Gifts from Venice to New London

On May 6, 1896, New London celebrated the 250th anniversary of its founding. The festivities were captured in an iconic photograph, my favorite among the many charming images in The Day's book, "Looking Back, A Photo Retrospective of New London County."

The photographer was facing the railroad station, looking down on the Parade. State Street was wearing its best party face with flags and bunting everywhere. The crowd was all gussied up in Victorian finery suitable for an important occasion. People were so closely packed that a few daredevils had taken up roof-top perches to survey the scene.

The centerpiece of this quintessentially American birthday party was the dedication of the Soldiers and Sailors Monument, a gift to the city from Sebastian Lawrence, the son of a Venetian immigrant.

Sebastian's father, Giuseppe Lorenzo, had come to the United States in 1804 when he was just 16 years old. He'd left behind a turbulent city scarred by destruction and political instability following the conquest of the Republic of Venice during the Napoleonic Wars.

Before coming to Connecticut, Giuseppe sold groceries and ship-fitting supplies in Baltimore and Savannah. Then he worked in the East India and China trades, rising quickly through the ranks from seaman to captain. When the War of 1812 broke out, Giuseppe must have had a sickening sense of deja vu, realizing he'd immigrated to another country embroiled in war.

When he first saw New London, Giuseppe thought that the city's harbor offered exceptional commercial possibilities, which convinced him to settle here a few years after the war. He married a Waterford girl, opened a grocery store on today's Atlantic Street, and built a beautiful Italian-style villa (subsequently razed during urban renewal) on the corner of Federal Street and today's Eugene O'Neil Drive. In a poignant farewell to his origins, he changed his name to Joseph Lawrence, because an anglicized name would make it easier to compete on equal footing with New England businessmen.

Joseph invested in real estate and railroad stock, but his primary source of wealth came from whaling. He sent out his first whaler in 1832. The timing was fortuitous. Getting in on the golden age of this lucrative but short-lived industry enabled him to establish an agency that controlled 14 ships and made 29 voyages in just 13 years.

Joseph was civic-minded as well as entrepreneurial. One of his buildings on Bank Street housed several thousand books for the Young Men's Library Association, decades before the New London Public Library was built. Another property, Lawrence Hall, was used for public meetings and exhibitions. He served on the boards of directors of the Whaling Bank of New London and the New London County Mutual Fire Insurance Company.

When Joseph died, he was said to be the richest man in Connecticut. The teenager from Venice had done well.

After Joseph retired, his sons Sebastian and Francis took over the family business and continued his success. In 1887 when their last whaler returned to port, Lawrence ships had made 100 voyages and brought home a fortune.

Sebastian was civic-minded like his father. Besides donating money for the Sailors and Soldiers Monument, he helped finance the Firemen's Monument on Broad Street, contributed toward the acquisition of part of Riverside Park, and founded the Joseph Lawrence Free Public Hospital in honor of his father. Other beneficiaries of Sebastian's generosity were St. James Church, St. Mary's Star of the Sea, the Jibboom Club, a cemetery maintenance fund, an aged clergymen's family fund, and the New London County Historical Society (which was raising money to purchase Shaw's Mansion).

There's no Lawrence Street in New London, but Joseph's and Sebastian's gifts still enhance the adopted city they called home. Their story is as American as apple pie.

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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