When a group of Puritan families under the the direction of John Winthrop, Jr. arrived here in 1646 they found one of the deepest harbors on the Atlantic coast, courtesy of an ancient flooded river valley. The prospects for the new location were so promising the village soon was named New London and that river was called the Thames.
The sea would bring both wealth and heartbreak to New London. During the Revolutionary War more troublesome privateers operated from this port than any other in New England. It has been estimated that some 300 British cargo ships were captured by New London vessels. Such activity did not escape the attention of the crown and even though the war was winding down in September 1781 a British Tory fleet under the command of Benedict Arnold sacked the town. To New London’s misfortune, Arnold spent much of his childhood in the town and knew the terrain. His raiding party destroyed 150 buildings. Arnold claimed that most of the destruction was the fault of accidental fires but townspeople contended he stood at Ye Ancientist Burial Grounds viewing the flames, “with the apparent satisfaction of a Nero.”
After the war ended a very different trade came across New London wharves. The whaling industry traces its beginnings to May 20, 1784 when the Rising Sun shoved off for the fishing grounds off Brazil and returned the next year with more than 300 barrels of whale oil. For the next 125 until the last whaling schooner, the Margaret, left port in 1909, New London rivaled New Bedford, Massachusetts as the whaling capital of the world. By 1850, a million dollars a year worth of whale oil and bone was being recorded at New London customs.
Whaling was not the only industry of note in New London. Thomas Short established Connecticut’s first printing press here in 1709. His successor, Timothy Green, produced almanacs that eventually spawned The New England Almanac and Farmer’s Friend, an influential resource for more than 175 years. New London’s presses also produced America’s greatest playwright, Eugene O’Neill, O’Neill’s theatrical New York family summered here where he acquired an abiding love of the sea and wrote for the New London Telegraph.
Our walking tour of New London will concentrate in the downtown historic district where we’ll see houses remaining from the city’s great whaling captains, buildings by great 19th century architects, and the working place of a great Connecticut patriot...
Public Library of New London
63 Huntington Street
Henry Hobson Richardson of Boston was the most important American architect of the 19th century and buildings were characterized by massive, rough-cut stone heavy with Romanesque detail, often in contrasting colors of stone and with a prominent arched doorway. This small prototypical Richardsonian building was not done by the master but by his successor firm of Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge in 1892. An actual Richardson creation is at the other end of State Street, Union Station. Money for the project was provided in the trust of New London whaling merchant Henry Philemon Haven, who died in 1876. Haven’s company operated 24 vessels. As a sidelight he organized the Phoenix Guano Company, shipping dried bird dropping from the Pacific Islands to use in fertilizer production.
WALK DOWN STATE STREET.
Garde Arts Center
325 State Street
The Garde opened on September 22, 1926 and was almost instantly acclaimed as one of the finest theaters in New England. Architect Arland Johnson gave his Vaudeville palace an exotic Moorish decor and palatial design, as was the style of the day to transport patrons to imaginary far-off lands. It was named for Walter Garde, a Hartford and New London businessman who financed the construction, and built on the baronial former estate of whaling merchant William Williams. When movies totally supplanted Vaudeville in the late 1920s, Warner Brothers purchased the Garde for $1 million. They would operate it until 1978. The faded glamour was restored in the 1980s and the Garde Arts Center now includes four restored buildings on the block.
300 State Street
The Dewart Building began life as the Plant Building. For the longest time no one thought much about Morton Freeman Plant’s prospects as a businessman. Even though he was the 47-year old titular head of his father’s railroad and steamship business when Henry Bradley Plant died in 189, Morton was willed only a $30,000 stipend with the company and the bulk of the $22 million estate left to an as yet unborn great grandchild when he reached the age of 21. Morton contested the will and soon became the director of various railroad, shipping, and banking concerns around New London. He owned 10 yachts during his life time, the local minor league baseball team, the Griswold Hotel, a vast hunting reserve in East Lyme and built a 31-room mansion for three million dollars on Avery Point in Groton. He gave Connecticut College a million dollars and Groton its Town Hall. He built this five-story office building in 1914. It was designed by his go-to architect, Dudley St. Clair Donnelly in a Beaux Arts style with a terra cotta facade, pilasters and decorative brickwork. Donnelly himself set up shop here.
