Years of work culminate with reopening of Lighthouse Inn in New London
New London — The restaurant at the Lighthouse Inn will open its doors to host an invite-only brunch for a group of friends and family this weekend, the culmination of more than five years of restoration work at the historical property.
Owner Alwyn Christy, 47, of Glastonbury last month obtained a certificate of occupancy from the city for the first floor of the property’s landmark building. He intends to open both the restaurant and its 1902 Tavern — for the time being without a liquor permit — to the general public in the coming days and already has received dozens of calls from people looking to book special events.
There is not yet a set date for the official reopening.
This weekend’s food service, which comes under the guidance of consulting Chef Mark Vecchitto, will be a good chance for a dry run to work out the bugs and help train recently hired staff members, Christy said. Much of the staff was on hand this week becoming acquainted with the kitchen, point-of-service system and sprawling layout with multiple dining areas.
It will be the first time the inn has been opened to the public since it abruptly closed in 2008 and comes with anticipation and high expectations of locals with fond memories of the inn. It was for decades the go-to place for dinners, parties and special events.
Jill Johnson, a neighbor of the inn, has been walking past the work site for years now and in the early days of the rehabilitation project become acquainted with Christy and Robert Duleau, a remodeler from New Britain who led the restoration effort.
Johnson and friend and artist Suzanne Laycock Sypher were the self-proclaimed “inspectors” for the project.
At one point, Johnson half-jokingly gave work crews a deadline. Her mandate was that work be completed by Dec. 12, 2020, in time to celebrate her 50th anniversary with husband Mark. The couple met at New London High School, dated and were engaged in the lounge of the Lighthouse Inn in 1970. The two married that same year and held their wedding reception at the inn. Her children held a surprise 25th wedding anniversary party for the couple at the inn.
“Both of our families, we’re New London people,” Johnson said. “We’ve been to weddings, retirement parties, holidays, dinners and birthday parties there. There’s so much history for us.”
For the eight years it was dormant, Johnson had watched with dismay as time and lack of upkeep took its toll on the inn. Like scores of others watching, she was resigned to the fact that it would never reopen.
But Johnson, in her frequent visits to the inn, was always reassured by Christy and Duleau that work would proceed. Both had taken on the inn as full-time jobs.
“A lot of people doubted it. They said it’s not going to happen,” Johnson said. “But there was something about them. They were so dedicated and patient with all of the delays and the adversity they faced. They just kept plugging along. They were passionate and determined.”
Christy called Duleau a true craftsman who had a hand in every facet of the project, from installation of the hardwood floors and rehabilitation of existing furniture to the choice of color schemes and restoration of lighting fixtures. Everything that could be saved and restored was, Christy said.
As for the end result of the work, Johnson called it “recognizable but much more beautiful.”
“The Lighthouse Inn was in such disrepair when they started. It was daunting. Their heart and souls were in it. You can see that," Johnson said. "It’s definitely a ‘wow.’ I think people will be very pleased with the work they’ve done.”
Charles Cunningham, 88, a local legend who worked in a variety of roles at the inn for 32 years, agreed with Johnson’s assessment of the inn during a visit this week. “It brings back a helluva lot of memories,” he said. “I give great respect for them doing something the residents needed.”
To her delight, Christy is honoring Johnson’s persistence and work by naming one of the dining areas the Johnson Room. Johnson picked out the colors for the majestic domed ceiling, the furniture, the wall sconces and helped enlighten Christy about what the inn means to people.
Two pieces of Sypher’s artwork, one of Marilyn Monroe and another of Louis Armstrong, will grace the walls of the inn at its opening. Christy said he intends to bring more work from local artists to the inn.
Christy said hearing the stories from Johnson and others who have come to visit, “that’s what’s kept us going all this time.”
“We’ve gotten to know the character of this place," he said. "I’d like to say we’ve done everything right.”
'Something we could do for ourselves'
For Christy, the project was more than he expected when he and friend Edwin Abraham won the property at a tax auction in 2016 for $260,000. The auction was held three years after the city acquired the property after several failed attempts to lure a developer. The city’s decision to keep the property likely saved it from being razed.
Both Abraham and Christy, who has a master’s degree in business administration, had come from the corporate world with jobs managing multinational corporations but had never delved into the world of historic restoration or hospitality.
Both had accomplished careers working for others. The inn, Christy and Abraham agreed, “might be something we could do for ourselves.”
The two had committed a sizable amount of their own money into the project but local lenders, to Christy’s surprise, shied away from financing the project. Christy declined to talk about the amount of money spent to date.
The advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, skyrocketing costs of materials and supply problems led to more delays. Christy’s business partner, Abraham, died suddenly in 2020. Christy said it was the financial backing of another friend, Sai Kumar, that kept the project moving forward.
Duleau recalls that when work began, “every room was a surprise, and not a nice one.” The initial work focused on shoring up the roof and contending with the damage caused by years of leaking water and patch repairs.
The inn, with views of Long Island Sound from its perch at 6 Guthrie Place, originally was built as a home for steel magnate Charles S. Guthrie and designed by architect William Ralph Emerson. It opened as an inn and restaurant in 1926. Starting in 1945, under the ownership of William and Albert Ronnick, “the inn’s reputation reached new heights,” according to an entry in the National Register of Historic Places.
“For the next 30 years Lighthouse Inn was widely considered the premier dining and dancing establishment in southeastern Connecticut ... besides its superb reputation as a place to stay,” the entry reads.
But the last major renovation to the inn was completed in the years after a fire in 1979. Christy said work will continue in the coming months to restore and reopen the two dozen guest rooms on the second floor.
Christy, a father of four, has watched plenty of people shed tears when reminiscing about the inn. He, himself, was emotional in talking about his time spent on the project.
When asked about his kids, Christy said, “they don’t care that I was a VP of a company. Now I’m the owner of the Lighthouse Inn and to them that’s a big thing. They can say my old man did something.”