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    Saturday, April 20, 2024

    Apartment building proposed for 19th century jail site in Norwich

    A developer is proposing a 26-unit, four-story apartment building on the overgrown property where the 19th century New London County jail once stood on Cedar Street overlooking Norwich Harbor. Nothing has been built on the property, seen here on Thursday, June 1, 2023, since the old jail was torn down in the 1950s. (Claire Bessette/The Day)
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    Norwich ― For the first time since the mid-19th century, something new could be built on a vacant, overgrown Cedar Street property where the 19th century New London County jail once stood overlooking Norwich Harbor.

    The former jail was the centerpiece of the clifftop neighborhood that became home to Norwich African American families and was known as Jail Hill. It is now a National Historic District.

    The 1.88-acre property at 16 Cedar St., with a commanding view of Norwich Harbor, is the site of the former New London County Jail, a factory associated with the jail and the home site of an early 19th century prominent Norwich African American family.

    A Hartford-based housing developer purchased the property in January for $80,500 and has submitted plans to the city for a proposed four-story, 26-unit apartment building, with open recreational space in the front area near the School Street intersection.

    The Commission on the City Plan will hold a public hearing on the permit application by 16 Cedar Street Development LLC at 7 p.m. June 20 at 23 Union St. The plan calls for 18 two-bedroom apartments and eight one-bedroom units in a single building facing Norwich Harbor.

    The plan does not describe whether the apartments would be designated as affordable units or market rate housing.

    The property has changed hands several times in recent years and once was proposed for a housing subdivision. But not since the “new” county jail was constructed there in 1830 to replace one that had burned down and prominent African American resident, Rev. William Spelman, built his house in the immediate vicinity of the jail, has anything new been constructed there.

    The abandoned jail was torn down in the 1950s, its foundation and stone walls now concealed by thick brush and trees that have taken over the property.

    City Historian Dale Plummer said because of the neighborhood’s rich history as an early African American neighborhood, home to leading Black citizens with strong ties to the abolitionist movement, the jail site should be studied before construction begins. Plummer led the historical and architectural survey in 1984 that led to Jail Hill being named a National Historic District.

    State Archaeologist Sarah Sportman recommended the city planning office request a professional archaeological reconnaissance survey of the property be completed prior to development, “given the notable history of the Jail Hill District, as well as the potential for archaeological resources related to the former jail and prominent members of Jail Hill’s 19th century African American community.”

    Norwich Director of Planning Deanna Rhodes included the recommendation for an archaeological survey in her staff report to the planning commission, asking that the survey results be submitted to the city and to the Office of State Archaeology.

    Elizabeth Torres, who signed the project application for owner 16 Cedar Street Development LLC, could not be reached to comment last week on the project plans.

    According to Plummer, Jail Hill emerged as an attractive neighborhood for local African American families because the jail, located in the center of the cliff-top area, depressed surrounding property values, making it affordable to entrepreneurial Black families. The area was called Kinney Hill prior to the jail. Plummer added that property owners with sympathies toward the growing abolitionist movement were not averse to selling land or houses to African American buyers.

    The neighborhood became home to James Lindsay Smith, who escaped from slavery, settled in Norwich running a shoe shop and became a minister. The Harris family also resided on Jail Hill. Daughters Sarah and Mary Harris, along with neighbors Julia Williams and Eliza Glasko were students at Prudence Crandall’s school for Black girls in Canterbury, state Archaeologist Sportman wrote in her letter recommending the archaeological study.

    Sarah Harris became an advocate of abolition of slavery, and Mary Harris traveled to New Orleans to educate formerly enslaved people, Plummer said.

    The Rev. William Spelman was a delegate to the Connecticut Convention of Colored Men in 1849. His son, James Spelman, was a noted journalist and teacher, Sportman wrote. Plummer said not a lot is known about Rev. Spelman, and his connection to the former jail property “is quite significant.”

    “These folks were active in the Civil War and post-Civil War era, and they came from Norwich, Connecticut,” Plummer said. “We really don’t know a lot about them.”

    Plummer’s National Register nomination report in 1984 recommended archaeological studies of the jail property and other Jail Hill sites. He said not a lot was done on that recommendation. He said he was pleased that good research has been done on the Harris family based on the historical survey, but much more can be uncovered.

    “We know the brush strokes ― the Harrises, the Smiths ― but we don’t know a lot about what was going on there,” Plummer said. “The Underground Railroad. Jail Hill was very much involved in it. How do you prove that?”

    c.bessette@theday.com

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