Coleytown Road fork.

And beyond it, a smaller “bridge to nowhere” that we asked for the back story of. Turns out it used to be on the main drag, before the road was relocated.

Congratulations to Stacy Prince, Bill Coley (a legit Coley family member?!), Christopher Lewis, Sally Korsh, Barbara Greenspan, Cristina Negrin, Jacques Voris, Noel Castiglia (of the Lyons Plains Castiglias) and Jalna Jaeger, for correctly identifying the bridges, and providing plenty of interesting info on them. (To see last week’s photo challenge, and all the comments, click here.)

Which brings us to this week’s challenge, courtesy of Peter Barlow:

Oh My 06880 - 2 - April 17, 2016 - Peter Barlow

It’s a tough one. But you guys are good.

Click “Comments” below. And, as always, add any details you know!

Who Was Schlaet, And What’s His Point?

From time to time — most recently in a story about rock formations on local shorelines — I’ve mentioned “Schlaet’s Point.” That’s the strip of land between the end of Soundview Drive (north end of Compo Beach), and the only house on the water side of Hillspoint between Compo and Old Mill Beach (big stone wall; yardarm with the US, Connecticut and  Texas [!] state flags).

But I’ve never asked myself: Who was Schlaet? And no one ever asked me, either.

Peter Barlow knows.

The 1947 Staples grad — and lifelong Westporter, until decamping to Pawcatuck in 2005 — emailed info about the long-forgotten man.

And his land.

Peter recalls a stone gazebo located at the end of a long concrete pier, extending from a Japanese-style boathouse.

The original Schlaet's Point boathouse.

The original Schlaet’s Point boathouse.

The gazebo was knocked off its base by the hurricane of 1938, and remained tilted for 30 years or more.

One day in his teens, during low tide, Peter waded from Compo Beach. Using a $3 camera, he took what he calls “possibly the only close-up photos of this ‘landmark’ that exists.”

The gazebo off Schlaet's Point, in the 1940s. (Photo copyright/Peter Barlow)

The gazebo off Schlaet’s Point, in the 1940s. (Photo copyright/Peter Barlow)

Peter says the boathouse and pier were part of an estate on the other side of Hillspoint Road. It was enormous, including  most of the land from Compo Hill Road at Elvira’s to Minute Man Hill off South Compo.

A view of Long Island Sound, from the Schlaet estate.

A view of Long Island Sound from the Schlaet estate. (Library of Congress archives)

A mansion — with red-orange tiled roof — and elaborate gardens perched high on the hill. A smaller structure, with a similar roof, is still visible from Hillspoint. It was a guest house, or servants’ quarters.

In 1917, the entire property was assessed at just under $148,000. The owner was Arnold Schlaet (rhymes with “slate”), an investor and co-founder of Texaco in 1902.

...and another.

A view of the estate grounds. (Library of Congress archives)

Woody Klein’s history book about Westport notes that in 1918 Schlaet donated his 65-foot yacht to the US government, for the war effort. But, Peter says, there is no other information about him. Wikipedia — which includes entries on anyone who has ever lived — has just about zilch.

Arnold Schlaet (Courtesy Texaco)

Arnold Schlaet

Perhaps, Peter says, an “06880” reader knows more about Arnold Schlaet. If so, click “Comments” below.

Perhaps, Peter adds, “if he had paid for a school or library, or something, his name would be remembered for more than just a point at the north end of Compo Beach.”