By The Day Editorial Board
In keeping with its name, Citizens Bank did the right thing. A couple of New London leaders deserve due credit for helping persuade them to do so. In the process, these local leaders landed their whale, symbolically speaking.
On Wednesday, Hugh Peltz, a Citizens Bank executive, will present to the New London Maritime Society a large 1929 painting depicting a historic whaling scene. The ceremony will take place at the society’s annual National Maritime Day luncheon, beginning at 12:45 at the U.S. Custom House Maritime Museum, operated by the society at 150 Bank Street. There it will become a permanent exhibit.
The painting is coming home.
The 1929 painting by Lars Thorsen had long adorned a wall of the Citizens Bank building on Eugene O’Neill Drive, perhaps dating back to the time it was the Savings Bank of New London and served as a center of city commerce, including when the whaling trade drove much of that economic activity. The bank building is the next-door neighbor of The Day offices.
But when the painting disappeared as Citizens prepared to close the bank, which it did in April and relocated services to a Howard Street office, fears grew that it might be lost to New London.
Custom House Maritime Museum director Susan Tamulevich was no more inclined than 19th century whalers to let this big catch get away without a fight. With a push from Mayor Michael Passero, who made it clear the “Whaling City” would not quietly tolerate anyone making away with this treasure, Tamulevich remained persistent. It paid off.
Thorsen, an immigrant from Norway who lived in Noank and died in New London in 1952, served on several sailing expeditions. His dramatic oil painting, 49 inches wide and 56 inches high, depicts a whaling boat being upended in pursuit of a whale, the frantic action frozen in history. Our history.
By Lee Howard Day staff writer
New London — A dramatic whaling scene removed from Citizens Bank on Eugene O'Neill Drive before its closure last month will return to the city for permanent exhibit at the Custom House Maritime Museum, director Susan Tamulevich said Monday.
Tamulevich said the 1929 painting by the late Lars Thorsen of Noank will be unveiled Wednesday during a National Maritime Day celebration at the museum, when Citizens Bank officially donates the whaling scene.
Tamulevich, backed by Mayor Michael Passero, had been pushing for the return of the painting since its removal in February as Citizens consolidated its operations to a new location off Howard Street. But until a couple of weeks ago, she said, she didn't think it was going to happen.
"I really was quite shocked and happy," she said.
Tamulevich said a reporter for The Providence Journal finally got Citizens Bank to acknowledge that some of the items from New London had to be returned to Mystic Seaport because they apparently had been on loan. But when she called the Seaport, officials there said the painting she desired was not among the returned items.
When she called the bank to again request the painting, Tamulevich said, she was told "we'll see," because other museums might also want it. Then, just two weeks ago, a bank official called and told her about the donation.
The 49-inch by 56-inch oil painting arrived Thursday, she said, and will be hung in the main gallery at the museum.
"It depicts the whole drama — men in small boats, the danger, the immensity of the whale, the power of the sea — in one image," she said in an email at the time.
Thorsen, a native of Norway, was a self-taught painter who reportedly had gone on four expeditions to Cape Horn by the time he turned 20. He held a succession of jobs, from mess-boy to sail-maker to rigger, and in his later years won art prizes, became a member of the Mystic Art Colony and completed more than 80 works as part of the Works Progress Administration's FDR-era Federal Arts Project, according to an online biography.
He died in 1952 in New London, which had been one of the nation's whaling capitals during the 19th century. His paintings now generally sell for hundreds or thousands of dollars, according to an online search.
"Whalers were merchant seamen; their hard work and dedication built New London into a prosperous 19th-century port," Tamulevich said. "The painting will become the centerpiece of the museum's whaling exhibition."
She said Hugh Peltz, head of corporate services, procurement and property services for Citizens Bank, will make the presentation during the New London Maritime Society's annual National Maritime Day luncheon starting at 12:45 p.m. Wednesday. The luncheon, at the former U.S. Custom House at 150 Bank St., is free and open to the public, and it follows a noontime commemoration at Fort Trumbull.
National Maritime Day is held May 22 to honor the first successful steam-powered transoceanic voyage undertaken by New London Captain Moses Rogers, who set sail from Savannah, Georgia, in 1819 — 200 years ago.
"The gift is a generous act to celebrate, especially on National Maritime Day, an event that honors the nation's merchant marine," according to the press release.
The Citizens Bank at 63 Eugene O'Neill Drive, now vacant, had been the home of several artifacts from New London's whaling past, including a model ship and even nautical-themed trash cans. One of the building's larger paintings, the Thorsen work that apparently had been a holdover from the days when the building housed the New England Savings Bank, depicted the harpooning of a whale, with one boat upended and larger whaling ships in the background.
It is unclear how long the Thorsen painting had been at the location, but a 1948 article in The Day noted an exhibition of nine works by the "well known marine painter" that occurred in the lobby of the Savings Bank of New London, which occupied the building at the time.
