Introduction – New London’s State Street
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 explore the images presented here you’ll be able to get a sense of the changes in the community through the presentation of changes in the architecture.
State and Main
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 . . . and a fine stock of wines, liquors, and cigars” (according to an 1884 advertisement).
In the 1930s and 1940s, painter Beatrice Cuming lived and worked on the upper floors of Bacon’s Marble Block, often painting the vibrant street life she observed along State Street.
Located opposite Green Street (and visible on the 1850 map), the Brainard house was one of several substantial houses gracing the middle stretches of State Street in the early 19th century. It stood close to the sidewalk, but used fencing, steps, and plantings to reinforce the boundary between the private space of the home and the public space of the street. The house was torn down before 1868.
Also found on State and Main street were the Post Office and Old City Hall.
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 to include the traditional seats of authority as well. The courthouse and several church steeples (particularly that of the First Congregational Church) are the most easily recognizable components of this townscape.
Frederick L. Allen (1820-1872)
American, Oil on canvas, Lyman Allyn Art Museum
Although the dramatic events that Allen depicts occurred on Bank Street, the artist also documents the south side of the Parade as it appeared in the middle of the 19th century. Behind the liberty pole is an 1840s brick building known since the 1880s as the Winthrop Hotel. The fire illuminates the façade of a brick building that housed clothiers Lyon and Robbins on the corner of State and Banks streets. Originally known as the Hancock Building, this building also appears in Beatrice Cuming’s 1946 painting, 130 State Street.
O. H. Bailey and Co., Boston
American, Lithograph, Lyman Allyn Art Museum
This bird’s-eye view of Victorian State Street does a good job of capturing the monumental scale that recent buildings had introduced to State Street’s commercial district. This is particularly true of Bacon’s Marble Block (built in 1868; number 41 on this view) and the Crocker House (built in 1872; numbers 38 and 39). This view also incorporates a remarkable level of architectural detail, including the second-floor bay window of Edward T. Avery’s photography studio (number 44) and the galleries and carriageway of the City Hotel (across the street from number 24).
View of Bradley Stree from the Parade. Bradley Street was known for it bars and rowdy nature, but the street is no longer in New London anymore.
Views of the Parade Throughout the Years
Upper State Street
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.
A Sample of Pictures of Upper State Street