A look inside the baron’s mansion and its history
WESTPORT — Perched atop a wooded hill, across Post Road East from the old sanitarium (now Winslow Dog Park), stands a stately brick home. It resembles a small Georgian manor, although the keen-eyed may notice the nontraditional hue of the columns and trim, tinted a subtle pink.
Over the years, the house has been used for library storage, U.N. Hospitality Committee planning and police training, with dogs sniffing out drugs that had been planted there by law enforcement, according to Westport Selectman Helen Garten. The Westport Arts Center hopes to be next to use the home as a facility.
People in the town refer to the building colloquially as the baron’s mansion, a name providing ample fuel for the imagination. Romantic imagination, after all, was Baron Walter
Langer von Langendorff’s business.
The Austrian baron, who immigrated to the U.S. during World War II, and his first wife, Evelyn Diane Westall, were the founders of Evyan perfumes, which challenged the French perfume houses. Langer was a chemist and his wife a savvy marketer, and women across America bought into the brand, which the couple turned into a lifestyle (their home echoed their perfume’s packaging, and the Evyan logo is even featured on their mausoleum). The company made the couples millionaires; its popular fragrances included Golden Shadows, the actual name of Langer’s Westport home, and White Shoulders.
“My ex-wife used to wear White Shoulders,” recalled Michael Brennecke at the mansion on a warm Wednesday afternoon. Brennecke had spent his teenage summers working as a gardener for Langer.
“I was 15 years old when I was working for the baron,” Brennecke said. “This is 30 acres, and he kept it, all of it like a botanical garden.” He looked out the window and remembered the white gravel paths that he and nine other gardeners weeded by hand. There had been a fern garden and a fragrant forest of flowering rhododendrons ringing the estate.
“So when you looked out, you didn’t see any signs of other houses or any other civilization,” he said. “This place was just an island in and of itself two blocks from downtown Westport. And it was spectacular. It was incredibly groomed.”
In addition to the home, the grounds held gardens for cut flowers and a greenhouse filled with plants surrounding an Olympicsized pool. As for the baron himself, Brennecke remembered a reserved man. “But keep in mind I was a grunt,” he said with a laugh.
However, New York Times writer Wolfgang Saxon supported Brennecke’s view. “Dr. Langer was prominent in New York social circles but kept his private life out of public view,” Saxon wrote in 1983.
The hint at to what lengths Langer and his wife went through to keep certain facts a secret are apparent inside of his home at 68 Compo Road South.
The Golden Shadows lobby is dominated by a staircase swirling toward a pale blue ceiling — to the right is a large room where they entertained guests, and to the left is perfectly preserved ’50s-era kitchen, in which everything from the tiles and cupboards to the oven, refrigerator and even cup hooks are a rosy shade of pink. (The use of color throughout the home is enveloping and eminently Instagramable.)
But hidden off to the side, in what appears to be a closet door, is a staircase fitted with a lift. The home was built after Westall suffered a stroke, and it was designed so she could get between the first and second floors without any clue tipping off guests that she struggled with the steps.
And like the fictional Jay Gatsby, while the baron was known for his wealth and entertainment, little was known about his past.
“Any genealogist who tries to work out what they say they are runs into a wall — it doesn’t work,” said Morley Boyd, a local preservationist. “They have documents about their lives written in their own hand that have conflicting information.”
“He definitely was Austrian and he definitely was a refugee, so that we know,” said Westport Selectman Helen Garten.
The two had joined Brennecke to walk through the home, and they stood together in Langer’s library, relating what they knew of Westport’s baron.
“It appeared that they were to a certain degree obscuring their background,” Boyd said. “And likely, given the time that they came here and where they come from, it appears he’s likely of Jewish heritage.”
While Boyd thought Langer may have fled persecution in Austria, Garten thought he may have hid his past to avoid anti-Semitism in America.
But they agreed the couple successfully created their own image once they arrived, one that was mirrored in their flowered oasis of an estate.
“They’re not the first people to arrive in America and reinvent themselves,” Boyd said. “And that’s what they did — and they did it in a spectacular way and gave themselves titles. To this day, we call it the baron’s property.”
Preservationist Morley Boyd tours the Westport home of the late Baron Walter Langer von Langendorff on Wednesday in Westport.
The Westport home of the late Baron Walter Langer von Langendorff on Wednesday. The future of the Baron’s mansion in Westport has been a long contested issue for the town.
Preservationist Morley Boyd and Head of the Selectman’s Real Property Committee Helen Garten tour the Westport home.