My building has one. Many near downtown New London do, as well as some along the water, and a few scattered in other parts of the city. I remember noticing them when I first came here, white painted rectangles with dates and names and whale silhouettes n pale blue. “This house is authentic,” they seemed to proclaim. “This house really belongs here.” To go through them all would take years, so I picked three.
81 Hempstead Street, an unassuming little brown home with two squat windows like eyes beneath its sloping roof, was probably built in 1842, the year the house (or the land) was sold by Jonathan Coit to Savillion Haley. The records compiled by , which distributes the plaques, say only that Haley was white, and worked as a painter. In 1845 the house was purchased by Andrew Spencer, a “black laborer” who lived to be 100. Spencer left the house, which at the time was worth $800, to his daughter Mary. From 1876, when Mary Spencer inherited the property, to 2004, the most recent date in the records, the house has changed hands 18 times. In addition to individuals, sellers include the City of New London, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, and a California bank. Transactions listed include deeds, quitclaims, and foreclosures.
The dainty wooden building at 181 Bank Street dates from 1790, though records of the sale and purchase of the property go back to 1759. Zoned
for commercial use now (it’s currently a beauty salon), it began its life as a
private house. When owner Jonathan Starr died at 95 around 1839, he left the property, on the “west side of Bank Street on which stands the dwelling house which I now occupy,” to his son, also named Jonathan. The Starr family name comes up again and again in the background of 181 Bank until 1883, when Tates and Williamses take over. Then, like a mini-history of New England, immigrants with ethnic names appear: Hendel, Kosakow, Scher, Elfenbein. Then comes the James family and a corporation, the James Drug Co. The record stops with the Pearl-Bank Co. Inc. in 1979.
The ubiquitous Starrs reappear in the story of the third house I picked, located on Starr Street. As it happened, I chose probably the most atypical structure on that picture-book block. The only brick house of the bunch, Queen Anne-style #20 was built around 1862 by Charles Bishop. The records list “a lot of land” sold to Cynthia Bishop by Cortland Starr, executor of the estate of Margaret Watson, who had bought the lot from Jonathan Starr in 1845 for $650. The red-brick house, with its little porch and bright detailing around the upper windows, looks slightly out of place, as if colored in by a rebellious child after her more conventional friend had filled in all its pastel neighbors. But that’s only once you look for it; before I picked it out of a list of addresses by chance, I had passed it unaware many times, noticing only the prettiness of the street as a whole.
Attempts to neatly organize New London’s past can get a bit out of control; New London Landmarks does not know exactly how many plaques they have handed out. And the city’s history can be an unwieldy thing. Land and water records fill in many blanks, but not all of them. Reading about these buildings, it seemed that for every answer I found, another question opened up. But it also seemed right that, with all that has happened here, some details have been lost along the way, and others remain uncovered.