ELLEN ALBANESE FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE
NEW LONDON — The biggest tourist attraction in New London hasn’t been built yet. But when the first Coast Guard museum in the country opens in 2017, this waterfront city will be ready. Current hot spots are adding new attractions. Storefronts are filling up, and the arts are thriving. Three new restaurants have opened downtown in the last year.
It’s kind of a chicken-and-egg thing: Is New London experiencing a renaissance because the Coast Guard selected the city as the site of its first museum, or did the Coast Guard choose the city because New London is experiencing a renaissance?
It’s a bit of both, say local entrepreneurs and business advocates. “Obviously, one of the biggest attractions [here] is the Coast Guard Academy,” says Renee Fournier, past president of the city’s Main Street organization. “But New London had already done some work” reviving its downtown. Filling empty storefronts and diversifying the types of restaurants was the first step, she said, followed by condos that brought suburbanites back into the city. With disposable income, these newer residents fueled the burgeoning arts and culture scene. “A national military historical museum is going to create opportunities” for the city to become a major tourist destination, she said.
Plans for the National Coast Guard Museum call for a four-story, 54,000-square-foot building with interactive exhibits, event space and lecture rooms, a gift shop, and a cafe to be built on the waterfront adjacent to the train station and ferry terminals. The Coast Guard barque Eagle will be berthed at an adjacent pier.
The new museum will be just a few blocks from another New London institution, the Custom House Maritime Museum, located in the longest continuously operating US customs office in the country. The museum’s director, Susan Tamulevich, said, “The decision to site the Coast Guard museum in New London is inspiring all of us to be better.”
One of the Maritime Museum’s new initiatives is “Sentinels on the Sound” lighthouse tours. This summer’s schedule includes daytime boat tours, night tours, full-moon tours, tours of Ledge Light, and visits to Plum Island and Fishers Island. The popularity of the tours has taken everyone by surprise, Tamulevich said. “There was this pent-up interest in lighthouses all this time. We had no idea.”
On an overcast Saturday, we climbed aboard the small workboat John F. Kennedy, with Captain Pat Kennedy (“the other Patrick Kennedy,” he likes to say) for a spin around the harbor and close views of New London Harbor Light, also known as Pequot Light, the tallest and oldest lighthouse on Long Island Sound, built in 1801; Ledge Light, a miniature brick mansion built in 1909; and Avery Point Light, the shortest and newest lighthouse in Connecticut, built in 1943. Tours carry up to six passengers and one or two docents, who share a wealth of knowledge about the mechanics of the lighthouses, tides and currents, and a little scuttlebutt about past and present property owners along the high-rent-district waterfront.
Even behind the scaffolding that surrounds it during a full structural restoration, New London Harbor Light is commanding, with its classic octagonal salt-shaker profile. According to the US Coast Guard, from the lantern of Harbor Light, one can see more lighthouses than from any other spot on earth. Ledge Light is right out of a storybook: a French Second-Empire design with a mansard roof. Our guides said the unusual design was chosen to appease a wealthy property owner who objected to having his idyllic harbor view marred by a “sparkplug.” (The original Fresnel lens from Ledge Light is on display in the Maritime Museum.) And the tiny lighthouse at Avery Point, just 55 feet tall, is nearly dwarfed by the neighboring Gothic stone mansion once owned by millionaire Morton F. Plant.
A native of Biddeford, Maine, who moved to New London a year ago, and a self-described lighthouse fan, Elizabeth Daley said she was impressed by the amount of information the docents share on the tour. She was drawn to New London, she said, because she likes cities and towns that had former lives as fishing villages and mill towns and are coming back. “This town still has life in it.”
There’s more lighthouse lore in the Maritime Museum, along with vintage dive gear, an impressive display of knots, and other exhibitions related to New London’s maritime history. The largest exhibition covers the Amistad incident, which occurred 175 years ago this month. Tamulevich notes that it was not unusual for captives on slave ships to rebel; the Amistad rebels succeeded because they had help from New London abolitionists.
Ranking right up there with New London’s maritime legacy is its rich art tradition, inspired by the curious story of Hygienic Art, Inc.
For much of the last century, the Hygienic Restaurant was a 24-hour greasy spoon in downtown New London favored by sailors. In 1979 a group of artists “came into this seedy diner and had an art show,” said Rich Martin, managing director of Hygienic Art, Inc. The show became an annual tradition, and when the restaurant closed and the building was slated for demolition in the early 1990s, a nonprofit group raised money to save it and turn it into an art center. Today the center provides living and working space for emerging artists, galleries, music performances, and cultural programs. The main gallery retains the vestiges of the restaurant, from the soda fountain to the padded stools to the tiled floor.
The annual show is known for being uncensored, Martin says. “There’s no judge, no jury, no censorship, no fees. There’s a lot of risqué stuff now, which sometimes makes the name ironic.”
Hygienic was also the inspiration for Wall to Wall: The New London Mural Walk. The six-block walking tour, which begins and ends at the gallery, showcases 16 colorful murals, drawings, and large-scale installations that highlight the city’s maritime flavor, commitment to the arts, and ethnic diversity.
What will the new Coast Guard museum mean for the arts in New London? Martin expects it to dramatically increase the sheer number of visitors to the city. “And that,” he says, “is good for everybody.”
A city that nurtures artists is a city headed in the right direction, according to Jack Chaplin, owner of Chaplin’s restaurant and a partner in the 33 Golden Street music club. “I’m just amazed at the talent that’s here,” Chaplin says. “People who’ve lived here a long time maybe don’t see the forest for the trees.” Chaplin is so confident about New London’s future he’s opening a second restaurant downtown this month. Daddy Jack’s, housed in a building that dates to 1790, will feature pizza baked in a wood-fired oven, artisanal breads, roast chicken, steaks, and grilled and broiled seafood.
The city’s first German restaurant, the Seehund (German for sea dog or sea lion), opened in April, with a menu based largely on the family recipes of owner Kyle Hurst. A big part of the city’s renaissance is the renovation of so many gorgeous homes and public buildings, Hurst says. “There’s really no reason whatsoever,” he says, “that New London shouldn’t enjoy the same commercial windfalls as Westerly [R.I.] and Mystic.”
Westerly and Mystic? Scott Capano says he has compared New London to Newport, R.I., on more than one occasion. He and his brother, Kenneth, opened State Street Saloon a year ago. The Wild West-themed restaurant, which evokes a scene from the classic TV western “Gunsmoke,” has won a following with its house-smoked meats and selection of some 50 bourbons. “I believe the city is headed in a wonderful direction,” Capano says.
It will be a few years before the National Coast Guard Museum is ready to welcome visitors. But New London is ready now.
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