290 State Street
Founded in 1869, the Thames Club is the oldest Social Club in connecticut. Its first permanent home was in a private residence purchased here in 1888. After the house burned in a fire in 1904 this Colonial Revival brick clubhouse was constructed.
281 State Street at Meridian Street
This looks like a typical downtown hotel from the early 20th century but its history is anything but routine. In 1896 publishing magnate Frank Munsey was looking for a way to escape New York City labor unions and built the Mohican to house his printing presses. Munsey brought with him from New York William Tuthill, who created Carnegie Hall, to do the design honors. The remote location did not work out and by 1898 Munsey was back in New York. He converted the building into a hotel but the travel trade was slow and by the end of the 1800s Munsey had turned his building into a department store. In short order that failed and the Mohican - this time with three additional stories and no expense spared - was a hotel again. It quickly gained a reputation as one of the state’s finest and thrived until the 1980s when the Mohican was converted into housing for the elderly.
First Baptist Church
268 State Street
The earliest Baptist services in New London took place around 1674, conducted by itinerant ministers from Newport, Rhode Island. The first meetinghouse was built on Niles Hills, then on the outskirts of the city in the early 1700s. The congregation splintered in the 1770s and the First Baptist Church would not reorganize until 1804. This Victorian brick church is the congregation’s first, constructed in 1856 on designs by W.T. Hallett who designed the original City Hall and others.
National Bank of Commerce
250 State Street
Whale oil was bringing so much money into New London in 1852 that the mayor of the town of 9,000 inhabitants already with three commercial banks and a savings bank decided it could use another one. Mayor Henry P. Haven was no sailor himself but an investor in far-flung enterprises. He did make sure to include three sea captains on his board of directors. The National Bank of Commerce prospered and for many decades was the city’s largest. After spending a half-century in a banking room in the town’s leading hotel, the Crocker House, it purchased this property for a new Neo-Colonial home.
243 State Street
For many years the upstairs housed a gem of a small theater while the Whaler’s Restaurant operated downstairs. After many years of standing vacant the 1898 building, designed by hometown architect James Sweeney, is looking at a rebirth as home to an art gallery and Russian tea room with plans to restore the opulent theater on the upper floors.
First Congregational Church
66 Union Street at State Street
The First Congregational Church was organized at Gloucester, Massachusetts in 1642, removing in 1650 to New London. The congregation assembled at first in a large barn before constructing a meeting house around 1655. Today’s Gothic granite church dates to the 1850s from the pen of Leopold Eidlitz, who received his training at the Viennese Polytechnic in Austria and worked out of the New York offices of Richard Upjohn, the leading proponent of the Gothic Revival style in American church construction.
180 State Street
Henry Scudder Crocker was the town’s premier hotelier in the 19th century. He managed the posh Pequot House, a summer resort at the mouth of the Thames River and was brought in to take control of “the most modern” hotel in town being developed by the New London Hotel Company. When it opened on New Year’s Eve, 1873 the Crocker House sported an impressive Second Empire mansard roof that is gone today.
181 State Street
The city government has operated here for over 150 years. The original building was an Italianate-style brownstone that fit in nicely with the residential nature of State Street in 1856. By the early 1900s the City thought it desirable to establish a more monumental presence as the neighborhood commercialized. In 1912 James Sweeney was called in to deliver a Renaissance Revival exterior to the Municipal Building which he accomplished with a rusticated base, a quartet of Corinthian columns, some pediments over the windows and a matching classical balustrade and low surrounding wall.
165 State Street
The Harris in question was Jonathan Newton Harris, who rose from modest circumstances as a clerk to become one of the town’s most prosperous businessmen, dealing in farm tools and hardware. In the 1880s he hired Leopold Eidlitz to create this Victorian brick building to serve many purposes - upscale shopping downstairs, fancy living upstairs and office space in between, a relatively new concept for the day. Eidlitz had earlier built Harris an impressive Italian villa on the highest hill in town. The building was renovated in the 1990s.
