Pequot Colony's Legacy Lives On

In the decades leading up to 1852, much of southern New London, known as Great Neck, was fertile farmland. Gardner Avenue's name, for example, pays homage to local farmer Benjamin Gardner, who had a farm on the land between Montauk and Ocean Avenues. Douglass Harris was another local farmer, who tended 35 acres at the mouth of the Thames River.

By 1852, New London's whaling days were in its wake, and business leaders grew concerned about its fiscal future. They turned to tourism. That year, a local builder and his business partner purchased Douglass Harris' 35-acre farm for $3,600, and started to build the 600-guest Pequot House hotel and a community of cottages around it.

The hotel became the anchor of the Pequot Colony, "one of the most prominent summer resort communities on the Connecticut shore," wrote former New London Landmarks Director Sharon Churchill, who applied for federal historic recognition of the New London neighborhood back in the late 1980s. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1988. The historic district is approximately three miles south of downtown; bound by Gardner, Glenwood, Pequot and Montauk Avenues, its eastern border is the Thames River.

Titans of industry, Wall Street bankers, diplomats, New England's wealthy, even two Presidents —Presidents Ulysses S. Grant and Chester A. Arthur — spent time vacationing at the Pequot House hotel, which opened for business in 1853, or at one of the private homes available for summer rental.

Not everyone was happy with their stays at the hotel. A document provided by New London Landmarks chronicled how guests frequently complained about the food, preferring beef dishes to the locally sourced chicken and fish on the menu.

By 1890, the private Pequot Casino Association opened, and a few years later, the Montauk Hotel on Lower Boulevard debuted, providing year-round accommodations for employees from the hotel or some of the larger estates.

New London was officially a hot spot.

An architectural array

The original Pequot Colony homes were quite diverse, with brick, shingle-style and clapboard-sided houses in varying degrees of size and square footage. The architectural styles range from ornate late-Victorians to early 20th Century revivals, Italianate, Georgians and American Foursquare. New London Landmarks' Executive Director Laura Natusch provided a treasure trove of documents to The Day, including historic documentation about original Colony homes. Some were designed by renowned American architects, like James Renwick, Jr. and Frank J. Forster. The Olmsted Brothers firm reportedly designed the gardens at the Ernest Rogers House at 605 Pequot Avenue, a Georgian Revival. Architect Eugene Kirkland designed "sister" houses at 51 Glenwood Avenue and 767 Montauk Avenue, built 15 years apart.

Architect Lewis Crandall had been captivated by a former women's bowling alley, Ten Pin Alley, which he had moved to 35 Hall Street in 1872 and converted it to a residence.

In 1872, the Pequot Chapel at 857 Montauk Avenue opened its doors to the community. The Gothic Revival non-denominational church, with two stained glass windows by Tiffany Glassworks, has been well maintained since. It remains a favorite spot for intimate weddings, and throughout the year, traveling clergy visit and deliver Sunday sermons. Each year in December, neighbors gather at the chapel for a Christmas hymn singalong. This October, Hollywood came to call, bringing crews from the Hallmark Channel, who filmed a Christmas movie in which the Pequot Chapel and Colony-period homes at Hall and Chapel streets play starring roles.

The early 20th Century brought more formidable challenges to the Colony. In the wee morning hours of May 7, 1908, a fire destroyed the hotel. It raged for hours. Documents provided by New London Landmarks indicated that the fire was believed to be arson, but the crime was never proven.

The day after the fire, The New York Times reported, "As the matter now stands there is no regret that the ramshackle wooden building that had long outlived its usefulness as a modern Summer hotel, has been wiped of existence, but the fire causes speculation as to what effect the loss will have on Summer patronage."

Pequot House was a tender 58-years old when it perished. The Times reported that it has been insured for $15,000, but the damage was estimated at more than $35,000. Twenty years after the fire, Theodore Bodenwein, publisher of The Day, built a home on the hotel's former site, the French Norman farmhouse at 625 Pequot Avenue.

When Montauk Avenue and the trolley further connected downtown with southern New London, the Pequot Colony lost some of its exclusivity cred. Prohibition further dampened tourism, and the 1929 crash marked the end of the Colony's heyday as a resort destination.

But the New London neighborhood had already begun to reinvent. Some of the larger estates were subdivided, and a working-class community formed as employees from the former hotel and casino bought up parcels of land and moved Colony cottages to their new sites or built anew.

The Pequot Colony's legacy lives on today. What attracted tourists, summer dwellers and year-round residents to New London's "General Neck" appeals to long-time residents and newcomers today.

Living History

Original Pequot Colony houses have been in demand in recent years, priced according to size, setting and proximity to the water. The Gothic Revival at 806 Montauk Avenue sold for $345,000 in 2020. Two Colonial Revivals on Glenwood Avenue, which debuted in the mid-to-late 1920s, toward the tail end of its height as a resort community, were sold to new owners in 2020. Described as a "French Second Empire cottage," 17 Chapel Drive sold for $385,000 in 2018. It has a non-speaking part in the forthcoming Hallmark Christmas movie.

One of the original Pequot Colony houses is currently for sale at 54 Gardner Avenue, New London — an 1876-era Victorian, with five bedrooms, 3,527 square feet of living space (including the finished third floor), and several porches.

Geoff Smith is a Realtor with RE/MAX On the Bay in Niantic and the listing agent for 54 Gardner Avenue. Smith grew up in New London and has an affinity for the Pequot Colony homes and history. He spoke about the neighborhood's heyday as summer "cottages" for the wealthy and influential. "Some of these cottages had 20 rooms! They are definitely not what we'd call cottages today," he said.

"At around 1907, this particular home used to be rented out for $2,000 per season," Smith said. He refers to 54 Gardner as "the pride of the Pequot Colony," and much of the original house has been preserved, including the floor plan. "There have been small additions, like a mudroom and a half bath. The porch was also expanded at some point, but the overall structure and the interior looks to be pretty similar to how it was originally designed."

Historic records refer to the main level as having four rooms, a parlor, a butler's pantry and the kitchen, all of which are still part of the floor plan and used as they were intended. The house still has two staircases — the main staircase and one that was originally used by butlers and household staff.

The kitchen has been updated over the years, and the homeowners most recently renovated the primary bedroom's private bath.

Asked about the property's history, Smith recounted discovering a document that was for sale on the internet. It was a letter written by former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Edward Douglass White. He'd been invited to a dinner in North Carolina, and was expressing his regrets that he could not attend because he was summering in New London. The address on the letterhead read: 54 Gardner Avenue.

The Pequot Colony's legacy of attracting urban dwellers to its shoreline community "came full circle" during the COVID-19 pandemic, when buyers and renters were eager for a coastal respite, Smith suggested. He said New London is particularly appealing to buyers, because it has all of the amenities that nearby shore towns afford; plus, "you can get more bang for your buck."

"If New London isn't on a buyer's radar, it should be," he said.

A previous version of this story incorrectly named the former New London Landmarks director. Her name is Sharon Churchill.

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