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Good times and bad at Lighthouse Inn

The scene was a forlorn one: a mangled Christmas tree in an abandoned dining room, bulbs scattered on the floor, and raccoons' paw prints on the tables.

When The Day took that photo of Lighthouse Inn's faded majesty in 2013, the shuttered hotel was at rock bottom. The City of New London had taken ownership because no one wanted it.

The eight years since have seen a little progress with a lot more needed. At each step, the venerable inn's future still seizes the interest and emotions of many in southeastern Connecticut.

"Miss the Lighthouse Inn so much. Such a great place where memories were made," reader Linda Autrey commented for The Day's Curious CT feature. Her question was partly about what's ahead for the hotel, which closed in 2008. She also asked something else:

"What is the entire history of the place from the beginning to the sad end?"

Answering that took some digging, as the story was spread across our archive in reports going back a century.

Here it is, from the beginning.

* * *

James D. Lynch's property in the Pequot Colony wasn't much to look at: 12 barren acres between Lower Boulevard and Park Way, stripped of topsoil for neighboring gardens.

But it had a view of the water and beach rights, so in August 1901, Charles Strong Guthrie bought it. At age 42, the Pittsburgh resident was a captain of industry, chairman of the Republic Iron and Steel Co. He planned a summer home befitting his status.

Architect William Ralph Emerson created something that stood out even in the exclusive community: a grand, semicircular edifice in the Mission style, perched on a rise that commanded the immediate area. Every room had a view of either the harbor or gardens landscaped by Frederick Law Olmsted, the best in the business. There were also greenhouses, a tennis court and a Florentine fountain at the entrance.

Between the mansion and Pequot Avenue lay a 6-acre wildflower meadow that gave the estate its name, Meadow Court. Just beyond was the beach, with a dock, boathouse and bathhouse.

It's a shame Guthrie didn't get to enjoy it longer. In the first of many turns of fate that mark the building's history, he was felled by appendicitis in 1906, not long after his home was finished.

Frances Guthrie kept her husband's property but spent less time there as the Pequot Colony declined. In 1925 neighbors grew uneasy as, one by one, large estates, including Meadow Court, went on the market.

"The fear is felt that should they be purchased by developing concerns, and split into building lots, the exclusive tone of the colony will soon be evaporated," The Day reported.

That was just the plan for Meadow Court. Mrs. Guthrie sold it to the Pequot Realty Co., of which she was a director. A street was paved through the meadow and called Guthrie Place, with land on either side divided into lots sold at reasonable prices. Her egalitarian idea, The Day said, was that those of moderate means "may have all the advantages that nature can provide." That included beach rights, which set up another turn of fate far in the future.

As for the mansion, one possibility was "a high class apartment house." But on May 20, 1926, it opened as a hotel and restaurant, with a name evoking a nearby landmark: Lighthouse Inn.

* * *

That first day, people filed through to admire two large dining rooms and the water view. Later, dinner parties were serenaded by Worthy Hill's Orchestra. New London embraced the elegant spot, and within a year, it was hosting social events for the senior classes of Williams Memorial Institute and Connecticut College.

Soon there were recitals, bridge tournaments and, occasionally, noteworthy events. In 1931, Amelia Earhart recounted her pioneering flight across the Atlantic. In 1943, the New England Governors Conference convened to address wartime food and fuel shortages.

The place itself made no headlines until that year, when it faced its first ownership change. The prospective buyers, Frank Lewyant and Armando Baldelli, brought howls of protest when they applied for a liquor permit, even though the inn had had one until five years earlier.

Neighbors feared the stately venue would become another Fife and Mondo's, the hopping nightclub the two owned in Waterford. In addition to inflicting loud music and disorder on the area, neighbors argued, a nightclub would be an unwholesome temptation for students at nearby Billard Academy. Lewyant and Baldelli got their permit, but with so many restrictions that they didn't buy the inn.

The man who did had rotten luck. On June 4, 1944, three months after Andrew Secchiaroli took over, guests fled in their pajamas as a fire did $15,000 worth of damage. Nine months later, he sold the property.

The new owners were brothers from Hartford, William and Albert Ronnick, who seemed made for the place and presided over its golden age. The comfortable elegance they nurtured brought business meetings, civic celebrations and wedding receptions, with many a bride photographed on the imposing staircase. They doubled the number of rooms by expanding into the Guthries' old stable and created the Captain's Gallery lounge, which exhibited local artworks.

"I tried to make it into a special place," Bill Ronnick recalled. "I wanted to build a wall around it so people could come and relax."

His personable hospitality was on display in 1950 when he flew in tropical orchids from Hawaii and presented one to each female guest on his fifth anniversary as owner.

