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    Sunday, March 26, 2023

    History Around the Corner: UConn-Avery Point campus turns half a century old

    An exterior view of the Branford House located at Avery Point in Groton. (Day File Photo)

    Arrayed in a padlocked glass display case in the Avery Point library is a collection of memorabilia, photos, articles and the like. The items belong to the library and draw the patient viewer back in time to reveal a bygone era when larger-than-life men and women felt little remorse about displaying their wealth.

    The University of Connecticut at Avery Point in Groton this year celebrates its 50th anniversary as a branch of the university’s main campus at Storrs. Avery Point over the years has notably served the U.S. Coast Guard, whose functions have included maintaining the lighthouse built in 1942 (now recently refurbished through private funding) and a Coast Guard Research and Development center.

    It’s hard to make out by eye, but there is an inscription on the campus library building frieze that reads “United States Coast Guard Institute.” Some Coast Guard relics are most all that are left of this once active military command.

    The University of Connecticut settled in as its permanent owner in 1967 and completed a major refurbishment in 2001.

    One cannot think of the Avery Point campus without remembering its developer and builder, Morton Freeman Plant, and his palatial mansion he named the Branford House in honor of his birthplace in Connecticut.

    The mansion and 22 surrounding acres are officially located at 1084 Shennecossett Road in Groton. Branford House was added to the national register of historic places in 1984.

    Morton Plant was one of those familiar 19th century business tycoons inheriting and enriching his fortune made mostly in transportation and shipping. His wide range of interests included his minor league baseball team, horticulture, and modern farming techniques.

    He was known for his philanthropic support, including Connecticut College for Women in New London (now Connecticut College), and for his generosity to many causes he deemed worthy. Plant could have joined the Newport set, but he grew fond of his home in Connecticut where he chose to build his beautiful home.

    The Branford House was developed by Plant’s wife, Nellie, a trained architect. English architect Robert W. Gibson carried out her plans and completed the mansion in 1903.

    When he was not caring for his farm, Plant loved to sail and was commodore in favored marinas. He was a member of the New York Athletic Club and Yacht Club. He competed and won yachting prizes in international racing and partly owned professional baseball teams.

    A more detailed study of the Branford House can be found at the Branford House website. Thanks to Karen Bakowski.

    Morton Plant was twice married. Predeceasing him were Nellie Capron of Baltimore and May Cadwell Manwaring of New London.

    Plant died of pneumonia in November 1918. Over the years the interior furnishings and outdoor items of the mansion have been removed or auctioned off.

    The bursar’s offices and branch art gallery occupy upper floors. The decorative house interiors and breathtaking view of Long Island Sound make it a popular site for weddings and other seasonal affairs coordinated by the university.

    So that it will not be completely overlooked, there is a mighty, muscular beech tree in the lawn near the west end of the mansion that should be admired. Such slow-growing trees like this specimen are generally planted for future generations to enjoy.

    Phil Houk is a former submariner, UConn grad, and retired field service technician. He can be reached at plhouk@atlanticbb.net

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