Tamulevich sent a letter to Citizens Bank earlier this year inquiring about objects in the building related to New London and offering a space at the Custom House Maritime Museum for the painting. She noted New London's long association with seafaring industry and its reputation as the "Whaling City."
"These artifacts and artworks are part of New London's cultural heritage, and nowhere else will they be as appreciated or as meaningful," she said.
Mayor Passero sent his own letter shortly afterward, endorsing the Maritime Society as an excellent home for the painting.
Tamulevich said several residents spoke up about the Citizens Bank artifacts, including Brian McCarthy, a resident of the Bacon Hinkley Home on Pequot Avenue who was the first to suggest the maritime museum as an appropriate home.
By Greg Smith Day staff writer
New London — Members of the New London Maritime Society were optimistic that a ruling by a Superior Court judge opening the Harbor Light to public tours might put to rest years of litigation with neighbors of the historic Pequot Avenue lighthouse.
They were wrong.
A state marshal served Maritime Society Executive Director Susan Tamulevich with a lawsuit Thursday at the Custom House Maritime Museum, just a day after she guided the first tour of the lighthouse in more than three years.
Lighthouse neighbors Randy and Bonita Waesche and Richard Humphreville have each filed suit against both the Maritime Society and the Zoning Board of Appeals arguing that the ZBA’s Feb. 28 decision to allow 12 tours per week, or up to five tours in a day and 600 in a year, is far afield from what a Superior Court judge called “small infrequent, guided tours of the Lighthouse upon request.”
Randy Waesche said he was “shocked” by the ZBA decision that he argues allows a commercial venture in the middle of a residential neighborhood. The Maritime Society is advertising tours on its website for groups of up to five people — with a price between $15 and $30 per person.
For now, Tamulevich said the Maritime Society will continue tours as scheduled. She called the suit a “sad development” amid the excitement of gaining public access back to one of the three lighthouses owned by the nonprofit group.
“The judge made a decision and (the Waesches) were not allowed to weigh in. The case was not about the neighbors, it was about zoning laws and pre-existing rights,” Tamulevich said. “We have a right established by the court.”
Randy Waesche said important to the context of the argument is that prior tours were given when the lighthouse was a government installation.
"That's completely different than what's going on today," he said. "No visitor, as infrequent as they were, ever paid to go there."
The Maritime Society has been locked in land-use battles with the neighbors and the city since not long after it purchased the lighthouse from the federal government in 2009, collected donations and restored the light in anticipation of bringing in visitors.
The Waesches, at 800 Pequot Ave., and another abutting neighbor living in the former lighthouse keeper’s home complained about unpermitted construction work at the site and visitors to the lighthouse treading on private property. Humphreville, whose suit mirrors the Waesches, owns a home at 824 Pequot Ave.
It led to a cease-and-desist order from the city that stopped tours from continuing. The zoning enforcement officer at the time said the Maritime Society increased activity had gone beyond any historical activity there.
There was also a border dispute that led to a federal lawsuit in 2014 filed by the Waesches.
The Maritime Society, after a few attempts to create special zoning regulations, sued the Zoning Board of Appeals.
The Waesches settled the border dispute lawsuit with the Maritime Society by buying a sliver of land from the Maritime Society.
Superior Court Judge Kimberly Knox in October, in response to the Maritime Society’s suit, reversed the ZBA decision that backed the cease-and-desist order. In her decision, Knox agreed the lighthouse was open for occasional tours to the public before the residential area grew around it. Knox ruled that completely denying access to all visitors was an unlawful restriction on the use of the lighthouse but she also banned “large tour groups, open houses, school trips, and regular hours of operation,” things that were inconsistent with the past use.
Knox left it to the ZBA to determine what constituted “small guided tours of the lighthouse upon request.”
The Waesches argue the Maritime Society was able to demonstrate three visits inside the Lighthouse over an 80-year span, between 1928 and 2008 — far different from the 600 allowed per year under the ZBA ruling.
The suit calls the ZBA’s decision an “abuse of discretion,” and asks for a court ruling that declares null and void the recent ZBA decision with a declaration that the number of tours granted is “neither infrequent, nor of the same character as the previous tours given before 1928 or 2009.”
The city’s attorney was not immediately available to comment.
Editor's note: This story was updated to include information about the second lawsuit filed by Richard Humphreville.
By Greg Smith Day staff writer
New London — In a decision that ends years of legal wrangling, the city’s Zoning Board of Appeals has approved ground rules for the reopening of historic New London Harbor Light to public tours.
The New London Maritime Society plans to host its first tour since 2015 on Wednesday. A mother and her two children had requested the tour and Maritime Society Executive Director Susan Tamulevich was happy to oblige.
“I’m excited. I’m just happy to be moving forward,” she said. “It’s time to put all of this behind us.”
