by Jon Persson
The 1833 Custom House on New London’s Bank Street has a new aid to navigation to help visitors mark their course to the historic building. Two channel buoys, set on each side of the granite building’s entrance, now show the way through the fog of urban comings-and-goings to the steps of the venerable structure. It is a homeward-bound course that is properly marked, green buoy to port and red to starboard. The addition to the streetscape, made possible by the good efforts of the New London Maritime Society—which is based in this building—required many hours of work and perseverance to deliver.
Jennifer Hillhouse, a society volunteer active in a wide array of public services, is characteristically absent from the September 9 public dedication of her brainchild and unseen labors. The green, or Port, buoy is named after her. She first suggested that the addition of the buoys would raise visibility, and tell part of the story of this facility. She undertook the project a year ago, after seeing a similar installation of buoys at the Newburyport Custom House. The New London buoys were carefully selected from the cache at a Coast Guard facility in South Weymouth, Massachusetts; her sons Ken and Mike provided transport and refurbishing, and the result is now part of Custom House and New London history.
This marks the first change to the facade of the still-active Custom House since it was constructed over the years 1833 to 1835, says George Sprecace, President of the Maritime Society, in his opening remarks on a clear morning as traffic whizzed by. Senior Docent Bill LaRoue—for whom the Starboard, or red, buoy is named—further explains that Robert Mills, the building’s architect, was given the task of designing four custom houses for the maturing nation, three of which still stand.
The solid stone construction was well considered, Bill continues, as these were for many years the only Federal buildings in their respective cities. The government wanted to portray an image of a solid and strong nation, and the customs service wanted fireproof buildings to protect the crucial, revenue-producing documents held within. The importance of these structures is demonstrated by the choice of Robert Mills, who was America’s first Federal architect, a student of Thomas Jefferson, and designer of the Washington Monument.
On that morning, New London Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio quips that “half of the ceremonial events I attend are at the Custom House,” a tribute to the active and effective work of the Maritime Society’s many volunteers. Society Director Susan Tamulevich adds that the nonprofit organization has recently accepted the conveyance of the Race Rock Lighthouse, which already owns the New London Harbor Light. Talks are well underway to acquire the iconic Ledge Light as well.
This stewardship of historic lighthouses by the Maritime Society, and the addition of the two 1,500 pound buoys, also serves as a reminder of the years when the Coast Guard used the Custom House Pier as a staging area for maintaining the region’s navigational buoys under the eye of USCG Red Wood (WLM 685), a buoy tender based at the Custom House pier. It reminds us that Alexander Hamilton in 1791 requested the dual creation of a strong custom service aided by a national lighthouse service, making these acquisitions a core of national-commerce security.
The Bank Street ceremony closes with a ribbon-cutting, with the green buoy named for Jennifer Hillhouse, the red for Bill LaRoue. Now, as Jennifer had hoped, the building looks “more like a museum and less like a bank,” the distinction allowing for easier navigation to the museum on what is, after all, a street named for its banks…physical and mercantile.
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