May 10, 2012

The Whale House, The Old House and Other Stories

One of the many small mysteries that we encountered when we moved into our house ten years ago was a peeling wooden sign located across the street from our house.  The sign hangs (still) in front of the stone carriage barn (now an apartment) that was part of our home's property until the 1970s.  Both sides of the sign feature the image of a whale, with "Whale House" inscribed below.

Curious about the sign, Jenny and I asked the then-owner of the house across the street for the history.

I have to break for an aside here to tell you about our straight-out-of-a-sitcom neighbor. Marc Hannibal was a former Harlem Globetrotter, a 1960s and '70s television and movie actor who guested on shows like Dragnet and Mission Impossible and appeared in the movie Airport, and a singer who released two records, including one with what may be the greatest album cover of all time (pictured at right).  Our first introduction to Marc was seeing him, clad in his bathrobe, walking his dog in our backyard the morning after we moved into our house.  After introducing ourselves to each other, Marc declared that his dog-walking privileges were "grandfathered" with our house, and continued on with his walk around our back yard. 

OK, back to the Whale House.  Our neighbor Marc told us that the complex of stone carriage house and timber framed barn across the street from us looked like the shape of a whale from above.  I couldn't see the similarity, but that was the story, and we didn't think too much more about it.

Last year, however, when I was doing more research on the house for our National Register of Historic Places nomination, I spent some time looking at the Robert R. Newell family who  lived in our house from the 1940s through early 1970s.  As part of this research, I learned that Robert R. Newell was a very successful New York advertising executive.  After his retirement, he went on to a successful career as an artist, whose specialty was watercolor paintings of whaling ships.  Aha!

Through the wonders of Google, I found not only several of Mr. Newell's paintings selling at auction in recent years, but also the following biography at at the New Bedford Whaling Museum, whose research library holds Robert Newell's are research papers:

"Robert R. Newell (b. 1906) was an advertising executive and continued to serve as chairman of the board of the firm Cunningham & Walsh of New York after his retirement in 1961.  He became interested in whaling in the 1940s and began to collect artifacts and to research this subject.  Newell established a museum in his home in Norwalk, Connecticut to display his collection of paintings, prints, rare books, scrimshaw, etc.  He also established his own art work and to publish works of maritime interest.  After his retirement, he began to paint vessels and whaling scenes in the style of the noted marine artist Benjamin Russell.  Newell had several of Russell's paintings in his collection which he studied to perfect his own painting technique.  Also prior to painting a vessel, Newell would research the vessel to insure accuracy in his depiction of it and a noted feature in his works were the correct owner's private signal flags and ship's name pennants flying from the masthead.  His paintings are represented in several collections both public and private."

1969 Whale House Advertisement
So, there it was.  The Whale House was a whaling museum and gallery, located in our home's old carriage barn.  Who'd have thunk it?  The use of the structure as a gallery shed some light onto a late 1960s renovation of the stone carriage house, which saw the installation of an anachronistic glass rear wall - clearly a project undertaken to turn a dark structure into suitably bright gallery space. 

A 1975 article in the Norwalk Hour concerning a local art exhibition at the Lockwood Matthews Mansion further describes the Whale House Gallery as containing "scrimshaw, ship models, harpoons, and other memorabilia pertaining to the whaling industry at its height in New England."

A little more digging online turned up this advertisement from the October 8, 1969 Wilton Bulletin, inviting the public to a "Special Fall Showing" at the Whale House Gallery and Whaling Museum, with a map leading to our home.  Pretty cool. 

As part of his whaling interests, Mr. Newell also ran a publishing business called "Whale House Press" from our house.  The business published a series of nautical monographs, including Steam Whaler Navark: Lost in the Arctic Ice, 1897, and Two Brothers: Narrative of a Voyage around the World in the Bark "Sea Breeze", 1850, which appears to have been based on journals of Captain George Newell, one of Mr. Newell's ancestors (probably explaining his nautical interests).

One last interesting find on whaling and Mr. Newell.  In 1945, shortly before moving into our house, Robert Newell released his first children's book, called Blowy the Whale.  The book is described in a 1945 Christmas advertisement in the Spokane Daily Chronicle as a "Deep-sea adventure for the little ones, in which Blowy, a grandfather whale, and his mischievous grandson outwit some whalers.  Illustrations in color by the author.  Ages 3-6."  Retail price: $1.  I paid slightly more for my copy purchased online.

The only other Robert Newell children's book that I have found is, I think, unpublished.  One of the things that we inherited with the house was a color copy of an illustrated story - "The Old House", with seasonal illustrations of our house and a short narrative.  Sadly, the previous owners kept the original book, and gave us just a copy.  Nonetheless, I am pleased to present the first online publication of that story below.


  1. Now I know why we always have such a whale of a time when we go over there! bahhhh!
    You're great at this investigative stuff. You should offer it as a service! See what you can find on our house and maybe I'll give you a testimonial.

  2. Do you want the full history, or just details on the ancient burial ground/dimensional portal that your house sits upon?

  3. Your discovery brought tears to my eyes - Robert R Newell was my grandfather and I remembered staying at his Wale House Gallery as a child. I was brought up in England (Bobby Jnr emigrated to Cambridge in the '50's) and visited Grandpa only once in his beautiful house. I thought this was how all Americans lived. Memories of waking up with Jetlag, being surrounded by scrimshaw, a huge figurehead of a woman and countless ship paintings.

    Blowy The Whale was a staple bedtime book growing up.

    Robert R. Newell was a prolific painter - he even drew Bert and Ernie for us. Both he and my Grandmother loved their home and raised my father there. My father served in the Marines (during Korea) –check your attic - Grandma once found a box full of diffused grenades up there:-) Also, if you come across any "in production" magazines from Cunningham Walsh, I'd love to see them. Grandpa was a senior ad exec (and copywriter/artist) and pretty much lived the MadMen lifestyle.

    1. No hand grenades, but I did find an old Valenntine's day card sent to your father when he was young. I've read a lot about your grandfather's ad career, and you're right, all I can picture is Mad Men. I found an old photo of him in our local newspaper stnading in front of a car, looking like Don Draper. I can send you some scans and links that might be fun for you to see.

  4. Your sleuthing is absolutely correct. Robert R Newell was my grandfather and I remember visiting the house as a child and staying in the Walehouse Museum. Waking up with jetlag (I grew up in England) I still see the figureheads and paintings that disoriented me in the middle of the night.

    Grandpa and Grandma loved the house and raised my father there. Lots of stories - I'll email you a great picture of a paper cutout box he made of the house. He had great attention to meticulous detail.

    1. Wow, Rachel, so great to hear from you. Amazing! I spent a LOT of time trying to track down your family, tracing your Dad's academic career around the UK. I figured no one else would have better knowledge of the house. I actually bought a beautiful watercolor of a ship that your grandfather painted, which is now hanging in our house (where I think it belongs), and my kids love having Blowy the Whale read to them and hearing about the connection to our house. Would love to talk more when you have time, and of course would love to have you come for a visit if you are ever in the New York area! Fee free to shoot me an email:


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