The Maritime Society, which owns the lighthouse, was barred from hosting tours by a cease and desist order issued by the city in 2015 as a response to a growing amount of activity at the small Pequot Avenue site. The society was simultaneously entangled in litigation with a neighbor over a property line dispute.
The ZBA upheld the cease and desist order but the order later was overturned in a 2018 decision by Superior Court Judge Kimberly Knox, who ruled that small-scale visits to the lighthouse by request were consistent with historic use of the lighthouse.
Judge Knox left it up to the ZBA to determine the extent of the tours. On Feb. 28, the board announced terms of the “nature and extent of the nonconforming use of the New London Harbor Lighthouse property.”
The tours are limited to a total of six people and no more than five times per day, or a maximum of 12 tours in a week. The six-person limit was a determination made by the city fire marshal’s office. The hours of tours are limited to between the hours of 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. An electronic log book with dates and times of the tours is to be made available to the city’s zoning official.
The conditions are more stringent than the Maritime Society, through attorney John Casey, had lobbied for. It had requested to be open until 6 p.m. or sunset, whichever came later, and wanted the ability to bring 12 people onto the property. It also had wanted to reserve the right to return to the ZBA to request an increase of the number of tours, should the need arise.
New London Maritime Society President Edward Cubanski III called the ZBA decision “reasonable.” He said the city’s decision to bar access to the most easily accessible lighthouse in New London County was “concerning” and a blow to historic tourism in the region.
Cubanski said the Maritime Society has great things planned for the summer that include not only tours of the Harbor Light but an increase in tours to iconic Ledge Light, another one of the three lighthouses owned by the society. It also owns Race Rock Lighthouse.
Cubanski does not expect any legal challenges to the board’s decision and said the society’s main goal is to be a “good neighbor.”
By Greg Smith Day staff writer
New London — Citizens Bank is moving out of its historic home on 63 Eugene O’Neill Drive to a different location in New London next month, and local historians are concerned it's taking a bit of the city's history with it.
The majestic interior of the former Savings Bank of New London was, until last month, adorned with reminders of New London's whaling past — paintings, a model ship and even nautical-themed trash cans. They have since been removed — their whereabouts unknown.
One of the larger paintings caught the eye of New London Maritime Society Director Susan Tamulevich. It depicts a whaling scene — small whaleboats at sea harpooning a whale, one boat upended with larger whaling ships in the background.
Tamulevich sent an unanswered letter to Citizens Bank Regional Manager Michelle Mercado last month inquiring about the New London-related objects and offered a space at the Custom House Maritime Museum on Bank Street for the painting.
“We would very much like to have this work at the Custom House Maritime Museum and have a wall in our main exhibition room ready. This is after all, the Whaling City,” Tamulevich wrote.
Tamulevich also offered the bank sponsorship opportunities in exchange for loan of the painting.
“The Custom House is a relatively new museum begun just 35 years ago. Much of New London’s whaling heritage was dispersed before we began. We hope that New London will not lose this wonderful whaling scene,” she wrote.
Her cause is being championed by Mayor Michael Passero and New London Landmarks Executive Director Laura Natusch.
“I hope that as you leave, you’ll give the city this one last gift,” Natusch said. “These artifacts and artworks are part of New London’s cultural heritage, and nowhere else will they be as appreciated or as meaningful."
Passero followed with a letter to Citizens on March 4 saying the Maritime Society would be an excellent steward.
The origin and age of the items from the bank is unknown, but locals suspect they were in the bank when Citizens moved there in 1993. Tamulevich said one generic ship painting and model of the clipper Flying Cloud are not specifically tied to New London, as far as she knows, but still interesting.
She suspects the large whaling scene painting, which was on the left wall as one entered the bank, is possibly the work of artist Lauritz Sorensen.
The older portion of the bank building at 63 Eugene O’Neill was constructed in 1852 as the home of Savings Bank of New London, according to a history provided by New London Landmarks. Wings were added later and the current façade was designed by architect Dudley St. Clair Donnelly.
Old Lyme-based real estate development company Readco purchased the building in 1999 and has been leasing the space to Citizens. The city is considering leasing the space from Readco as part of a consolidation plan for city offices.
Reado CEO Michael Lech said terms of the agreement with Citizens were that all property and tenant improvements are left to Citizens, he said. They have the right to remove them, he said.
While he has no legal say in the matter, Lech said his wish would be that the items be left in the hands of New London and somewhere they can be enjoyed by the public.
“These antiquities represent the rich tradition of New London. It would be a magnanimous gesture on the part of Citizens Bank to show the same kind of commitment to New London as its citizens have shown to them.”
A representative from Citizens Bank did not return calls or emails from The Day. A sign posted on the door of its Eugene O'Neill branch announces to customers that the branch will close at 2 p.m. on April 5. The bank will reopen on April 8 at 470 Bank St.
