New London Landmarks imagines future uses for city's endangered buildings

The Capitol Theater, left photo, might find its niche as a cultural center, and, at right, the Lighthouse Inn's future could involve a group of wealthy people living together in a style epitomized by the film 'The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.' These were just a few of the ideas to come out of an all-day forum Tuesday titled 'Endangered Buildings of New London' sponsored by the city's historic preservation group New London Landmarks at the Fort Trumbull Conference Center.
The Capitol Theater, left photo, might find its niche as a cultural center, and, at right, the Lighthouse Inn's future could involve a group of wealthy people living together in a style epitomized by the film "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel." These were just a few of the ideas to come out of an all-day forum Tuesday titled "Endangered Buildings of New London" sponsored by the city's historic preservation group New London Landmarks at the Fort Trumbull Conference Center.

Editor's note: This version corrects the address of the final building on the Landmarks endangered list which was a private home at 605 Pequot Ave. that last sold for $950,000 but has since been taken over by a bank.

New London — The city's post office building could be converted into a small hotel with apartments, the Capitol Theater might find its niche as a cultural center, and the Lighthouse Inn's future could involve a group of wealthy people living together in a style epitomized by the film "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel."

These were just a few of the ideas to come out of an all-day forum Tuesday titled "Endangered Buildings of New London" sponsored by the city's historic-preservation group New London Landmarks at the Fort Trumbull Conference Center.

Five buildings, including a mill on Garfield Avenue owned by the Faria family and a private home on Pequot Avenue that went through foreclosure, were up for discussion during the forum attended by about 40 preservation enthusiasts. Each of the structures was chosen because of its architectural or historical significance and the possibility that it could be torn down if a developer can't be found to save it.

"This is part of a direct effort to bring the focus of Landmarks back on endangered buildings," said Constance Kristofik, executive director of the preservation group, in an interview after the forum.

No direct action plan came out of the event, which culminated in breakout sessions that allowed community members to help come up with development solutions. Instead, the forum was meant to expose Landmarks and other preservationists to possible avenues they could explore in attempts to encourage restoration efforts citywide.

Kristofik said one of the starting points will likely involve Landmarks officials reaching out to property owners to make them aware of preservation and development options. While Landmarks doesn't have the funds to save these buildings itself, it could in some cases push for preservation easements and flexible zoning to aid in preservation efforts.

"Who's going to do this?" said Deborah Donovan, a member of the Landmarks board. "The city doesn't have the capability of being a developer."

The problem, said economic development activist Frank McLaughlin, is that New London's developers tend to have limited funds to invest while most of the projects outlined Tuesday require significant capital. One of the biggest investments would involve the 1921 Capitol Theater on Bank Street, which McLaughlin envisions as part of a redevelopment including the former Marcus and Klingerman Travel buildings that could all be worked on together as a mixed use involving apartments, retail, a restaurant and parking.

"You're talking 10 million bucks, but it's within the realm of reality," he said.

The vaudeville and movie theater, empty since 1974, has a long history of redevelopment starts and stops that included hundreds of thousands of dollars of city money poured into stabilization efforts. In 2010, the building was finally sold at a tax auction for $20,000 to Jonathan Edward Chau, who had plans to turn it into a hotel and entertainment complex - an idea that never materialized.

Ideas bandied about at the forum included potential uses of the building as a theater (home, perhaps, to Flock Theatre or Connecticut Lyric Opera), cultural center (reaching out to Hygienic Art and the Southeastern Connecticut Cultural Coalition), educational center, music center and college. With more than 20,000 square feet of space on two floors, the building likely would be activated in phases, perhaps utilizing pop-up stores, and interest would be spurred by carving out artist studios and offering a tour open to the community.

Of course there was one other possibility as well: retaining the historic facade of the Capitol while turning much of the space into a much-needed downtown parking area.

As for the 1934 U.S. Post Office on Masonic Street, discussion revolved around creating "boutique living opportunities" in downtown - about 40 rooms total, mostly small studio-size apartments that take advantage of transit-oriented development subsidies. The idea would be to retain the building's historically significant murals in the common areas and perhaps carve out niches for a post office, gym, restaurants and coffee shops.

The 1902 Lighthouse Inn proposals started with razing the property's secondary buildings and included a possible tear-down and rebuild of the current main structure similar to what developers did in Watch Hill to replicate the historic Ocean House as a first-class lodging, dining and conference facility. Another intriguing possibility was the suggestion that a 22-unit co-housing facility could be created on the Guthrie Place site - either anew or out of the existing building - in which a group of wealthy retirees could move en masse to enjoy a retirement by the water.

The 1913 Garfield Mill site on Garfield Avenue, an 80,000-square-foot building owned by the family that runs nearby Sheffield Industries, presents a whole new set of challenges, including potential environmental issues.

"Eighty percent of the windows need replacing, and there are hundreds of windows," said Donovan, the Landmarks board member.

Still, she said, the building is structurally sound and has possible uses as a community center, retail outlet, museum, small-business incubator, college dorms or housing for the elderly, artists or veterans.

"It's going to take a lot of money," Donovan said.

The final building on the Landmarks endangered list was a private home at 605 Pequot Ave. that last sold for $950,000 but has since been taken over by a bank. The more than 4,000-square-foot mansion, built in 1929, was designed by noted architect Dwight James Baum and includes an impressive columned entryway that original owner Ernest E. Rogers, a New London mayor and lieutenant governor of Connecticut, had envisioned as his summer retreat during the waning days of the Pequot Colony.

Among the possibilities for the house would be to use it as a bed and breakfast or to encourage its use by Mitchell College as a training ground for its hotel-management students, according to a group that came up with recommendations.

The five structures discussed at the event Tuesday are among a total of 13 properties cited on Landmarks' "endangered list" at the website newlondonlandmarks.org. Others are City Hall on State Street, the Martin Center on Broad Street, Mitchell Barn on Montauk Avenue, Mitchell Woods, Ye Antientest Burial Ground, Rogers Cemetery and homes at 66 Franklin St. and 11 Home St.

"The endangered list serves as a way to get people together," said Brad Schide, a staff member of the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation and a member of the morning panel of experts who discussed various programs and organizational methods that have been employed to bring old buildings back to life in New England.

Other panel members were Gregory Secord, chair of the Hartford Historic Properties Commission; Brent Runyon, executive director of the Providence Preservation Society, and Julie Carmelich, a historian with the State Historic Preservation Office.

l.howard@theday.com

Twitter: @KingstonLeeHow

READER COMMENTS

Loading comments...
Hide Comments