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Why not a Coast Guard museum in the heart of downtown New London?

I heard from some readers recently who wanted to share an idea for a new location for a Coast Guard museum in New London, an alternative to the unworkable waterfront site that the nonprofit planning the museum has unsuccessfully pursued for the better part of a decade.

I've heard before versions of the idea these readers proposed, a suggestion that the museum be put in one or a combination of the many empty buildings downtown.

I've always thought the idea interesting, but probably not satisfying for those who want a grand and imposing structure to honor the Coast Guard. And, of course, the museum building needs to be big to accommodate large exhibits that are already being planned.

But the readers who pitched the idea to me made some good points, and, hey, almost any site is more realistic and worth more consideration than the current impossible location — a small plot in a flood plain on the wrong side of the railroad tracks — that is almost certainly a factor in the stalled fundraising.

My reader correspondents had just spotted a new for sale sign in front of the former Savings Bank of New London building on Eugene O'Neill Drive, the one Citizens Bank first sold and then abandoned as a tenant.

It is indeed a magnificent building, first constructed in 1870, expanded in 1890 and tarted up in 1905 with a new façade. It is a powerful architectural symbol of the city's heyday as a rich whaling port.

It was grand, and still is, with an enormous main hall featuring murals, skylights, marble and gilt — an appropriate setting for merchants to deposit all their growing wealth.

It is in remarkably good condition, and I can think of no better way to accomplish its preservation than to make it the linchpin for a Coast Guard museum, to tell an important story that is also central to the city's history.

The building, along with the attached modern offices, is for sale for a modest $2.9 million. The complex is even connected already to the Water Street parking garage, a $24 million savings at the outset, since you wouldn't have to build the proposed pedestrian bridge from the garage to the tortured site on the other side of the railroad tracks.

Of course it is not big enough, but the building is not located in a historic district and you could certainly build up, the same kind of glassy tower being planned for the waterfront, but on high ground instead. It would be much cheaper to build.

It would have grand views, of the magnificent Henry Hobson Richardson train station, the barque Eagle moored at City Pier and of the Thames River.

A big new building could replace the modern office annex. But it might also be possible to expand the footprint and take up more of the block on Eugene O'Neill Drive, which was Main Street before urban renewal destroyed so much of it.

I suspect The Day, which has stopped using a large part of its neighboring property due to the removal of printing presses, might be convinced to move along to other downtown offices, especially if asked to make room for such an important project.

Let's be honest, New London is desperate for a rebirth. COVID and the flight from so many offices by remote workers has taken a heavy new toll.

There's no question that a successful downtown Coast Guard museum would put many more feet on downtown sidewalks than the proposed waterfront site, which, by design, would actually separate museum visitors from the downtown. They would be encouraged to park in a garage and take a climate controlled overhead walkway to another world, on the other side of the railroad tracks.

When they make their way back from the museum into the garage, will they then go in the other direction and explore the city or just get in their cars and leave?

I suspect the latter.

A Coast Guard museum grounded in the heart of the downtown, a new city landmark, would be something politicians at the municipal, state and federal level could finally point to as a significant accomplishment in the renewal of a poor struggling city. You could walk out the front door of the museum into the downtown. There's already a lot of money on the table to make it happen.

It's better than the current pact the politicians have all made, to keep pretending that enough people are someday going to donate enough money to build an expensive and problematic museum that isn't even on a city street.

The waterfront project was the vision of a rich philanthropist who didn't give enough money to build it and is no longer alive.

Potential donors already have given the flood zone plan a big thumbs-down by their refusal to pony up after all these years. Time to move on and for New London to claim its rightful prize.

This is the opinion of David Collins.


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