By Benjamin Kail
New London — The fight to block the federal government from selling Plum Island to the highest bidder recently received a boost from four U.S. senators who are pushing to protect the island as an environmental, recreational and research resource.
Joined by leading environmental advocates at the New London Maritime Society on Wednesday, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., announced a bill that would repeal the government's mandate to sell the 840-acre island, which is home to several endangered species and hundreds of rare plants and insects.
The General Services Administration has tried to sell the property for the last 10 years, after Congress voted to close the island's animal disease center and relocate it to the new National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility in Kansas, a move expected by 2023. The island's sale was supposed to offset costs of the Kansas facility, but Blumenthal said those construction costs have already been appropriated, eliminating any financial need to turn over a "unique environmental treasure that we should preserve, not sell."
"The sale of Plum Island ... would be a waste of an essential opportunity to create a park or stewardship entity of another kind," Blumenthal said. "It's priceless. The federal government can never gain from a sale what this land is worth. It belongs to the people now and it should remain the people's island."
Introduced last week by Blumenthal, Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., the Plum Island Conservation Act would protect habitats for endangered species and potentially provide an opportunity to revamp the animal disease center into a research facility.
Blumenthal said he hopes the bill could pass later this year, noting there's some bipartisan support in Congress and backing from lawmakers in both Connecticut and New York.
Chris Cryder, land campaign manager for nonprofit Connecticut Fund for the Environment/Save the Sound, said a coalition of 107 organizations is fighting to protect Plum Island from development that would "irrevocably damage the habitats and wildlife as well as the historic resources of the island."
"Land protection battles like this one take a long time and require perseverance," said Cryder, noting Plum Island provides "amazing habitats" to more than a hundred at-risk species. It's also home to a lighthouse built in 1869 and unique structures once part of the former Fort Terry, he said.
Patrick Comins, executive director of the Connecticut Audubon Society, said Plum Island provides "800 acres of remarkable, undeveloped coastal habitat" with rocky and sandy shorelines, freshwater and tidal marshes and upland forests allowing for "very high biological diversity." Roseate terns, Piping plovers, common eiders and blackpoll warblers are among the many species spotted on the island, he said.
Louis Burch of the Citizens Campaign for the Environment said this is "a time of great uncertainty with respect to our natural spaces and habitats."
"We're seeing all kinds of rollbacks to our national parks and monuments coming out of Washington, D.C.," Burch said. "This is a real opportunity in the Long Island Sound community to preserve something in its natural state in perpetuity. Future generations can benefit. It makes a lot of sense for further research purposes ... and might be a good opportunity to use those facilities to study the impacts of climate change."
In 2013, President Donald Trump reportedly expressed interest in buying Plum Island and developing a "beautiful, world-class golf course," according to Newsday.
In 2016, Connecticut Fund for the Environment/Save the Sound led a group of organizations in a lawsuit to block any sale of the island, alleging the GSA and the Department of Homeland Security did not follow federal law during an environmental review process for the proposed sale.
The suit claimed that the government's 2016 environmental impact study failed to address the protection of endangered and threatened species that have flourished on the island.
The federal government then announced last year it would conduct an environmental impact study to address endangered and threatened species. That study is still set to begin this year, according to Blumenthal. A message left with the GSA was not immediately responded to on Wednesday.
By Greg Smith Day staff writer
New London — A Superior Court judge has sided with the New London Maritime Society in what has been a yearslong struggle to reopen the historic New London Harbor Light to the public.
A written decision by New London Superior Court Judge Kimberly Knox reverses a 2015 decision by the city’s Zoning Board of Appeals that upheld a cease-and-desist order and barred public tours of the Pequot Avenue lighthouse.
The decision is being hailed as a win by both sides.
While it overturns the ZBA decision, it also appears to curtail the maritime society’s future plans by limiting activity to “small guided tours of the lighthouse upon request.”
Knox ruled that the New London Maritime Society’s use of the lighthouse should be consistent with its historic use: infrequent and small-scale visits guided by a lighthouse keeper who lived on site during a time that predated the local zoning regulations enacted in 1928.
Knox remanded the matter back to the ZBA for determination of the extent of tours.
New London Maritime Society President Edward J. Cubanski III declined immediate comment on the Oct. 2 ruling because, he said, he was awaiting word on whether the city plans to appeal. Cubanski was elected president in December 2016 at the height of a sometimes contentious battle with neighbors and the city over use of the Harbor Light.
Attorney Jeffrey Londregan, who represented the ZBA in the case, said his recommendation to the ZBA will be to not appeal.
“I think it was a resounding victory for the city,” Londregan said. “The judge basically said the public tours and regular hours of operation and intensity the maritime society was putting on the property was not a pre-existing nonconforming use. The judge said all of that should stop. The only thing permitted is informal tours that were historically offered prior to 2009, when the (maritime society) purchased the property.”