128 State Street
For most of its first 200 years the whirl of commercial activity New London was down along the waterfront. State Street was where people lived, some in fine mansions, and went to church. Morris Bacon changed all that. He himself lived on upper State Street, where the Mohican Hotel is today. Bacon stabled his thoroughbred racing horses there. He also sailed yachts. Bacon found time from his leisure pursuits to invest his money in 1868 in this elegant commercial space that would set the standard for commercial development along State Street. The Second Empire Style, most notable today in the roofline, was used for the ashlar stone building with tall windows that provided abundant interior light. Fancy emporiums selling the finest wares occupied the street level and a billiard room on the upper floor was hailed as “one of the finest in this part of the country where not a post broke the harmony of space.” Bacon’s Marble Block has been restored this century, surviving the collapse of the entire rear wall, a sign of the neglect the pioneering building had suffered.
80 State Street
George Warren Cole was one of the busiest of New London’s Victorian architects. Here he was commissioned in 1892 by Jeremiah Cronin to create a modern office building where an older building had recently perished in a fire. Cole produced a Romanesque four-story block fashioned in brick. He was fond enough of the abundant light flowing through the large arched windows to set up his own shop inside. Unfortunately he would die the next year of typhoid fever. This block, along with one by one of Cole’s proteges, Dudley St. Clair Donnelly, at 52 State Street was saved from serious deterioration in the early 2000s and undergone restoration efforts.
Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument
Parade Plaza, State Street at Water Street
This 50-foot obelisk in remembrance of New London’s Civil War veterans was built in 1896 with private funds. The monument features alternating bands of rough and smooth granite and is surmounted by an allegorical figure of peace.
TURN LEFT AND WALK THROUGH THE PLAZA TO ATLANTIC STREET.
Nathan Hale Schoolhouse
19 Atlantic Street
Nathan Hale taught school in New London for over a year, leaving in July 1775 to become a lieutenant in the 7th Connecticut militia. He volunteered for a dangerous mission secreting information about the British on Long Island where he was captured and hanged as a spy on September 22,1776. This is actually the fifth location around town for the 1774 schoolhouse, transported here in 1988.
TURN RIGHT AND WALK A FEW STEPS TO WATER STREET. TURN RIGHT.
South Water Street at the foot of State Street
When the previous railroad station burned in a fire in 1883, the two local railroads serving the city banded together to purchase a site and erect a “union” station. Eventually six railroad companies brought their lines into this terminal after it was completed in 1888. It is a creation of the legendary architect Henry Hobson Richardson, one of the last it ever did, actually not being completed until after his death. Although it lacks some of Richardson’s trademark stone ornamentation it exemplifies his mastery over brawny, substantial civic buildings and his artistic use of brickwork. Facing the wrecking ball in the 1970s, the mobilization to save Union Station led to the formation of New London Landmarks in 1976.
TURN RIGHT ON STATE STREET AND, AFTER A FEW STEPS, TURN LEFT ON BANK STREET. WALK DOWN A BLOCK DOTTED WITH COMMERCIAL STRUCTURES FROM THE 19TH CENTURY.
111 Bank Street
Captain Charles Bulkeley was said to be the most respected man in New London with a record of sixty years of active service on the high seas. He battled the British Invaders of New London and captured a prisoner and when the War of 1812 came along he ran blockades to bring supplies home. He died at the age of 95 in 1848, living most of that time in this house that was constructed in 1790.
U.S. Custom House
150 Bank Street
Charleston native Robert Mills is considered the first American-born professional architect. An early proponent of Classical Revival architecture, Mills was named the official federal architect in the first half of the 19th century and in 1833 he drew up plans for this substantial Custom House constructed of ashlar stone blocks. Mills is probably best remembered as the architect of the Washington Monument. In 1983, after the Federal government designated the Custom House as “surplus” and planned to put it up for sale, a group of local concerned citizens formed New London Maritime Society, Inc. to ensure that it remain in the public domain. The result is today’s Custom House Maritime Museum.
