Local preservationists dismayed by plans to raze Bank Street buildings

New London — Prominent downtown property owner William Cornish has submitted an application to tear down a second Bank Street building, a move that already is raising the hackles of local preservationists.

Cornish on Tuesday submitted an application to the building department for demolition of 116 Bank St. for what he says will be new construction. It is adjacent to 130 Bank St., which he also plans to raze. He owns both.

His planned demolition of 130 Bank St. was delayed for six months as a result of a vote earlier this month by the city’s Historic District Commission and Design Review Board.

New London Landmarks is circulating a petition seeking public support to save 130 Bank St. and is gearing up for a similar campaign for 116 Bank St.

“This is really magnifying the threat to downtown,” New London Landmarks Executive Director Laura Natusch said. “This building isn’t vacant. It isn’t an eyesore. It’s part of our maritime history.”

She said demolition of downtown buildings would be “ripping away what makes us special.”

Cornish said when he found out a commission had the power to delay his plans for 130 Bank St., he fast-tracked his demolition application for 116 Bank St. in anticipation of another delay. He said he does not have immediate plans for the replacement building but says it will be “something nice. Something that will improve the neighborhood and improve the tax base.”

Both 116 and 130 Bank are included in a downtown historic district that occupies a spot on the National Register of Historic Places. There are more than 200 structures in the district and both 116 and 130 Bank are considered to be contributing to the historic character of the district.

“If both go without concrete plans for replacement, that’s a huge hole in the heart of downtown,” Natusch said. “A replacement isn’t going to carry the same historic value and will not contribute to our identity as an old seaport town. In fact, it’s going to detract from our identity.”

New London Landmarks continues to research the history of both structures.

The building at 116 Bank St. is now home to New London Ink, a tattoo shop. In 1859 it was occupied by the family of Arthur Welch, who ran a sailors’ boarding house, according to “Bank Street 50 Years Ago,” published in 1902.

“This building is very old and probably was erected soon after the town was destroyed by the British,” according to the book.

British soldiers set fire to nearly the entire city in 1781 under orders from infamous traitor Benedict Arnold.

The book also references the fact that the bodies of victims of the wreck of the steamship Atlantic were brought to the home in 1846 and laid out on the floor. The Atlantic, traveling from Norwich to New York, sank in the water off Fishers Island Sound, killing more than 40 people, according to published accounts.

New London Landmarks will be backed in its efforts to save the buildings by the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation.

“Basically the community has to decide what they want the downtown to look like,” said organization researcher Brad Schide. “Bank Street, in my opinion, is the crux of the revival of the whole downtown. If you keep knocking down buildings, it won’t have the same feel.”

Schide said that while old buildings are difficult and expensive to rehabilitate, it is possible. He said his organization will work to present alternative plans to Cornish for the sites. He said he also expects to make a case for saving the buildings to the state’s Historic Preservation Council, who could in turn appeal to the state attorney general to block the demolition.

“We have to have the public involved for the attorney general or anybody to take this action seriously,” Schide said. “The challenge is mobilization of the community and the city, which we’re all doing now. We just want him to do the right thing.”

g.smith@theday.com

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