The inn acquired cachet as movie stars stayed while playing summer stock. The excellent food included favorites like Two Broiled Live Lobsters, Oyster Casino and the signature Delmonico potatoes.

"Saturday night, it was the place to go," said Janet Roundy, Bill Ronnick's daughter. "There were some people who went there every single Saturday night" to dine and dance.

Ronnick lured Harry Rodvogin, an artist with Time Magazine covers on his résumé, to take up residence. Rodvogin earned his keep with paintings that covered the walls.

"There was a mystique about the inn and its resident painter," said Anita Hochstein, who had her wedding reception there. "It was just the nicest spot in New London."

It seemed the good times might never end, but in 1974, pressed by other business concerns, the Ronnicks leased the inn to others. A change was soon evident.

"A cold kind of impersonal atmosphere developed. ...," Bill Ronnick said. "You walked into the place and you could smell it. It's like a family without love — you walk into the home and instantly you know something is wrong."

The answer was someone who could bring back the love, so in 1979, the Ronnicks sold to Arthur and Jean Valis of East Hartford. They moved in and immediately threw a party for a large, enthusiastic crowd.

But for the second time in 35 years, new owners saw their dreams go up in flames. On July 5, 1979, the Valises watched in disbelief as a catastrophic fire burned off the roof and ravaged the upper floors. Harry Rodvogin saved some paintings but lost his studio.

The Day's headline declared the inn destroyed, but the report of its death was greatly exaggerated. A community drive took off to fund the rebuilding, and somehow, the place reopened in December. But the Valises couldn't pay the taxes, and in 1981, the IRS closed the doors.

The Ronnicks' heart was still on Guthrie Place and they held the mortgage, so they went to court to get the inn's title back. In 1983 when they announced plans to reopen amid repairs, requests for bookings poured in months before they could be accepted. Over the next three years, against the advice of bankers, Al Ronnick sank $2.5 million into lavish improvements under the eye of the inn's longtime manager, Donald O. Tillett.

"The only criterion I set for the decorator was that when people walk into a room, I want them to say 'Wow!' And you'd be surprised at how often we get just that," Tillett said.

The restoration, much of it harking back to Meadow Court's 1902 opulence, gave Lighthouse Inn a new lease on life, but it broke the man responsible for it. In 1992, Al Ronnick, by then the sole owner at age 88, fell victim to a bank foreclosure.

"Farewell, New London," he wrote in The Day. "... I have succumbed to the burden of heavy debt and no longer retain ownership of the Lighthouse Inn."

Owners came and went after that, even as the inn won two prestigious honors: It was named a Historic Hotel of America and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. There were a few good years left, which included a brief run by Timothy's Restaurant, previously a popular place on Bank Street.

But when financial troubles loomed again in 2008, there was no one with the Ronnicks' determined devotion. The place closed with the tables set for dinner and the Christmas tree left to the raccoons.

* * *

In recent years, Lighthouse Inn slumbered and decayed amid a blur of activity outside its walls: bankruptcy filings, foreclosure auctions, development schemes and fraud convictions. The last two people to operate it went to prison. Would-be buyers placed bids then backed out.

In 2015 the city named a preferred developer. Michael Dattilo was associated with Water's Edge Resort & Spa in Westbrook and the Copper Beech Inn in Ivoryton. He had a plan but needed rights to Guthrie Beach, which had been lost under the last owners. Dattilo negotiated with the beach association, but in one final twist, the suitor for Charles Guthrie's mansion and the beneficiaries of Frances Guthrie's generosity couldn't come to terms.

Just after that, in October 2016, Alwyn Christy of Glastonbury bought the property at auction. More than four years later, the building remains a work in progress.

A few years before the inn closed, a story arose of a long-ago bride descending the stairs when she fell and broke her neck, leaving her troubled ghost to roam the halls. The tale is a trite staple of the paranormal industry but an apt metaphor for Lighthouse Inn, whose entire history is a cycle of love, heartbreak and nostalgia.

Wistful fans imagine again seeing the ornate fountain as they enter, but what they yearn for is to stand within Bill Ronnick's imaginary wall, sealed off from the present.

Lighthouse Inn is indeed haunted, not by a dead bride, but by our wish for a better time that's out of reach. The old hotel may yet have a future, but its spirit will always be of the past.

j.ruddy@theday.com

About this story

The story was drawn mostly from the archives of The Day. Additional sources include the September 1912 issue of "American Homes and Gardens," the records of Olmsted Associates at the Library of Congress, and the 1996 registration form for Lighthouse Inn's listing on the National Register of Historic Places. Special thanks to Ann Baldelli, Peggy Cadman and Jim Diaz.

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