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    Tuesday, July 23, 2024

    OPINION: And then it was gone

    There’s perhaps no better way to understand the fleeting nature of history than to watch the video of Thursday’s sudden collapse of the magnificent spire of the First Congregational Church in New London.

    With one loud crack of thunder-like noise, according to those who watched the unexpected and catastrophic event, the fall began as the tower suddenly crumbled and fell into itself.

    In those few moments, a soaring landmark of the city skyline, a spiritual tie to the 17th-century religious pilgrims of New London, a symbol of the city’s 19th-century prominence and great wealth and one of the architectural treasures supporting a 21st- century downtown renaissance, was gone.

    It was the kind of implosion you see of Las Vegas hotels that come down with the help of dynamite. But those are planned.

    I was startled to see a few hours later Thursday afternoon a footnote marking the ruination of the New London church had already appeared on Wikipedia, noting the Jan. 25 collapse of the 1850 building, successor to the original houses of worship created by the city’s founding pilgrims.

    New London has lost a lot of historic fabric and architectural landmarks over the years, sometimes by fire, storm or other calamity, and more often on purpose.

    New London, sadly, bulldozed a lot of its own history over the years. Just last year, the city brought down a couple of its own turkeys, the State Pier Road housing towers.

    Thursday’s collapse was so stunning because it was so unexpected, so sudden, and so far, unexplained. I suspect a lot of inspecting of old buildings, especially churches with tall towers, is going to begin soon, not just in New London.

    The story has some elements of a miracle, given that no one was hurt.

    I spoke to Lester Harris of New London on Thursday afternoon and heard him describe how after parking on State Street to get a haircut, he started to leave his car in front of the church but ended up in a free space across the street instead.

    Some of the rubble landed where he almost parked.

    He heard the rumble of thunder and looked up to see the spire come down. By the time I spoke to him, he still hadn’t gotten his hair cut. He was glad to be OK.

    By the time I got up State Street on Thursday, to see the pile of rubble the congregational church had become, I was trying to get accustomed to the new hole in the streetscape.

    As sad as the missing church was at that moment, I took some consolation in looking up and down State Street that many of the familiar old landmarks are still there, from the amazing Union Station on the waterfront to the stately Huntington Street courthouse at the opposite end of the city’s main thoroughfare.

    New London will survive the collapse of the First Congregational Church after a period of architectural mourning.

    I couldn’t help but seek out a little consolation from the church architect himself, Leopold Eidlitz, who wrote about the meanings of buildings in his book, “The Nature and Function of Art: More Especially Architecture,” which he wrote after finishing the New London church.

    “If a structure is devoted to spiritual acts, the fundamental laws of human relationships …. To that end we may sustain the life of humanity, protect and guard it, and then it becomes an arena for these spiritual acts.”

    And Thursday, all at once, we lost not only an architectural treasure but one of those grand arenas for spiritual acts, a sad day indeed.

    This is the opinion of David Collins.


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