Samuel Smith House: Learning history

The Samuel Smith House built in 1695 is well on its way to approval by East Lyme as an official town historic property. This is a sound decision. It reflects not only the town's ownership of the structure and the building's inherent value, but also the thorough work put in by the Historic Properties Commission and its chairwoman, Luane Lange; the Friends of the Samuel Smith House headed by Marvin Schutt, the Niantic Sportsmen's Club, open space advocates and a group of volunteers who have dealt with the state and made this decision possible.

The plan to amend the town's historic properties ordinance to include the Samuel Smith House, will be aired 7:30 p.m. Feb. 19 at a public hearing at Town Hall. Residents should show up to support the change at that meeting.

It is to East Lyme's credit that it values strongly the buildings that are irreplaceable, tell the town's history and have important architectural details. Such work depends primarily on volunteer efforts and, in that regard, East Lyme is especially fortunate. Its residents participate vigorously in the life of the community. It's also a feather in the cap of Stephen and Carol Huber, the former Smith House owners, who sought to preserve the property's integrity by selling it to the town.

The town plans to link the Samuel Smith House off Plants Dam Road to the Thomas Lee House on West Main Street. The importance of the Samuel Smith House is evident in its placement already on the National Register of Historic Places.

As a potential laboratory for historians and students of all stripes, the Samuel Smith House's assets are obvious. But the town and region may be overlooking an even more valuable opportunity: a regional cultural program shared among neighboring towns and the possibility of linking cultural assets throughout southeastern Connecticut in either state-sponsored or commercial tourism efforts.

Such tours could tell the story not only of Colonial and Revolutionary War times, but also more modern chapters in the region's history and architecture. To its credit, the cultural arm of the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection is studying just such opportunities.

Starting with Stonington's historic borough and its Palmer mansion, there is a plethora of other sites and buildings that could be packaged in historical, cultural and educational tours. Some examples:

• New London's downtown waterfront and historic district covering everything from Colonial days to whaling expeditions, to modern lighthouses such as the tours provided now by the New London Maritime Society.

• The Monte Cristo Cottage in New London, boyhood home of Nobel playwright Eugene O'Neill, which for too long has been the poor stepchild of the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center and ought to be a must stop for students from the region's middle and high schools and for tourists.

• The Coast Guard Academy now houses a small museum not nearly as grand as the one planned near Union Station in downtown New London, but still an interesting experience.

• The Nehantic, Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan Indians' histories.

• Lyman Allyn Art Museum in New London, the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme, the Connecticut River Museum in Essex and the Mystic Art Association.

• Mystic Seaport and the Submarine Force Museum, featuring the historic nuclear submarine Nautilus, in Groton.

• The historic mills, Slater Memorial Museum and City Hall in Norwich.

These are just a sample of the region's rich history and institutions. Surely, enterprising entrepreneurs and imaginative state and local officials could put together tours that enhanced the visits by tourists and highlighted the wonderful resources and stories of the region.

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