State Street Exhibit
New London County Historical Society, Inc.
11 Blinman Street, New London, CT 06320
11 Blinman Street, New London, CT 06320
State Street Exhibit
Commerce and Culture: Architecture and Society on New London’s State Street was an exhibit on display at the Lyman Allyn Art Museum from October 2005 to April 2006. Mounted by guest curator, Abigail Van Slyck, Dayton Associate Professor of Architectural History at Connecticut College, she put the students of her architectural history senior seminar to work scouting out the best images from all the local repositories to tell the story of the cultural and social history of New London’s downtown core. The exhibit used photographs, maps, and objects to show the evolution of New London and its people through the changes that took place on this one street – from the period of the founding, through the growth of wealth of a busy port and regional commercial center, and including the difficult attempts to revitalize the downtown after it was commercially deserted for suburban malls.
The exhibit garnered an award of merit from the Connecticut League of History Organizations, the Wilbur Cross Award from the Connecticut Humanities Council, and a Leadership in History Award from the American Association for State and Local History.
While this attempt to translate that formal exhibit to the internet loses some of the impact of mural size photographs, we hope that as you […]
Click on the map year for zoomable Maps of State Street.
1850 • 1868 • 1884 • 1901 • 1912 • 1921 • 1951
A Century of Change
Stretching uphill from the harbor to the dignified courthouse built in 1784, State Street has been the organizing spine of New London since the town’s founding in 1646. Yet, most of the buildings standing on State Street today have been erected since 1850, when New Londoners began a wholesale reorganization of urban space that continued well into the 20th century.
Although the economic prosperity of the whaling industry and the arrival of the railroad in 1849 were important enabling conditions, this urban reorganization was not just a matter of New Londoners using new-found wealth and easy access to metropolitan centers to do more of what they had always done. Instead, this remaking of State Street involved a more substantial rethinking of the character of urban space.
While houses—large and small—once sat in close proximity to artisans’ workshops and general stores, Victorian State Street was increasingly subdivided into three zones: an industrial swath along the waterfront, a green and leafy neighborhood of genteel villas and cultural institutions near the courthouse, and a commercial district in between.
Functional specialization affected […]
Installed in 1973, Captain’s Walk was a bold attempt to revitalize State Street as shoppers began to abandon downtown stores in favor of automobile-oriented malls. From Washington Street to Main Street (renamed Eugene O’Neill Drive), this pedestrian mall was fitted out with planters, benches, kiosks, and awnings all carefully designed to enhance the shopper’s experience.
Within a few years, however, there were serious concerns about the mall’s efficacy. A 1977 poll found most city residents in favor of reopening the street to automobile traffic—something that eventually happened in 1990. Although many of its traces are still visible today—especially in street paving—Captain’s Walk is often blamed for having “killed” State Street.
If Captain’s Walk looms large in State Street’s history, it was not the first attempt to manage the impact of vehicles on the urban environment. From the 1920s on, city officials implemented a wide range of technologies to control the presence of automobiles on State Street.
Long residential in character, the upper end of State Street was transformed into a green and leafy bower in the second half of the 19th century. While lower State Street accommodated the commercial activities and avenues of vice that Victorians associated with the masculine realm of the city, upper State Street was devoted to respectable pursuits that complemented the female sphere. Religion (in the form of the First Congregational and First Baptist churches), culture (in the form of the Public Library of New London and the Lyric Hall) and genteel recreation (housed in the private Thames Club, the YMCA, and the YWCA) were all well represented on upper State Street.
In the early 20th century, this character began to change, as commercial blocks continued to march steadily up the hill. While structures like the Plant (now Dewart) Building housed professional offices, they nonetheless brought a distinctly urban character to upper State Street, a process that reached its peak in 1926 when the Williams house was demolished to make way for the Garde Theater.
The New London County Historical Society has collections in several areas of interest to those wishing to learn more about the county in earlier days. The largest collection is of photographs, both of people connected with the county and of various scenes in it.
Information on this area of our collection will be updated soon.
A Sample of Pictures of Upper State Street
Once known as Buttonwood Corner (after the sycamore tree that stood on the site until 1856), the intersection of State and Main streets was the heart of New London’s commercial district in the second half of the 19th century. Throughout these decades, the area was transformed in extent and character.
Eager to locate businesses along this thriving commercial artery, entrepreneurs bought up and pulled down several of the gracious homes that had once graced the middle stretches of State Street. At the same time, many of the wooden buildings that had housed New London’s businesses were replaced by large masonry commercial blocks. Characterized by ground-floor shops sporting large plate-glass display windows, these blocks brought a new gentility to the shopping experience by separating delivery, storage, and bookkeeping functions from the spaces where customers examined goods.
Banks and hotels catering to “the better class” of travelers helped complete the refinement of New London’s commercial core.
Bishop and Kenyon, photographers
American, Stereopticon, Public Library of New London
Taller and broader than even its three-story neighbors, Bacon’s Marble Block was further distinguished from those wooden and brick buildings by its classically-detailed marble façade. Bacon operated a billiard hall in the building, offering “luxurious surroundings . . . genial companionship […]
The Parade—the open triangle of space at the foot of State Street—has long been a focal point for intense activity. Initially serving as a market square, by the middle of the 19th-century it came to function as New London’s transportation hub.
As civic leaders began to perceive the Parade as the gateway to downtown New London, the area also became the focus of beautification schemes and a site for community-wide commemoration efforts. This trend started in 1896 with the erection of the Soldiers and Sailors Monument, but it has continued more recently with the relocation of the Nathan Hale Schoolhouse to the site.
While civic leaders controlled the physical evolution of the Parade, the meaning of the Parade—what it says about New London and the intended audience for that message—has been the subject of lively debate. Sometimes this discussion has been overt (as in recent public deliberations about a proposed pedestrian bridge). More often, however, the debate has been implicit in promotional images that carefully disguised the Parade’s proximity to New London’s “skid row.”
E. C. Kellogg, after drawing by Joseph C. Ropes (1812-1885)
American, Lithograph, New London County Historical Society
Ropes focuses on the commercial activity at the city’s busy harbor, but is careful […]