There’s a new attraction in Norwalk. The Norwalk Historical Society Museum has set up shop in the Lockwood House at the City Hall complex. Here, in a beautiful colonial-style building, the Museum tells the story of Norwalk – past and present.
What better lead-in to visiting this museum than lunch at Norwalk’s oldest running restaurant – Donovan’s in SoNo (donovanssono.com). Richie Ball, Donovan’s owner, traces the restaurant’s lineage back to 1889. At the corner of Washington & Water Streets, Donovan’s has been in the same location, overlooking the Norwalk riverfront and the bustle of Washington St. ever since.
Donovan’s has seen the ebb and flow of South Norwalk’s fortunes over its lifetime. Jeremiah Donovan, the founding saloon keeper, was also mayor of Norwalk and a member of Congress. His establishment was a gathering place for local politicians. Ownership passed to “Battling Bat Kunz,” a prizefighter who decorated the bar with boxing memorabilia – a pre-TV sports bar. Ball took over in 1979, restoring the restaurant and pioneering the SoNo revitalization.
Four of us dropped in for lunch on a sunny September afternoon. Richie Ball was out front enjoying the day and greeting guests, while sipping on a bowl of their famous clam chowder. Inside, the welcoming, high-ceilinged space – updated but keeping its old-time feel – is just right for a thriving restaurant that happens to be the oldest one in town. The well-worn floor tells of generations of patrons returning again and again. A mix of business folks, retirees, families, and solos at the bar made up the lunch crowd when we were there.
The old-fashioned bar dates back to at least 1917. (You can see it in a vintage picture on the front of the menu). The showy Victorian-style bar back is a recent and attractive addition. Tall windows facing the street are lettered, “Tables for Ladies,” an enticement dating back to a time when women were prohibited by Connecticut law from sitting at the bar. (A law enacted at the end of Prohibition and not fully repealed until 1972.) As you would expect, there’s a good selection of local, seasonal, and craft beers on tap.
The menu is a lengthy catalog of well-prepared pub food featuring Donovan’s award-winning clam chowder (top honors at the Chowdafest for three years running) and their famous burger – “A Hefty Half Pounder” on a toasted roll – juicy and pink in the middle with a pile of my fave skinny fries, cooked crispy. An ample Cobb Salad was dotted with sliced egg and ripe avocado with a generous helping of blue cheese. Pulled Pork Sliders (four of them) were tangy and moist. Browned mashed potatoes topped a steaming Shepherd’s Pie. More than full and satisfied, we still couldn’t resist sharing a bread pudding.
After lunch we were off to the Museum (norwalkhistoricalsociety.org) at 141 East Ave., which showcases a nice blend of the old and the new. The stately and recently restored colonial-style building was designed by noted Norwalk Architect Margaret Smith and built in 1973 as a gift to the city by cousins Manice deForest Lockwood and Julia Belden Lockwood to house the family’s heirlooms. (Park in the City Hall lot).
The Museum consolidates four collections under one roof: the City of Norwalk, the Lockwood family, the Norwalk Historical Society, and the Norwalk Daughters of the American Revolution. The inaugural historical exhibit, “Norwalk Collects,” displays 30 objects touching on the high points of Norwalk’s history. Examples of Norwalk pottery, a Connecticut Highboy from the Lockwood collection, a spinning wheel, founding family trees, samplers, a Connecticut clock, and the iconic Norwalk sign hand-crafted at the Silvermine Forge are some of the eye-catching items on display.
Muskets, clocks, furniture, street signs, and portraits, are part of the permanent exhibit displayed around the public spaces. Also notable is a striking impressionist painting, “Logging in Wilton,” by Silvermine artist Charles Reiffel.
Across the hall, in contrast, “Norwalk: Portrait of Diversity,” is a contemporary collection by acclaimed Norwalk resident and photographer Tony Velez. Known for getting close to his subjects, Velez documented the diversity of Norwalk with remarkable portraits of people at work and at play in all corners of town. It’s a striking show about the ethnic richness of our community taken by a world-class cameraman.
In the gift shop you’ll find Norwalk items, books on local history, and the work of local artisans. Under construction is an outdoor space for relaxing complete with a gazebo. Upstairs there’s more exhibit space, which will be filled over time.
Diane Jellerette, Executive Director of the Historical Society and head of the museum, was on hand to introduce the exhibits. Hours are Wednesday to Saturday, noon to 4:00. Admission is $5 ($3 for seniors) – surely the greatest bargain in town!
We’ve had some great trips around Connecticut for lunch and a museum visit, but the truth is, you don’t have to leave Norwalk for a memorable experience. The Norwalk Museum, The WPA Murals at City Hall, and The Lockwood-Mathews Museum are all right here, and a great way to work off a satisfying lunch.