The maritime society, the owner of three lighthouses, has argued that public tours of the lighthouse, albeit infrequent and on a small scale, have been allowed since the 1800s.
Knox agreed that the historical use of the lighthouse should continue as a valid nonconforming use in a residential neighborhood. The cease-and-desist order issued in 2015 that completely denies access was, however, “an unlawful restriction on the plaintiff’s use of the lighthouse,” she wrote.
“It’s definitely a win compared to where we were prior to the decision,” said attorney John Casey, who represents the maritime society. “The fact that the public can be brought in for tours is definitely something the maritime society is happy about.”
Knox, however, did not agree with the maritime society’s argument that the lighthouse pre-empts zoning altogether. She also supported the ZBA’s conclusion that “large tour groups, open houses, school trips, and regular hours of operation,” constitute a change of character and are not consistent with the historical use of the property.
The city issued the cease-and-desist order a year after the maritime society performed renovations at the lighthouse and a neighbor filed a lawsuit over a property line dispute.
The suit was settled earlier this year with an agreement that the neighbor buy a sliver of the disputed land and the maritime society open a new entryway through a rock wall for visitors to directly access the lighthouse.
The maritime society has made at least two unsuccessful attempts to alter zoning regulations and have the lighthouse be designated a historic property with special rights and access.
The first Harbor Light, sometimes known as Pequot Light, was built in 1761. Rebuilt in 1801, it is the tallest and oldest lighthouse in Connecticut and listed in the National Register of Historic Places. It was acquired by the New London Maritime Society in 2009 as part of the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000. The maritime society acquired Race Rock Light and Ledge Light in a similar manner.
It’s not often a museum gift can be called transformative, but Charley Moss’s donation of 22 Victorian sailors’ embroideries or “woolies” to the New London Maritime Society is just that. The collection has given the Custom House something that is not only rare but also full of charm, and which provide an authentic glimpse into the minds and hearts of the 19th century sailor.
Charles B. Moss, Jr. is the third of a four-generation entertainment business founded in New York City in 1900 called Bow Tie Cinemas. A modest man, in 2015 Charley Moss was the recipient of ShowEast’s Salah M. Hassanein Humanitarian Award.
About that award an industry website states “Bow Tie Cinemas, B.S. Moss Enterprises and Bow Tie Partners represent four generations of industry leaders and entertainment entrepreneurs that encountered every single up and down this business has ever seen.”
Bucking the trends and believing there remains value in the movie experience, Moss develops new movie theaters, among them a new line of Bow Tie Ultimate theaters featuring luxury amenities.
A belief in the value of the shared experience is key to many of Charley Moss’s efforts. Moss served for more than a decade as president and chairman of Variety: The Children’s Charity. “During that time we changed the focus of Variety from its traditional direction to a more grass-roots approach... I felt very strongly about refocusing Variety on helping children through the arts,” he said.
Moss took a similar approach to the woolies collection he inherited from his parents. He wanted to give the works to a Connecticut maritime museum where it might make a difference.
In December 2017, the Custom House Maritime Museum received a call offering us the collection. The exhibition Victorian Woolies: Sailors’ Stitchery and Other Pastimes: The Charles B. Moss Sr. & Paula Moss Collection, opened at the Custom House in mid-March.
The 22 woolie works were collected in London in the early 1960s and 1970s by Charles B. Moss Sr. and Paula Moss, the second generation of Moss theatrical impresarios, who traveled abroad for business and pleasure.
For many decades the pieces hung in the Moss’s dining room. In 1986, several works were loaned to the Smithsonian’s Cooper Hewitt Museum of Design for an exhibition, “Embroidered Ship Portraits,” the first major exhibition of this seafarers’ art presented in the United States.
Much like scrimshaw, woolies were a result of sailors applying their skills to a craft during downtime at sea. In the days of the great sailing ships, sailors were required to repair canvas sails and make their own uniforms; they already had stitchery skills.
When Berlin Woolworks — embroidery kits with brightly colored yarns — became a fashion in western Europe and North America in the mid-19th century, sailors followed suit. They purchased their wool yarns on shore and scavenged the canvas backings on deck. Most of the embroideries are British. Dates range from about 1840 up to the first World War coinciding with a period of relative calm for the Royal Navy, the opening of the Orient and an exposure to Asian needleworks, and the last hurrah of the great sailing ship.
With the advent of steam-propelled vessels, sewing skills and a large crew to handle the sails became unnecessary.
Only up to a few thousand woolies are thought to have been made, and sailor embroidery collections are rare. At the Custom House, we’ve been surprised at how many die-hard salts have never even heard of a woolie before. Everyone who sees them is captivated.
We met Ben Moss, the fourth Moss generation, when we picked up the collection in February. Ben said “All of the charitable and humanitarian work that [Charley] does is really very much under the radar. He has never been the kind of guy who does those things just so that he can be recognized. Charley will only reluctantly tell you about it.”