Niagara Engine Company No.1
289 Bank Street
Niagara Engine Company No.1 traces its beginnings back to 1786 when it organized as Washington’s Engine Company. They took the name “Niagara” in 1844 to honor a new hand pumper that was said to deliver a stream of water like the famous falls.
AFTER CROSSING TILLEY STREET, BAR RIGHT ON BLINMAN STREET. WALK TO THE FIRST BUILDING ON THE RIGHT.
New London County Historical Society
11 Blinman Street
Captain Nathaniel Shaw, a prosperous merchant in town, began work on this substantial gray granite mansion in the 1750s. It would remain in the Shaw family for five generations, until 1907, when it was sold to the Historical Society for their headquarters which it still is a century later.
RETURN TO TILLEY STREET AND TURN LEFT.
St. Mary Star of the Sea
10 Huntington Street at Washington Street
This Gothic style granite church was built in 1876 to replace St. Patrick’s Church on Truman Street for New London’s Catholics. The soaring tower is a 1911 addition, recently spruced up in time for its 100th birthday.
TURN LEFT ON WASHINGTON STREET BEFORE THE CHURCH.
inside corner of the junction of Hempstead, Jay and Truman streets
These houses were built in 1678 and 1759. The stone house belonged to Nathaniel Hempsted and is an unusual example of pre-Revolutionary War stone construction in Connecticut. Now open to the public as house museums, the pair are furnished to represent every day life in the Hempsted family.
TURN RIGHT ON JAY STREET. TURN RIGHT ON HUNTINGTON STREET.
The Huntington Street Baptist Church
29 Huntington Street
In 1843 the Universalists selected this site, overlooking two Baptist churches then located on Pearl and Union Streets as the location of their new church. John Bishop, a member of the congregation, was chosen to design and build the new meetinghouse and he used an architectural pattern book to create this classically proportioned Greek Revival building. He fronted the church with a Handsome Corinthian portico. Unfortunately the Universalist Church failed in 1849 and were forced to sell the building to the Baptists. The Universalist congregation struggled on and was flush enough by 1879 to build their second church nearby on Starr Street. John Bishop also designed that one.
TURN AND RETRACE YOUR STEPS ON HUNTINGTON STREET, WALKING NORTH. IN ONE BLOCK YOU WILL REACH THE TOUR STARTING POINT. BUT...THERE ARE A FEW MORE THINGS TO SEE ON HUNTINGTON STREET.
New London County Courthouse
70 Huntington Street
This courthouse was built in 1784 to replace the one burned by Benedict Arnold during the American Revolution. It is still in use today and is the oldest courthouse in Connecticut. Designed by Isaac Fitch, the original structure was crowned by a distinctive cupola, a Palladian window and fluted pilasters. American Patriot Patrick Henry argued cases in the Courthouse and other historical notables such as Daniel Webster, the Marquis de Lafayette and Horace Greeley spoke there.
Whale Oil Row
105-119 Huntington Street
Whale Oil Row is a unique collection of similar Greek Revival mansions constructed for whaling captains in 1835. They each feature pilasters on the corners and a prominent Ionic portico supporting a triangular pediment. At one time there were plenty more mansions along Huntington Street but these warriors are the last survivors from an urban renewal purge in the 1960s.
St. James Episcopal Church
76 Federal Street at Huntington Street
Richard Upjohn, the leading proponent of Gothic Revival architecture in America, came to New London in 1850 to deliver this church of New Jersey red freestone for New London’s Episcopalians. The congregation dates to 1725. Outside, the spire, graced by prominent pointed windows, soars 160 feet above the curb and inside, stained glass windows by Louis Comfort Tiffany greet the parishioners.
NOW YOU CAN TURN AND RETRACE YOUR STEPS ON HUNTINGTON STREET TO RETURN TO THE TOUR STARTING POINT - FOR THE SECOND, AND FINAL TIME.