Coast Guard museum project may be picking up steam
New London — The chairman of the National Coast Guard Museum Association has purchased the historic Union Station for $3 million, a sale viewed as necessary for the proposed museum to move forward.
At 5 p.m. Thursday, James Coleman Jr. became the owner of New London’s Union Station, purchasing it from owners Todd O’Donnell and Barbara Timken.
Speaking by phone Friday, Coleman said he was “very, very impressed and amazed” at the 130-year legacy of the Henry Hobson Richardson-designed station, and that he understands the “strong importance” for New London to “keep the building as a train station.”
“I’m absolutely committed to seeing that happen,” he said.
“I greatly appreciate what Todd and Barbara have done in saving this from being pulled down.”
Coleman, whose own family owned the East Jersey Railroad while his wife’s family owned the Union Pacific Railroad, described the train station as “one of Richardson’s major pieces of architecture.”
In fact, Coleman, who lives in New Orleans, has a few things in common with the man he called, “one of the greatest architects in the 19th century.” Richardson grew up in New Orleans in a townhouse on Julia Street, and one of Coleman’s sisters-in-law is a Richardson descendant.
The museum association led by Coleman is raising funds to build a National Coast Guard Museum downtown. Union Station is adjacent to the museum’s planned waterfront site. The state has committed $20 million to the project for design, engineering and the construction of a pedestrian bridge to connect Water Street to the museum.
“What we’re able to do now is let the architect loose to design the pedestrian bridge,” Coleman said, adding that his group “couldn’t start any of the architecture or planning” without settling the ownership of the station.
It will be years before the museum is open, Coleman said, and in the interim he will work to restore the brick building, which needs a great deal of restoration and investment. He said a lot of work is needed on the roof as well as on the interior, and the elevators currently aren’t working.
“It’s a big commitment on our part. But we believe in it,” he said.
In terms of future use of the building, Coleman said, he will “take advice from a lot of people in town to see what’s best there.” Many in the community feel the building has been under-utilized over the years but, Coleman said, “It’s going to be overused.”
“I consider the train station as one of the most important things for everybody in New London,” he said.
The sale was expected to happen by the end of December, but Coleman’s attorney requested a 30-day extension after O’Donnell and Timken discovered — through a title search — that a certificate showing the completion of the 1975 redevelopment of Union Station had never been recorded.
In 1975, the New London Redevelopment Agency executed agreements with Union Station Associates, headed by George Notter Jr., for the redevelopment of Union Station, which at the time was part of the Winthrop Urban Renewal Plan.
The agreements came after much debate about whether to demolish the building.
On Jan. 12, during a special City Council meeting held at the request of O’Donnell, the council voted to release the property from the urban renewal plan and agreed to an updated set of terms — including certain conditions related to the architectural preservation of the station, which allows successive owners to continue to use the building as a train station, though it does not require them to do so.
Coleman said he is “committed to this project,” and ensuring it “will go for another 130 years.”