Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to be one of those people who are content to spend all or most of their lives in one place. They don’t move unless they have to, and in that case they’re not happy about it. They might go on vacation occasionally or even regularly, but they don’t particularly love to travel. The best part of traveling, to them, is coming home. I think about them because they are my polar opposite and almost incomprehensible. I wonder why they don’t all go insane. I think it must be that they have the ability to see the same things again and again without ceasing to see them altogether.
The first time I came to New London - as a cognizant adult, that is; childhood visits don’t count - one of the foremost sights that caught my eye was Whale Oil Row, the four white Greek Revival houses on Huntington Street near the intersection with State. I remember summer flowers in baskets on the street lamps, and some kind of outdoor event that leant the city an uncharacteristically bustling appearance, and old churches, and those four splendid white buildings with columns all in a row. They were the sort of buildings that make you sit up and take notice of a place. Except now that I’ve lived near them for two years, plus another, separate year, I no longer truly see them.
Which is unfortunate, because they are widely considered worth seeing. Search for “Whale Oil Row” online and you’ll find multiple guidebooks, all listing this short strip of Huntington Street as a noteworthy New London attraction. They will tell you that the homes were built between 1835 and 1845, though most will say they were built by whaling tycoons, which isn’t strictly true. In fact they were built on spec by Ezra Chappell, who must have known that the grand properties would quickly be bought up. And they were, by whale-ship owners Thomas W. Williams and Enoch Stoddard, doctor Elisha North, and merchant William Chapman.
The appellation “Whale Oil Row” was not an official street name but one provided by New London residents of yore who saw the block as a clear
representation of the heights to which money earned in that dangerous
sea-faring trade had elevated the city.
And the first time I looked at them, I saw that too. I did not yet know anything of the houses’ past. I had not seen old photographs of them shaded by a protective line of trees. But I recognized at once the momentary grandeur of the world that created them.
Now, though, when I drive by on my way home, I don’t see relics of former wealth and taste, but only office buildings on a rather drab and familiar stretch of road. Nice office buildings, yes, historic ones even. But still. The sight of those sixteen Ionic columns has been impressed on my mind so often that they are background now, nothing to get all excited about. Whatever those houses promised on that first trip has either been fulfilled or failed to materialize. As far as buildings go, I have moved on to the next, and the next, and the one after that.
Recently I looked at the Whale Oil Row houses again, through a glaring beam of autumn sunlight, and tried to recreate my first impression. I had never examined them so closely. I noticed slight differences in their fan-shaped windows and in their front doors, which are currently painted blue, black, deep purple, and a sort of maroon. I spotted their Whale Oil Row addresses, One through Four, stamped above those doors; before I’d seen only the Huntington Street addresses, listed less picturesquely nearby.
But though I saw them more clearly than I ever had before, I also saw the car dealership across the street, the road construction signs, and the sidewalk being shoved rudely upwards by tree roots. I still appreciate the history and style of the Whale Oil Row houses, but I will have to leave seeing them for what they were – and what they really are - to newcomers. And to those unfathomable people who are content to see the same sights again and again.