Battle lines drawn: New London preservationists vs. landlord Cornish

The building at 130 Bank St., at left, is one away from the U.S. Custom House, at the right, in downtown New London. (David Collins/The Day)
The building at 130 Bank St., at left, is one away from the U.S. Custom House, at the right, in downtown New London. (David Collins/The Day)

Laura Nadelberg, president of New London Landmarks and a member of the city's Historic District Commission, says preservationists worried about plans to demolish an antique building on Bank Street would like to work with owner William Cornish to rehabilitate the building instead.

I spoke with Nadelberg soon after her commission, exercising power granted by city statute, voted to delay the granting of a demolition permit for 130 Bank St. for 180 days.

Despite Nadelberg's prominent white flag, promising help for Cornish from the nonprofit Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation, assistance of an architect and advice about grants and tax credits for preserving historical buildings, I don't see an amicable outcome here.

Cornish, for his part, vented his frustration over the commission's stay of the demolition by venting to the City Council, which wisely chose not to intervene. Cornish has vowed to dig in.

With New London Landmarks, the nonprofit created out of the consuming battle in the 1970s to save New London's Union Station, already organizing the fight to save 130 Bank St., the issue very likely is headed to court.

It turns out Connecticut has a unique law to address this very kind of thing, allowing intervention by lawsuit to stop the demolition of a property on the National Register of Historic Places — which 130 Bank St. is — if there is a "prudent and feasible" alternative to tearing it down.

Anyone can file a lawsuit, but the law has been used most successfully when the attorney general brings a suit, generally at the behest of the state Historic Preservation Council.

The process to take the case of 130 Bank St. to the council already has begun.

Todd Levine, an architectural historian with the State Historic Preservation Office, told me a review of proposed 130 Bank St. demolition has begun. He said his office seeks to remain neutral, as a gatherer of facts, and will reach out to both proponents and opponents of the demolition.

Eventually, the preservation council could hold a public hearing and then could decide whether to ask the attorney general to intervene with a lawsuit. Two critical factors that will be considered in the process will be the viability of preserving the building and community support of efforts to preserve it.

Landmarks, which so successfully mustered community interest in preserving Union Station, already is working to enlist support to save 130 Bank St. A petition is circulating and Landmarks has even extended its office hours at 49 Washington St. to let people sign from 1 to 4 p.m. this Saturday and next. The petition can be signed during regular office hours, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Thursday, or online.

Cornish claims the building, which he bought last year for $206,000, without a mortgage, is structurally unsound and can't be saved.

Cornish, who owns many other near-vacant downtown buildings with empty storefronts, including the former Jason's Furniture, partly boarded up directly across Bank Street, told the New London Historic District Commission that he intends to replace 130 Bank St. with something appropriate.

But he didn't present a single plan or drawing.

One wonders, if he hasn't even begun the time-consuming and expensive professional design process of a new building, why he told the City Council he is in such a rush to tear down 130 Bank St. I suppose it would at least lower his tax bill and improve views from his other building across the street, from the windows that are not boarded up, anyway.

Landmarks, with the help of an engineer who has toured 130 Bank St., contends the building is in need of work but structurally sound.

"The good news is that the interior of the building has stayed relatively dry, so the building is generally sound. We found a long-standing issue of spreading at the eaves of the gambrel roof, which needs to be addressed. All conditions that we saw are 'fixable,'" the engineer wrote about 130 Bank St.

So far, that's the only professional opinion on the record regarding the condition of the building.

The Landmarks campaign to save Union Station awakened New London to the architectural treasures that were being lost, and drove home the understanding that the city's charm and grace lies not with any single historical building but in the integrity of all of them together. It is what put the downtown on the national register in the first place.

May this campaign by Landmarks be as successful as the first.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

d.collins@theday.com

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