NEW LONDON, Conn. — “We sold our soul to the devil,” one local business owner told us when we asked him about his hometown.
The devil was urban renewal. During the 1960s and ’70s, under a massive federal grant program, hundreds of New London downtown homes were demolished, historic buildings torn down, and neighborhoods destroyed. Expanded highways and new bridges also tore the city apart. New London, once one of the largest whaling centers in the country and one of the wealthiest port cities in America, lost some of its soul.
“The city is coming back, but it’ll be slow and we’ll never be a Mystic,” the local owner added.
We think the quaint neighboring seaside town of Mystic is lovely, but found that New London has its own gritty appeal and a rich maritime history worth exploring. Historic buildings still line many of its downtown streets, and there’s renewed interest in preservation. There’s a growing art movement, lead by Hygienic Art, a nonprofit artist co-op, gallery, and performance venue, and a healthy dining scene.
We started in the Hempstead Historic Neighborhood, with a self-guided tour of one of the city’s oldest areas, including 12 interpretive stops along a 1.5-mile trail (www.ctlandmarks.org). The neighborhood grew around the Joshua Hempstead House, built in 1678 and considered one of the oldest dwellings in New England. The 2½-story wood house survived the burning of New London, during the 1781 Battle of Groton Heights during the Revolutionary War. Next door is the Nathaniel Hempstead, a stone house built in 1759 for Joshua’s grandson, a merchant and one of three rope makers working in New London at the time.
History lovers will also enjoy the city’s designated Heritage Trail, which includes 30 historically significant sites marked with bronze plaques. We walked down State Street, stopping by 1897 Lyric Hall, designed by New London architect James Sweeney to house a theater; the 1873 Crocker House, New London’s first modern hotel and a favorite haunt of playwright Eugene O’Neill; and the 1771 Timothy Green building, the oldest on State Street, originally housing Timothy Green’s print shop, which published one of the colony’s earliest newspapers. Nearby on Huntington Street we passed Whale Oil Row, with four opulent Greek Revival-style homes built for prominent whaling captains, remnants of wealthy New London during the height of the whaling industry from 1820 to 1850.
We popped into the small but interesting Custom House Maritime Museum (www.nlmaritimesociety.org), in an original 1833 US Custom House. The building was designed by Robert Mills, the architect behind the Washington Monument, and is filled with maritime artifacts. The museum docent told us the story of New London’s role in the historic La Amistad slave revolt. When 48 slaves aboard La Amistad staged a revolt, taking over the ship, the US Navy intercepted it and brought it to New London. Dwight P. James, a local New London grocer and abolitionist, spoke up in defense of the slaves, eventually leading to the US Supreme Court case, one of the first court judgments to free African slaves. The ship stayed at New London’s Lawrence Pier throughout the trial, and was eventually auctioned off at the Customs House, “probably right where you’re standing,” our guide said.
There were other sites on our list to visit, including the lavish Garde Theatre, a 1926 restored movie palace; the 1756 Shaw Mansion, where General George Washington once visited; and Fort Trumbull, built from 1839–52 along the Thames River.
Enough history, our young teen traveling companions complained. They wanted to see the graffiti. New London’s Wall to Wall Walking Tour, said to be the largest mural tour in New England, includes 24 street murals in a six-block area of downtown. We downloaded the free CamelTour app available for mobile devices (cameltours.org), providing background information about each mural and its artist, often in the artist’s own words.
Some of our favorites included “One Love One Heart” by Jonas Sanchez and Denny Rivera, an impressionistic portrait of Bob Marley; “Faire Harbour Days” by Lynda McLaughlin, portraying an early New London waterfront scene; and “The Racing Seahorses” by Carolyn McNeil, a playful scene of seahorses riding horses. But the one not-to-be-missed (and so big it would be pretty hard to do so) is “The Great Sperm Whales” by internationally-known marine life artist Wyland. The mural of life-size sperm whales measures some 107 feet long and 35 feet high. Our virtual docent told us that the New London mural is number 41 of Wyland’s more than 100 murals, and that the artist hopes that if people see the beauty in nature, they may be moved to preserve it.
We ended our visit at On the Waterfront Restaurant and Bar, overlooking a working marina (www.onthewaterfrontnl.com) on the Thames River. The food was delicious: fresh ceviche, lobster tacos with an avocado aioli, mussels fra diavolo. And the view was great. We watched the boats come and go, a daily catch being unloaded, and a bent-over elderly woman cleaning fish at a rustic stand. Not all clean and tidy and touristy, but charming and scenic nonetheless.
For more information, visit www.ctvisit.com/listings/city-new-london.