New London Landmarks offers rare walking tour of Neptune Park

52 Mott Ave. in New London is known as the Foran Cottage. Photo by Deborah Napelitano
52 Mott Ave. in New London is known as the Foran Cottage. Photo by Deborah Napelitano

Little-known Neptune Park and an even more mysterious stone house dubbed The Castle on the south side of the city will be highlighted Saturday during New London Landmarks' "Cottage to Castle" house tour.

The tour will feature several homes, including a stately stone home at 11 Elliott Ave. once owned by the late Gov. Thomas Waller.

"It's rare for us to be able to offer a tour which allows people to see the interiors of some of New London's most unique historic homes," New London Landmarks executive director Laura Natusch said in a release.

According to a history of Neptune Park compiled largely by Mary Beth Baker, nearby Ocean Beach was once known as White Beach, and the piece of land that later became The Castle was purportedly where the British first landed when they attacked New London in 1781, led by the traitor Benedict Arnold.

By the 1900s, Ocean Beach had become a mishmash of tiny cottages along with rooming houses, a dance hall, saloon and penny arcade.

"Development at Ocean Beach was pretty much a free-for-all," according to Baker's telling, "and frequent street cars, which by state mandate could charge no more than 5 cents one way, made it highly accessible to day-trippers."

Yet Neptune Park was able to maintain its own private identity, thanks partly to larger and more expensive lots 10 times the price of Ocean Beach's properties. The area also banned picnicking on the beach, along with fences, sheds and bathhouses, while porches were required to face the street.

"Neptune Park was a success, with lots selling quickly and cottages going up apace," according to the historical overview. "Soon, cottagers were complaining that Ocean Beach was attracting the wrong sort of people and that unruly behavior was spilling over into their cottage compound."

Later, parking issues started arising, and police began patrolling the area day and night.

The Hurricane of 1938 wiped out Ocean Beach, but Neptune Park was largely saved by a seawall. Afterward, Ocean Beach was taken by eminent domain as a city park, while Neptune Park remained a private enclave.

It's a tucked-away spot with classic Connecticut beach cottages, including several on Saturday's tour. The 1859 castle is the oldest to be opened to the public, a place beautifully restored by current owner Jeffrey K. Miller, whose architect Peter Springsteel has managed to maintain many original features, including colorful stained glass.

According to a history, the stone house that later became known as The Castle was built by Samuel Mackenzie Elliott, a leading eye doctor and abolitionist.

"When it was new in 1859, the Castle sat on a high point on a fat, mitten-shaped peninsula located between White Beach, Alewife Cove and Jordan Cove to the west, and New London lighthouse and the Thames River to the east," according to the Neptune Park history.

It later came into the possession of Waller, an Irish orphan who went on to become mayor of New London and governor of Connecticut and who, in 1913, transformed the property's appearance.

"By 1906, water and sewers had been put through, and people were buying lots and constructing cottages," Baker's history stated. "By 1919, there was only one waterfront lot left at Neptune Park."

It was Waller who developed both Ocean Beach and Neptune Park, with the latter culled largely from the Mott and Elliott estates, creating 87 lots in total.

It's fitting, then, that two of the other residences on Saturday's tour are located on Mott Avenue: the Thomas Foran Cottage and the Walter S. Garde House, both built in 1909.

The Garde House, modernized after the 1938 hurricane, is a Dutch Colonial overlooking the beach with shingles on the top floor and stucco on ground level. Original owner Walter Garde, after whom the Garde Arts Center is named, is known for developing successful hotels in New Haven and Hartford and for financing construction of the lavish Garde Theater, which was sold in 1929 to Warner Bros. for the then-outlandish price of $1 million.

The Foran Cottage remains nearly unchanged from its initial construction, except for a few repairs after the 1938 Hurricane. Original owner Thomas Foran operated the city's leading furniture store, Foran & Son, and the home has remained in the family, with some of the original Arts and Crafts furniture still gracing the interior.

The final home on the tour, the 1911 Brown Cottage at 55 Neptune Ave., includes a large 1913 addition for gracious entertaining. Original owner Cyrus Brown made his money in coal and real estate, and he helped develop Alewife Cove while also serving as a Republican state legislator.

l.howard@theday.com

The Castle at 11 Elliott Ave. in New London is the former home of Gov. Thomas Waller. Photo by Deborah Napelitano
The Castle at 11 Elliott Ave. in New London is the former home of Gov. Thomas Waller. Photo by Deborah Napelitano
1911 Brown Cottage at 55 Neptune Ave., includes a large 1913 addition for gracious entertaining. Photo by Guy Roger Clements
1911 Brown Cottage at 55 Neptune Ave., includes a large 1913 addition for gracious entertaining. Photo by Guy Roger Clements
Walter S. Garde House at 14 Mott Ave. in New London, was built in 1909 and mo modernized after the 1938 hurricane, Photo by Guy Roger Clements
Walter S. Garde House at 14 Mott Ave. in New London, was built in 1909 and mo modernized after the 1938 hurricane, Photo by Guy Roger Clements
1911 Brown Cottage at 55 Neptune Ave., includes a large 1913 addition for gracious entertaining. Photo by Guy Roger Clements
1911 Brown Cottage at 55 Neptune Ave., includes a large 1913 addition for gracious entertaining. Photo by Guy Roger Clements

If You Go

What: Cottage to Castle hour tour, sponsored by New London Landmarks

When: 1-4 p.m. Saturday

Where: Begins at the front entrance of Ocean Beach Park

Cost: $25 for Landmarks members and $35 for nonmembers

Tickets: Should be reserved in advance by emailing info@newlondonlandmarks.org">info@newlondonlandmarks.org or calling (860) 442-0003

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