Roger Tory Peterson delighted in the birds that congregated outside the expansive windows of his
house, especially the white-throated sparrows whose fall arrival kept his eyelids peeled by day and his mind troubled by night, fearful of a cold snap.
Given the tenderness the famed ornithologist displayed toward all birds during his lifetime, it wasn't entirely surprising when word spread after he died at home in 1996 about a mystical tribute from the birds.
But penguins, in Old Lyme?
Serious birders — and none were more serious than Peterson — typically choose an avian nickname or have one bestowed upon them. For Peterson, creator of the world-renowned bird guide series that bears his name, it was "King Penguin," after his favorite bird. His widow, Virginia Marie Peterson, was "Wood Thrush," for her elegance and love of music.
Shortly after Peterson's death at 87, a crisply drawn outline of bright whitish light distinctly resembling two penguins in "ecstatic" pose, beaks raised toward the sky, appeared on the moss green cedar shingles outside the downstairs room where he had died. Photos taken at the time can't explain the seeming apparition, but do prove that it was there.
"The whole town came by to see it," recalls Peterson's stepdaughter, Linda Westervelt, who has photos showing her late mother, Virginia, standing with Peterson's doctor beside the "ghost penguins."
Before anyone could determine the cause, the "ghosts" vanished as suddenly as they had come, never to reappear. But numerous less exotic birds still frequent the country estate that Peterson called home for 42 years.
Peterson bought the property known as "The Cedars" with his second wife, Barbara, in 1954. Back then it was 70 acres. Today 63 acres belong to the Nature Conservancy, and a 4.7-acre parcel encompassing the French
-style main house and a guesthouse is listed for sale at $575,000.
Westervelt currently lives in the guesthouse, which has a front porch overlooking the 2,800-square-foot main house and gardens. She and her sister inherited the property along with an adjacent 2.7 acres that included their stepfather's studio after their mother died in 2001.
The studio recently was sold to a couple renovating it as a year-round home, its contents previously turned over to the
, home to the Roger Tory Peterson Penguin Pavilion. Westervelt says the Aquarium plans to recreate the studio at its Mystic facility.
Nature, Not Glitz
Celebrity houses have a certain cachet. But listing agents Diane Pratt Gregory and Roger W. Parkman of Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage will attest that you can't depend on celebrity to sell a house. (The price for the house and guesthouse has been reduced substantially since 2008, when it was first listed along with the studio for $1.5 million.)
Peterson was honored for his conservation efforts and feted by presidents and royalty worldwide, but his celebrity was tied to nature, not glitz. Still, there are glamour accents in the main house, which has nine rooms, three fireplaces, a Hollywood-style dressing room and original French doors.
The grass-cloth wallpaper in the living room, which remains, provides an excellent background to display artwork.
Peterson liked that Old Lyme was mid-way between his publisher, Houghton Mifflin in Boston, and his art agent in
. Most of all he wanted a serene, bird-friendly place to work and recuperate after book tours, lobbying for the environment and international birding excursions.
The property's most striking feature is the "Allee" (a French landscape term for promenade) leading from the main house to a large stone seating area shaped like a half moon. It was once lined with Red Cedars, and while most of those are gone, other trees have filled in.
Roger and Virginia Peterson walked the Allee on their wedding day in 1976, while guests watched from the house.
Westervelt hopes to find a publisher for a personal memoir she has written, based in part on her mother's journals, about life with Roger Tory Peterson. Much of it takes place at "The Cedars."
Biographies of Peterson reveal that he could be a difficult man, with scant patience for anything interfering with his work. But Virginia made sure that "The Cedars," where they spent half the year, was an inspiration, not a distraction for her husband.
A journal entry reads:
"Everything I have done here has been to create a country home with natural elegance and a perfect background to enhance his paintings. I think I am getting there."
When the artist had a bout with writer's block, Virginia created a butterfly garden outside his studio for inspiration. Apparently it helped. Her favored butterfly motif can still be seen in iron grillwork around the main house and in a white wooden bench outside the front door.
She cultivated milkweed for butterflies, forsythia for sparrows, and whatever plants the deer wouldn't eat. Her favorite flower was the peony, whose scent, she said, reminded her of Pond's Cold Cream.
Roger Tory Peterson was a classically trained artist who taught art before his seminal "Field Guide to Eastern Birds" became a bestseller in 1934. Some biographers say the phenomenal success of his guidebooks, 53 in all, derailed his ambition to become the world's greatest painter of birds.
But Westervelt says Peterson told her he didn't really enjoy painting and drawing, at least not at the stage when she knew him.
An exception was the nine penguins Peterson painted on the wallpaper in the master bathroom in Old Lyme. He had an impish sense of humor, and was photographed with Virginia in the large tub, both of them heavily clothed.
But what might have been a major selling point for the house is gone now. The artist stipulated that the penguin wallpaper be removed after his and his wife's deaths, perhaps because he deemed it too personal.
If Peterson didn't relish the laborious task of creating and updating his guidebooks, he never tired of researching, photographing and recording birdsongs and other sounds of nature. He did this obsessively everywhere from Kenya to Antarctica, which he visited 22 times.
Westervelt says the "nerve center" of the Old Lyme house was always the spacious fieldstone breakfast room with sliding glass doors and large picture window. Peterson would sit there for hours watching birds, foxes, raccoons, deer, and whatever else flew or wandered by.
Always he was counting, and comparing. Were there fewer Towhees, wild turkeys or marigolds than last year?
On summer nights, he'd even count and record the number of moths that collected on the screen doors beneath the light.
Whenever guests came to call, Peterson wanted to know what birds and other wildlife they had seen, and how many. It was his way of continually assessing the health of the environment.
Peterson had great reverence for all forms of life, but he wasn't a religious man. Nor was he given to flights of irrational fancy. Had the "ghosts" on the Old Lyme house appeared during his lifetime, he doubtless would somehow have gotten to the bottom of the mystery.