On the corner of Church and Main
You’ve probably seen the photograph. Lots of books about New London history have it. Taken before the turn of the 20th century, it shows a surrey and three men in front of what looks like a church.
The building is long gone. Church and Main Streets, which bordered it, were renamed Gov. Winthrop Boulevard and Eugene O’Neill Drive years ago. But back in the day, G.G. Avery & Sons lived on the premises and conducted their livery service there. The business office and carriage house were on the ground floor, while the Avery family lived upstairs. The horses were stabled in another building on the property.
The structure, true to its appearance, had originally been a church. It was built as a replacement for the Episcopal Church destroyed by the British during their attack on New London. When the congregation outgrew the new building’s capacity, they sold it to the Universalists. By the 1870s, the church was on the market again; Griswold Avery thought the location was perfect for his start-up livery business.
Griswold’s wife, Cornelia, disliked country life and was delighted to move into town from their farm on Lake Konomoc. She was confident she could transform the choir loft into gracious living quarters for their extended family. Cornelia wasn’t altogether done with rural life, however, because Griswold retained the Waterford farm and pastured some of his cows on Morgan Street in New London.
Griswold’s granddaughter, Elizabeth, lived there in 1912 when she was four years old. (Her father had died when she was a baby, necessitating that she and her mother move into the family compound.) Elizabeth must have been a bright, observant little girl because years later she remembered the charming, idiosyncratic house well enough to write about it. Her unpublished family narrative, “As a tale that is told,” is available at the New London County Historical Society. I have a copy, too, because — luckily for me — Elizabeth was my mother!
There was a lot about the house to fascinate a child. Elizabeth loved sitting at the kitchen table and peering through a window that looked down on the floor below where men were moving carriages and other conveyances about. She didn’t think many kids ate breakfast while watching something like that.
She liked their telephone, which had an exceptionally long chord that was somehow arranged so it could be reached from either the first or second floor. Even better, there was a speaking tube between the parlor and the office that seemed like magic. It was fun to hear disembodied voices booming through it.
Even the furniture made an indelible impression. Elizabeth admired the beautiful mahogany and recalled vividly where every piece had been artfully placed to best affect. She remembered a glass cabinet that held treasures brought back from seafaring voyages, perhaps by her great uncle, Gus Manwaring, or by her ancestor, Capt. Samuel Waite.
The attic was a wonderful place to explore, and the cupola — where she wasn’t allowed to go alone — provided a perfect spot to watch the Harvard-Yale Regatta.
But the best feature of the house was the love that filled it. For example, on the first Christmas that Elizabeth could remember, the family wanted to make it special for the fatherless youngster. Elizabeth wrote, “On Christmas morning I was led into the library which overnight had been transformed into a child’s wonderland … I was told it was all for me.” She gazed in awe at the tree, the toys, and “this miracle of love,” then smiled at the adults and said, “I thank you all.” There wasn’t a dry eye in the room.
Tragedy struck in 1919 when the property was burned to the ground, possibly by a disgruntled employee. Elizabeth and her mother had moved out in 1913, so they were safe, but one of the in-laws who lived there died of smoke inhalation.
The horses suffered horribly. Many panicked and had to be led out of the stable blindfolded. Those that survived were often so badly burned, they had to be shot. It was a heartbreaking sight to witness.
The Avery brothers tried valiantly to reestablish their business, but the fire had simply hastened the inevitable end of an era. Horses were out. Cars were in. Nothing would be the same again.
Fortunately, people are resilient, even when facing futures born of disaster. The Averys didn’t know it at the time, but the American Century was underway and would offer surprising new opportunities.