City's historical Thames Club enjoying a post-pandemic recovery
New London — Three years ago, the Thames Club, a venerable institution whose members over the past 153 years have included a variety of powerbrokers and civic luminaries as well as the father of a future Nobel laureate, was on the ropes.
Membership in the private social club — the oldest in Connecticut and third-oldest in New England — had sagged. Red ink was rising on the club's ledger.
In late 2019, club members began negotiating the sale of the club's 290 State St. location, eventually agreeing to accept a $600,000 offer from Newport Financial, an entity represented by club member Richard Dvorak, a Franklin building contractor and risk manager. In early 2020, COVID-19 struck, pushing off the closing date to June, then September, Derron Wood, the club’s president, said in an interview.
Ultimately, the deal fell through, Wood said, though the club got to keep Newport Financial’s $30,000 deposit, a windfall that came in more than handy.
Less than two years later, the club is enjoying something of a renaissance, according to Wood, whose term as president has exceeded that of many of his predecessors. First elected at the club's annual meeting in May 2019, he recently was elected for a third time. No annual meeting was held in 2020.
“When I became president, it was like they said, 'Here are the keys to a sinking ship,'” Wood said. “I knew nothing.”
The deal with Newport Financial would have enabled the club to clear its debt and lease space in the building for $1 a year in perpetuity, according to Wood.
Dvorak said Newport Financial planned to develop offices on the building’s top floor while the club would have occupied the lower levels, including the basement's vintage duckpin bowling alley.
"In a way, COVID ended up being a blessing,” Wood said. “We didn’t have any staff to pay. We basically turned the club into a cold building. We got a low-interest loan, and in a year to a year-and-a-half we eliminated our old debt, repaired the roof and upgraded the kitchen.”
About 60 club members, or three-quarters of the pre-pandemic membership, stuck it out during the lockdown, Wood said.
In 2021-22, 18 new and former members joined or rejoined the club and another four or five are in the process of joining.
“My goal is to get back to our peak of 150 members, which would be phenomenal,” Wood said, acknowledging that a more realistic target is “more than 100.”
His approach has been to open things up.
The Connecticut Storytelling Center, founded some 40 years ago at Connecticut College, now has a home on the third floor, as does a local architect who's a club member. Flock Theatre, the New London-based theater company Wood founded and serves as executive artistic director, also alighted in the club, storing costumes and equipment and staging rehearsals and plays there.
“The Rotary meets here, Kiwanis meets here,” Wood said.
Ann Shapiro, executive director of the Connecticut Storytelling Center, said she learned last summer that the organization would have to leave Connecticut College. Wood, whom Shapiro knew through Flock Theatre, offered her space at the Thames Club.
“I couldn’t believe my eyes,” she said of the available accommodations — an office, storage space in the attic and room in the library for the center's 800-volume storytelling collection.
Being downtown near other arts organizations and “a whole new audience” has been a boon to the center, she said.
As a rent-paying tenant, Shapiro was required to join the club, which she has done.
In May, the Thames Club and the Garde Arts Center, located diagonally across the street from the club, co-sponsored “Building Communities,” featuring authors Millie Devine, the club’s first dues-paying female member; Lottie B. Scott, former chairwoman of Backus Hospital’s board of directors; New London restaurateur Rod Cornish; and Frankie Ann Marcille.
“We had more than 40 people here, many of them for the first time,” Wood said of a reception at the club that preceded the Garde’s program.
Wood hopes to expand membership by appealing to young professionals, including newly hired Electric Boat employees who have moved into the area. He's touting the club as a welcoming place that genuinely embraces diversity, which is a requirement of its federal income tax-exempt status as a 501(c)(7). That status also prohibits the club from providing goods and services to the general public or operating a restaurant or bar, say, as a business.
Membership fees, a schedule of which Wood has streamlined, range from as little as $50 a month for those under 30 years of age up to $200 a month, depending on a member’s age and how near the club he or she lives. Bylaws require that a prospective member be recommended by a current member. For more information, visit the club's website, thamesclubnewlondon.org.
Another selling point is the club’s reciprocity agreements, which provide members with entry to some 75 other social clubs around the country, including more than a half-dozen in Connecticut, as well as in a few other countries.
Formed in 1869, the Thames Club later acquired a residence built at the corner of State and Washington streets in 1838. The house burned down in 1904 and was replaced by the club’s existing home the next year.
In the club’s basement pub, the walls are lined by stacked rows of more than 400 white tiles bearing black, right-facing silhouettes of club members dating back to the 1800s.
Is a likeness of James O’Neill, father of the playwright Eugene O’Neill, who won four Pulitzer Prizes and the Nobel Prize, among the tiles?
Only in the last decade has that question been answered, according to Wood, who said a concerted effort to locate the elder O’Neill’s silhouette took place sometime after Wood joined the club in 2012. The search focused on a row of tiles that appeared to bear no names but only because, it turned out, the names were obscured by a strip of molding holding the tiles in place.
Wood credits a former club chef, Jennifer Spaulding, with pushing up the tiles, revealing one with "J. O’Neil” written along the bottom of it.
Misspelling aside, the silhouette clearly matches up with photographs of James O’Neill, Wood said.
“We knew he was a member," he said. "We figured he had to be here somewhere.”
Indeed, Eugene O’Neill’s posthumously published “Long Day’s Journey into Night,” an autobiographical work set in 1912, contains multiple references to visits the character based on James O’Neill makes to “the club.”
“He (James) would have been a member much earlier than 1912,” said club member Robert Dowling, a Eugene O’Neill biographer who teaches English at Central Connecticut State University and lives in New London. “He would have been a member when it was built in 1905. He had moved his family to New London by then. I imagine the silhouette would have been done by then.”
In his 2014 book, “Eugene O’Neill: A Life in Four Acts,” Dowling wrote of James O’Neill, in 1915, “His popular appearances at the Crocker House bar and the exclusive Thames Club never let up, and a few local politicians even tried to convince him to run for mayor.”
O’Neill “demurred,” Dowling wrote, saying that if he entered politics, he’d want to run for president, “... and I can’t be President because I was born in Ireland, God bless it!”
Dowling said another “Long Day’s Journey into Night” character, a real estate broker by the name of McGuire, is based on a Thames Club member of the same name.
In another tale of the silhouette tiles, one bearing the likeness of Elisabeth Kienle, a former club manager, is dated “1982” — a decade before Millie Devine, a former bank vice president and founder of the Southeastern Connecticut Women’s Network, became the club’s first female member.
According to Brian Haagensen, chairman of the club’s board of directors, Kienle, a forceful presence who used to let members know when it was appropriate to remove their jackets, eventually married a club member and became a member herself. In a break with practice, her “retroactively” dated tile bears the date of her hiring as manager, Haagensen said.
As recently as Friday evening, the club’s Electric Boat-built, two-lane bowling alley was on display. Except for the pandemic shutdown, it's been continuously operational since around 1910.
The alley’s Brunswick SAFE-T Ball Return and pin-setting machinery, installed sometime between World Wars I and II, still works, though the club requires that it not be operated unless a mechanic is on hand, according to Jim Giordano, the club’s bowling chairman.
“It’s like something out of a ‘Bugs Bunny’ movie,” Wood said. “Only certain members know how to unjam it.”
Hoping to preserve such history, the club’s in the process of forming a nonprofit foundation that can raise money to fund restoration work.