By Mary Biekert Day staff writer
Museums tend to acquire strange and often unexpected pieces to complement their collections. The Lyman Allyn Art Museum, for instance, owns a Falcon sarcophagus as well as hundreds of Victorian dolls. The treasures one could find in Norwich’s Slater Museum are countless, and the paintings found at Florence Griswold Museum tell a timeless story about a specific moment in Connecticut history. It’s no surprise, then, that New London’s Custom House Maritime Museum has some thought-provoking pieces of its own: antique scuba diving gear; a 1701 newspaper announcing the building of New London Harbor Light and the embalming of King George II; and large-scale replicas of the lighthouses that sprinkle our shorelines. Their most recent acquisition, a rare 22-piece collection of Victorian-era wool embroidered works created by various British sailors (an art form informally known as “woolies”), melds quite well with their permanent collection and presents an oft-unseen facet of maritime life from a mariner’s perspective.
The hobby of making woolies, the bulk of which were made throughout the 19th century until WWI and reaching a height in popularity from 1860 to 80, is believed to have occupied sailors while on intercontinental ship voyages that would often last for months. These sailors, as one would expect, often depicted images of their own ships (the details of which, ranging from the ship’s rigging to the number of gun portals, are rendered with exacting precision). In the Custom House’s collection, which is being showcased in the exhibit "Victorian Woolies: Sailor Stitchery and Other Pastimes," you’ll see those as well as scenes of ships docked in port with armadas on the horizon or, in one instance, the much-anticipated homecoming to a loved one. But besides images of maritime scenes, it’s the fine details found throughout these woolies that tell another story.
“I love that while looking at these, you can learn so much about this particular moment in history,” says Custom House executive director Susan Tamulevich, pointing to a night sky in one piece that has faded into gray. “This gray was once a vibrant purple. Using vibrant purples in their works became a trend during that time … Purple and mauve were really all the sensation then because they had never been able to fix that dye before.”
Tamulevich also explains that the specific materials used in a piece can help date when and where it was made. Vibrant yarns, in colors such as purple or mauve, for example, would suggest that a piece was likely created after the mid-1850s (artificial dyes were invented around this time), while silk threads might indicate Orient origins where silk embroidery was widespread. One such piece, which Tamulevich believes was made in the Orient, is included in the exhibit.
Oversized flags were also often stitched into woolies, helping to identify a ship’s place of origin as well as where it was sailing. Flags could also determine the function of a ship and the rank of the commanding officer on board. In this case, most of the flags depicted throughout the collection are British. In one of the works, Boston Harbor is shown with American flags (the only American-inspired work in the exhibit), and in another, a long streamer flag flying off the highest mast communicates that the ship was homebound.
“You can also get a sense for each sailor’s individual style,” Tamulevich says, pointing to the various forms that the ocean could take in each, as well as the range of each sailor’s skill levels. In one instance, a ship keeling over in one woolie looks incredibly realistic, while another may feel more elementary, with two-dimensional depictions. An artist may render stormy seas through the use of serrated white stitching, or a monotone blue could represent a calm sea. Beads, bone, metal or pieces of wood were also sometimes sewn into the works, adding personal creative flair.
Donated to the museum in February by New York native Charles Moss, this specific collection was curated throughout the 1960s and ’70s while Moss’ parents traveled throughout Europe, says Tamulevich. Moss’ collection was so prominent that, in 1986, he loaned many of these works to a Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum exhibition showcasing the woolies movement as "a tribute to tall ships," according to the show's description. The show was the first of its kind in the United States. Now, 22 pieces from that same collection are on view at the Custom House Museum until June, and six will be placed in the museum’s permanent collection.
“Most people know that sailors would take up scrimshaw or knot-making hobbies while out to sea, but not many people know about this particular art form. Even experienced sailors today, who know absolutely everything about sailing, have come into the museum and told me that they have never heard of this before,” says Tamulevich. “These works are really a wonder and also are very rare.”
It’s estimated that only a few thousand of these works were ever made — mainly because this particular art form was exclusively created among sailors of that era, Tamulevich says. With the advent of steamships, however, sailors were slowly put out of work. That, combined with growing popularity in photography, eventually extinguished woolies as a practiced art form.
“The sailors were quite facile with their hands. They sewed their own clothing and knew how to quickly make stitch repairs into sails,” Tamulevich says, explaining that sewing talents, combined with free time and a bit of creativity, made woolies a preferable pastime. “That they would make these (woolies), then, is really no surprise.”
By Greg Smith Day staff writer
New London — The New London Maritime Society has reached a settlement with one of the neighbors of Harbor Light, ending a long-running federal lawsuit over a property line dispute.
The nonprofit organization may have smoothed things over with one neighbor but remains in a legal land-use fight with the city over public access to the historic Pequot Avenue lighthouse.
