A glimpse of Christmas Past

Urban renewal in the 20th century damaged New London almost as badly as Benedict Arnold's attack on the city during the Revolution.

Even the 1938 Hurricane, featuring wind, flooding and a devastating fire, was nearly outgunned by the well-intentioned yet destructive program to revitalize old American cities. Fortunately New London boasts at least one street where urban renewal turned out well.

In the 1970s when declining Starr Street properties were marked for demolition, The Savings Bank of New London bought and restored most of the houses on the street, creating a neighborhood jewel in a city that's had more than its share of real-estate trauma. It's quite fitting that Starr Street originated from the wreckage of another disaster, a 19th-century industrial fire.

So now you're asking (I hope), who were the Starrs? The family founder, Thomas, came to Massachusetts in 1637. His adult children, Comfort, Suretrust, Truthshallprevayl and Constante, also joined him, while their siblings, Nostrength, Moregifte, Standwell, Beloved and Joyfoole stayed in England.

I think you've either got to be an irrepressible optimist or fleeing trouble to undertake a dangerous journey to a foreign land when you're 70 years old and your remaining statistical life expectancy is zero. Thomas died in 1640, so he didn't have much opportunity to relish or regret his decision, but he wasn't in a nursing home, and he certainly wasn't bored.

Fast-forward to 19th-century New London and an investment group jointly led by John Bishop and Jonathan Starr, one of Thomas' descendants. Bishop was a talented builder, possessing an artist's eye for good design. Among the buildings he was responsible for are the Huntington Street Baptist Church, the Apostolic Cathedral of Hope on Green Street, Suzette Kelo's little pink house and an elegant home on Washington Street built for the affluent business man, Charles Culver.

Culver owned a nearby ropewalk, a long narrow building where rope was produced for use in shipbuilding. When the ropewalk burned in 1834, Culver sold the property to Bishop and Starr, who opened up a residential street catering to middle-class families, including unmarried women who supported themselves by taking in boarders. The new road was called Starr Street.

If you take a walking tour, you'll see a mix of Greek Revival and Italianate style houses, including the five houses Bishop himself built, collectively known as Bishop's Row. The C. Starr and Company Soap and Candle Factory also was there, next to the Edward Pratt House. (Most residences have plaques.)

Starr Street is particularly picturesque this time of year. It reminds me of a scene out of Charles Dickens, a time capsule of a bygone era. My nostalgia was heightened when I read a letter in the New London County Historical Society archives written on Dec. 27, 1868 by Jared Starr, who (I believe) was Jonathan's son. In this letter, Jared described the week-long holiday festivities his family had just enjoyed in Newington.

According to Jared, the weather leading up to Christmas was cold and clear, and the night skies sparkled with stars. His family went to church several times, all bundled up under robes and blankets in their horse-drawn carriage. On Christmas Eve the big tree at church wasn't lighted because the candles, ordered from New York, hadn't arrived in time, but the children's joy was undiminished as candy and toys were distributed. Little Jennie received a top, Emma got a doll, Eddie's gift was a trumpet and Jesse received a toy gun and a mechanical rooster. The rooster crowed loudly but briefly, because the 7-year-old quickly took the bird apart to see how it worked. Everyone sang carols and agreed there had never been such a splendid Christmas.

Carol Sommer of Waterford is a self-proclaimed history nut. She writes a monthly history column inspired by local street signs.

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