Scaffolding went up around the historic New London Court House at 70 Huntington Street last week as restoration began on Connecticut’s oldest continuously operating court house.
“I was thrilled to see the scaffolding go up,” says Sandra Chalk, executive director of New London Landmarks. “It’s something we’ve been very concerned about. Just visibly there was obviously dry rot in some of the wooden exterior areas. It doesn’t seem that long ago that it was painted. I’ve been very surprised to see it was in such bad shape.”
Because the building is owned by the state, local authorities have no say over the restoration but they are pleased to see the state taking ownership of the project. The $895,000 reconstruction is being funded by Connecticut’s Judicial Branch using an infrastructure bond account, borrowed money given to the Judicial Branch by the Connecticut General Assembly and Bond Commission for capital repairs.
The façade restoration is being overseen by project architect James Haag, AIA, of Tecton Architects Inc. and being performed by general contractors Kronenberger & Sons Restoration of Middletown. The work, however, is extensive and isn’t scheduled to be completed until next spring at the earliest.
Right now, the contractor is focusing on cleaning and repointing the stone masonry foundations and brick walls. The removal of clapboard siding and installation of new material will be next.
“We’re updating it, so the building breathes again,” says Kronenberger project supervisor Don Ruel. That involves removing the siding to install a fairly new honeycomb-form material produced by Tyvek that will allow the building to breathe and, as a result, will prevent paint from peeling from the new cedar siding that the company plans to install and paint. Rotted and deteriorated decorative wood trim will also be removed and replaced.
The Gambrel slate roof is another big undertaking. The company plans to remove, repair, and reinstall the roof. Right now, Ruel says, he doesn’t know if there are any leaks. “It’s a hidden treasure,” he says. The company also plans to repair and restore the decorative wood cornice, rake, eave trim, and cupola. Wood doors and windows, along with associated casings, will be next.
Kronenburger & Sons are old hands when it comes to restoration, having completed projects on a number of historic buildings, including Gillette Castle in East Haddam. The company is currently working on another project in New London, restoring the Gam building at Ocean Beach Park. The 1940s Art Deco building (which formerly housed Carvel Ice Cream) is undergoing structural repairs, getting a new stucco exterior and a new canopy.
Susan R. Chandler, a historical architect with the State Historic Preservation Office, reviewed all the plans to make sure the court house renovations meet historic preservation requirements, but it’s not the first time this historic building has been revamped.
New London’s original courthouse was destroyed in 1781, when Benedict Arnold razed much of the city. Construction of the current building, which is attributed to architect Isaac Fitch, began in 1784 after the end of the Revolutionary War, though it wasn’t completed until 1814. In 1839, the entire building was moved to allow for the extension of Huntington Street, Chalk says.
In 1909, architect Dudley St. Clair Donnelly designed an addition to the wood-framed Georgian building. The most recent addition, in 1982, was the white-brick building that comprises New London Superior Court today, though the historic court house is still used to hear civil cases and family court matters. That makes it one of the oldest continuously operating courts in the country.
“The original court house is absolutely gorgeous and elegant, with high ceilings and big windows,” says Chalk. “It makes you feel this is where the rule of law is properly executed.”