Randy and Bonita Waesche, who own the 800 Pequot Ave. home adjacent to the lighthouse, originally filed suit in 2014 shortly after the maritime society began what the Waesches claimed was unpermitted renovation work that included construction of a granite wall and walkway precariously close to their pool.
The Waesches argued the wall was forcing the increasing number of visitors onto their property. The maritime society argued the land was theirs.
In the end, the Waesches have agreed to purchase the sliver of disputed property for an undisclosed amount of money. The final documents were signed last week, Randy Waesche said.
The maritime society has created an opening through the shoreline-facing end of the granite wall that will allow visitors a more direct and safer route to access the lighthouse with less chance of people wandering into the Waesches' yard and onto the former lighthouse keeper's property now owned by Elizabeth Ring.
“It took a little bit to get there but it works out to the benefit of both parties,” said Edward J. Cubanski III, president of the New London Maritime Society.
The lighthouse property is a narrow stretch of land bordered by the Waesches' home on one side and by Ring's on the other. Ring has had trouble in the past with lighthouse visitors on her property.
Cubanski said he hoped the end of the lawsuit would help rebuild a fractured relationship with neighbors. The society also plans some work in the spring to install a railing system at the wall opening.
Randy Waesche said he always had offered to pay for the entrance through the wall but the relationship with certain members of the maritime society has been less than cordial. It was the reason that a settlement in the lawsuit took so long, he said.
“We never wanted to be in dispute with our neighbors. Capt. Cubanski has reached out and has been much more enjoyable to work with,” Waesche said.
Cubanski, a retired captain with the U.S. Coast Guard, was elected as the society’s president in 2016 and replaced George Sprecace, who was the president during a span of time that the society acquired three lighthouses from the federal government. Along with Harbor Light, the society owns Ledge Light and Race Rock Light. The maritime society purchased Harbor Light, the oldest and tallest lighthouse in the state, in 2009.
The resolution of the suit doesn’t mean the ongoing issue of trying to bring more visitors to the lighthouse has ended. Cubanski said the maritime society plans to focus its energy on a lawsuit it filed in 2015 in response to a Zoning Board of Appeals decision upholding a cease-and-desist order.
In June 2015 the city’s zoning enforcement officer issued the cease-and-desist order to block tours, noting the use of the lighthouse at that time had increased and was “no longer a passive operation of a lighthouse where a lighthouse keeper may have allowed visitors from time to time to tour the lighthouse.” Instead, groups of visitors had begun arriving on occasion.
The organization argues in its appeal that the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000 and the deed to the lighthouse require that the society make the lighthouse open for education, recreation, cultural and historic preservation purposes for the general public or risk the property reverting back to the government's ownership. It has made several legal arguments including a claim that the "free tours to the public is a legal nonconforming use" that predates city zoning regulations.
Randy Waesche has filed paperwork to intervene in the case and defend the city’s position. He also vigorously had fought against the maritime society’s past unsuccessful attempts to alter zoning regulations and allow tours of the lighthouse and other historic properties in residential neighborhoods by special permit.
“Their needs and goals are to generate revenue. I totally understand that,” Waesche said. “We bought a home in a residential district and don’t want people parking all over the streets and tromping through our property. It is in conflict with a residential neighborhood.”
Cubanski maintains the city has unfairly placed restrictions on a landmark that has long been open to the public.
“We believe the public is being denied access to a national historic treasure. That’s a shame,” Cubanski said.
Elizabeth Ring, owner of the former lighthouse keeper’s home, said she remains highly skeptical of any promises the New London Maritime Society makes based on its past actions, which has included a lawsuit against her, blatant improper use of her property and attempts to stir up hostility against neighbors.
“No, I don’t anticipate the maritime society being respectful of residents' privacy or keeping promises, based on past experience,” Ring said in an email. “Their proposed plan for the site involves 3,000 visitors a year! The site is simply too narrow, squeezed between residences, with no parking or bathrooms. When they had visitors there before, they wandered all over our properties, not even knowing that our place is not part of maritime society property.”
“If they had behaved legally and ethically from the start, there probably would have been small regulated tours years ago,” Ring said.
With public access to Harbor Light still blocked, Cubanski said the maritime society is making a concerted effort this summer on upkeep at the iconic Ledge Light, applying for grants that would help fund general maintenance work. The group also is seeking a partner to run lighthouse tours.
By Rick Koster Day staff writer
Spend a sea-scented Noank afternoon with Professor Stephen Jones, sitting on the weathered wooden porch at Carson's Store in neighborly October sunshine. Listen to Jones' amused but rapid delivery as he spins witty anecdotes and observations, pausing appreciatively whenever small groups of kids race by, just out of class, many modeling the costumes they officially would wear on Halloween.
Jones is discussing the myriad ideal qualities required of someone who conducts a boat tour — as per his assignment Sunday aboard a ferry trip to and from Block Island. The occasion is the 34th New London Maritime Society Annual Meeting & Cruise, and Jones will regale his audience with stories of Long Island Sound as they apply to our section of the world.
