When the Parade at the foot of State Street is redesigned next year, five areas will be dedicated to the history of the Whaling City.
As visitors disembark ferries, trains and buses, they will be greeted by statues of a seal, a whale and Nathan Hale.
"It's going to transform New London,'' says Sandra Kersten Chalk, executive director of New London Landmarks, one of several groups that participated in planning meetings for the new design. "It will really present a sense of place for people when they come into New London. For visitors, and the people who live here, it's going to open up a whole new way of looking at the city."
Boston-based Krent/Paffett/Carney Inc. has been hired by the city to redesign the Parade to slow down traffic and make it easier for pedestrians to walk around. The $10 million project includes removing a cement walkway that connects the Water Street Parking Garage to the foot of State Street, and leveling a berm to open up sight lines from the historic Union Railroad Station — designed by Henry Hobson Richardson and built in 1888 — all the way up State Street to New London County Courthouse, built in 1784. Plans also call for an amphitheater.
But the highlight of the project, at least for local history buffs, is the focus on the city's past. Five different sections of the new park will include three statues and a dozen or so brass plaques that will draw attention to the city's historic and economic connections to the Thames River and the oceans beyond.
"The key idea is to make history accessible,'' says Ed Krent, a principal in the design company. "We've done various projects that instill a sense of knowledge and pride in a community. This will be a special place. It will be a resource for local constituency and for tourists."
On the lower Parade, across the street from the train station, a sculpture of a whale's tail will tower seven or eight feet out of the sidewalk and serve as the centerpiece for the new park. Water will cascade from the whale's flukes as fountains spout from the ground.
Next to the train station by the entrance to Waterfront Park, a male elephant seal sculpture — all 18 feet and 5,000 pounds — will greet people with a seal call as they pass by.
"The real story (of the elephant seal) is how New Londoners lived and worked for so many years in the Antarctic amongst very severe conditions, and quite beautiful, if horrible landscapes, yet we think little of it,'' says Deborah Donovan, president of the New London County Historical Society. She says she's excited about educating the public about the city's involvement in elephant seal hunting.
Plaques placed along office buildings will show the city's links to the Thames River, from the days when American Indians fished and hunted along its banks to the origins of submarine technology. One plaque shows the size difference between a whale and a modern submarine.
"You think a whale is big until you see it next to a submarine,'' says Chalk.
The Nathan Hale Schoolhouse, which already has moved five times within the city, will be moved again, across Atlantic Street, to its own plaza next to the parking garage. It will feature a bronze statue of Hale, celebrating not only his life as the Revolutionary War spy who lamented he had "but one life to lose for my country,'' but also his work as an educator. The life-size likeness of the 6-foot-1-inch Hale, a Yale graduate at 18 and a champion broad jumper, will welcome people with open arms.
Stephen Shaw, who maintains the Nathan Hale Schoolhouse for the Connecticut Society of the Sons of the American Revolution, says he's looking forward to the move.
"It'll be our sixth move and our seventh location,'' he says. "We jokingly call it America's oldest mobile home.''
Signs will direct the curious toward the 1833 Robert Mills U.S. Custom House and Museum, the 1756 Shaw Mansion, Lyman Allyn Art Museum, the Coast Guard Museum and Fort Trumbull, where they can learn more about New Londoners and their past.
"It's a brief history in one place,'' says Bruce Hyde, the city's director of development and planning, who is heading up the project. "The intention is to give people a feel for New London's maritime history, then send them off to a place where they can get more New London history.''
Hyde said the city is expected to get final approvals from the state Department of Transportation soon and put the project out to bid. Construction could begin in the spring, Hyde says, and will be completed in 12 to 18 months to minimize the impact on local businesses. The historical enhancements will be paid for with $1 million in state Maritime Heritage Park funds.
Krent, from the design company, says New London is filled with historic homes and buildings, but during meetings with local historians and representatives of Landmarks and the Historical Society, he was looking for elements that make the city unique. For example, New Londoners hunting elephant seals in the Antarctic was something that was not widely known. It's a tidbit of information that gives a visitor pause.
'It's nice to have an 'ah ha' moment,'' he says. "That's the kind of response you want from any given audience. It's shared insight.''
It's the kind of thing people will talk about and tell others about, he says, and if there is enough critical mass, it will serve as a catalyst for other things.
"New London then becomes a destination,'' he says. "I can't predict what will happen. But it may trigger more development around the Parade.''