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."
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.