A renowned historian, author, boat-builder, railroad worker, filmmaker, publisher of Flat Hammock Press, lighthouse keeper and raconteur, Jones, in his mid-80s, retired last spring after years as a professor of writing, English literature and coastal and maritime studies at UConn Avery Point. With this resume and charismatic presence, Jones has for decades been in demand for tours and lectures about Noank Island, the Sound and the Niantic, Thames, Mystic and Connecticut rivers.
On Sunday's cruise, Jones' remarks will touch on, among other topics: his friend Ellery Thompson, the renowned dragger-boat captain, writer, painter and trumpeter; Lawrence Malloy, the youngest of a six-generation Mystic boat- and shipbuilding family; Bill McCoy, whose fascination with and expertise aboard sailing ships led to a legendary career as a rum-runner in the 1920s; and Sir Thomas Hardy, the British admiral defeated in Stonington during the War of 1812.
With all of Jones' experience, then, it seems reasonable, in advance of Sunday's cruise, to ask how he distills all this source material into a distinct presentation for maritime enthusiasts.
"You know, my father (Edward Jones) did similar tours as well, and he taught me two things," says Jones, dressed in a straw hat, black blazer and blue denim shirt. "One was that he would never think of doing this sort of thing inland. There's a different rhythm on a boat and a different quality of light being on the water, and the sea as a venue itself transforms the experience in ways you could never achieve on land. Oh, and, also, stay focused."
Teaching the Bard
In one-on-one conversation, though, focus can be a challenge. Jones' conviviality, knowledge and history are such that he seems a sort of biologically alchemical blend of Falstaff, George Lyman Kittredge and G.W. Blunt. The listener can't help but interrupt with follow-up questions — thereby twirling the conversation in all sorts of directions.
He speaks fondly of Shakespeare, for example, acknowledging that an ability to regale groups of folks can be decidedly heightened if one has spent quality time speaking aloud the Bard's work. It's something Jones gravitated to as a child when his father would recite Shakespeare around the house. Later, various English teachers would quote Shakespeare in a machine gun monotone, significantly lessening the power of the words.
"I spent a lot of time reciting Shakespeare or reading him aloud," Jones remembers. "Let's face it, you can get bored with Shakespeare if you're not interpreting the words. Anyway, I developed a perhaps unwarranted confidence in my ability to teach and speak Shakespeare." He describes efforts in his teaching days where he would grow a beard throughout the semester so that, by the end of the syllabus, he had the appearance necessary to portray the course-ending King Lear.
"Of course," he adds, "just as often, someone would want me to be Santa Claus. But I wanted my own students to be able to read Shakespeare when they graduated. And I used those same principles teaching maritime literature. And, working on the water, with long stretches of time, reciting Shakespeare works very well with the rhythm of the sea. There's a quality to hearing words aloud, and so that helps on the boat tours, as well."
Jones generously acknowledges the work of various tour guides in his past whose work has been valuable in his own evolution, citing humor, timing and history as integral elements to the ideal presentation. He references, for example, a tour past a small island in Maine's Frenchman Bay, where the chef Julia Child liked to sunbathe on rocks, adorned by little more than the glass of wine she'd hold aloft in toast to passing vessels. Or a story about Teddy Roosevelt at his family's Long Island summer home in Sagamore Hill on Oyster Bay. Then president, Roosevelt, a lifelong boxing enthusiast who was mostly blind in one eye due to a well-placed punch, once mistook a fisherman landing in the local oyster yard as a sparring partner, greeting the bewildered man on the beach with a pair of boxing gloves.
Jones also transfixes with quick, interwoven stories about the construction of Race Rock Lighthouse; the Vermont Central Railroad and its connection to New London; Sarah Bernhardt's observation that no man can properly portray Hamlet (by the time they understand the character, they're too old to play the role); patrolling beaches for the Coast Guard to see if any dead bodies had washed up; attending famed clarinetist Alphonse Picou's second-line funeral in New Orleans; and why it's not a bad idea to have a grandmother who was an elocutionist.
It all plays into the art of the boat tour guide. Jones says, "After a time, you know each rock and bend in the river, you know all the stories and the history, and the temptation is to tell 'em everything you know."
In that sense, Jones warns against the temptation of a memorized spiel. "There's a performance and spontaneity to a good harbor tour. You can get too slick with pre-written jokes and a certain type of humor that become shtick. It sounds like a recording," he says. "Of course, there ARE tours that use pre-recorded commentary. It doesn't work if the wind or water aren't cooperating and suddenly the tape gets ahead of the pilot."
In the end, Jones says, each tour is unique — and that's part of the fun. "The true art of the harbor tour is to not download them with data, or dazzle them with personal performance, but to quietly help them see what can be there." He chuckles. "And it helps to know when to shut up."