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A New London landmark is preserved

By David Collins

Publication: The Day

Published September 11. 2013 4:00AM
David Collins/The Day
The Acors Barns House on Federal Street in New London.

The Acors Barns House, one of the city's most significant landmarks at 68 Federal St. in downtown New London, changed hands recently, after being listed for sale for a short while.

Ownership has thankfully passed to a civic-minded organization that will surely take good care of this important building for a long time.

The house is important for all the reasons it was put on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976.

It was built in 1837 by Acors Barns, one of the city's most prominent whaling agents in the great years of whaling prosperity, when New London was sending ships around the world.

The self-made Barns, who was penniless as a young man after losing his own still-unpaid-for boat when he was captured in a fog bank by the British in the War of 1812, later made his fortune in coastal shipping and whaling. But as the whaling business waned, Barns moved on to propeller ships and railroads, becoming an incorporator of the New London Northern Railroad.

He also founded the Bank of Commerce, housed in the State Street building that later became Bank of America here, and remained president until he died, passing the job along to his son.

His house on Federal Street, according to the nomination for the National Register, is interesting architecturally because it is remarkably simple and unadorned on the outside, with only the four corner chimneys giving a clue to the grandeur inside, the marble fireplaces, carved paneling and pocket doors.

The house, with its separate washrooms, bedrooms and cooking areas for domestic help, is also an interesting look at the social makeup of 19th century New London.

"The Barns house physically documents the symbiosis by which the wealthy and propertyless shared a home," the national register nomination noted.

The Barns house is also especially important to New London because it is such a fine and rare example of the architectural fabric of the big swath of the downtown that was demolished in urban renewal in the 1960s.

The house was sold recently by James McGuire, an attorney who practices law In New London, as did his father and grandfather.

His father bought the Barns house in 1956, buying it from two dressmaker sisters who, according to one account, rented out rooms to boarders and lived in "genteel poverty."

McGuire moved his law office from State Street to the Barns house on Federal, the beginning of a trend by professionals to convert domestic houses around the downtown into offices.

McGuire's parents restored the building, which had not been changed much since Barns built it.

Then they did a remarkable thing, saving it from the wrecking ball, as the federally funded urban renewal program tore down beautiful buildings all around it.

In the end, only the Barns house and the magnificent Whale Oil Row block on Huntington Street were saved in that neighborhood.

McGuire gave me a tour of the Barns house this week and showed me an old picture showing the Barns house standing alone on a big vacant block, a scene that didn't change much until what is now the Holiday Inn was built many years later.

It makes the destruction of the Fort Trumbull neighborhood, still vacant, almost pale by comparison. In the same picture you can see all the beautiful old buildings that once lined Main Street, now Eugene O'Neill Drive.

The good news in McGuire making the transition to the New London office of a larger firm, Halloran & Sage of Hartford, is that he ended up selling the family's law office to the Community Foundation of Eastern Connecticut.

McGuire's family not only saved the Acors Barns house, but they have been excellent stewards of this interesting part of New London history since 1956.

They have passed the preservation baton to an organization certainly up to the challenge.

McGuire is also planning to execute a long-term loan to the foundation of three oil portraits of Acors Barns and his son and grandson, all presidents of the Bank of Commerce.

They will hang again on Federal Street.

This is the opinion of David Collins

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