New London’s Story, Told Through Architecture
By Gretchen A. Peck
Recently, I’ve had conversations with a number of people who are looking for a home in southeast Connecticut. Empathetic to their quest, I often recount our family’s relocation to New London County nearly a decade ago, and what we’ve found particularly intriguing about the Town of New London itself, not the least of which is its place in American history and the charm of its commercial and residential architecture. As the executive director of New London Landmarks, it’s Laura Natusch’s role to evangelize and preserve the magnificent antique homes and buildings that dot New London’s streets. Welcome Home reached out to Natusch this week, with a few questions about the organization and what makes New London a remarkable place to live.
Welcome Home: New London is so rich with magnificent homes, many of which are well-preserved antiques dating back more than 100 years. For folks who are looking for a home in the area—who may have an appreciation for antique architecture and décor—what should they know about New London?
Natusch: No matter what kind of historic architecture you’re drawn to, New London probably has it. Our streets are lined with Georgian, Federal, Greek Revival, Italianate, Queen Anne, Gothic Revival, bungalows, and even a few Mid-Century Modern houses, most of which are modestly priced compared to what they would sell for in other municipalities. If you’re buying a house in New London, odds are good that you’re buying a piece of history.
Welcome Home: The south end of New London was known for the Pequot Colony homes built during the Victorian era and at the Turn of the Century. How has the architectural style and quality of life in this waterfront community been preserved in all the years since?
Natusch: When the Pequot Colony and the Neptune Park houses were being constructed, southern New London was a popular resort area for wealthy socialites who were attracted to our coastal beauty and pristine Ocean Beach. The area suffered financially after a fire destroyed the Pequot Hotel, and then again when the 1938 hurricane wiped out numerous summer cottages. But after the hurricane, New London raced to build Ocean Beach Park, opening it in 1940. Since then, it has remained a popular destination for both tourists and New London residents. The area is currently on the upswing: The owners of 917 Ocean Avenue recently converted their house into the elegant “Inn at Ocean Avenue,” and the historic Lighthouse Inn reopened its restaurant after an extensive rehabilitation.
Welcome Home: Downtown New London has some antique architectural treasures, as well—the Hempsted Houses, some of the incredible Victorian homes, many of which are now zoned for commercial/office use, and also some of the downtown commercial buildings and offices. What are some of the most iconic and historic properties in downtown New London that still stand today?
Natusch: There are so many to choose from! Union Station springs to mind, because New London Landmarks formed during a decade-long battle to prevent its demolition. The Garde Theater, which recently won a national Outstanding Historic Theatre Award); City Hall, the Custom House Maritime Museum, the Shaw Mansion, and the courthouse on Huntington Street are all gems. I’m especially fond of the Antone DeSant house at 745 Bank Street, whose curved wall echoes the curve of a brook that once ran beside it. But more important than any single building are the nearly intact historic streetscapes, many of which look much as they did in the 19th century.
Welcome Home: For readers who may not be familiar with New London Landmarks, remind us all about the mission statement and how you’ve worked to preserve the history and historic architecture throughout the town?
Natusch: Our mission is to preserve and promote New London’s history through education, advocacy and the rehabilitation of historic structures. We initially focused on preventing the demolition of historic buildings, and that is still a large part of what we do. However, we also research properties, provide educational tours and programs and connect developers with funding opportunities. In the last five or six years, we spearheaded the successful effort to prevent the demolitions of 130 and 116 Bank Street, collaborated with the City of New London on the Black Heritage Trail, and rehabilitated 23 Franklin Street, a Greek Revival house built by Edward Hempstead which became the longtime home of the late civil rights icon Linwood Bland, Jr.
Welcome Home: Folks coming to New London in search of a home will quickly notice the “whale” placards proudly posted on many of the antique homes here. What can you share with us about that program—how a property qualifies for it, what the process is for applying; how much research goes into the program; and how many homes here are placarded today?
Natusch: Buildings that are at least 50 years old qualify for a plaque. Well over 500 New London properties have plaques now, and each plaque funds research that deepens our understanding of New London’s history. When we started the program, we limited our research to a title search in order to identify the building’s original owner and year of construction. Now, we conduct additional research on a building’s owners and occupants, then write a narrative about our findings. Our volunteers often put 15 or more hours of research into a plaque. Plaques and research cost $250, discounted to $235 for our members. People can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to request an application or download one from our website.
Welcome Home: For anyone interested in learning more about New London's historic buildings and homes, what resources does New London Landmarks offer to the public?
Natusch: Our website contains information on New London’s historic districts, as well as some particularly interesting sample plaque narratives. We also have guidebooks, maps and extensive digital and paper files on historic properties in our office. And, of course, we are always offering new lectures and walking tours. I encourage anyone interested in New London’s history to join our email list or check our website to see what is coming up.