Library may develop downtown site
By Scott Bellile
A pair of downtown New London buildings could soon be coming down.
Two city-owned buildings located across from New London Public Library and Museum are in disrepair. The buildings, at 401 and 405 S. Pearl St., have sat vacant, unheated and unmaintained for several years.
New London Building Inspector Paul Hanlon told the Press Star Monday, Nov. 28, he doesn’t see issuing a raze order anytime soon. However, he said he hopes the library and museum will make the initiative to demolish the buildings, saying he wants the decision left to them.
The library purchased the two properties anticipating it might build a new library on that block one day.
It bought 401 S. Pearl St. (formerly New London Trophy & Crafts) in March 2011 for $46,000, according to New London Public Library Director Ann Hunt.
The purchase of 405 S. Pearl St. (the old Denny’s grocery store) followed in October 2013 for $46,500, she said.
A building next door at 421 S. Pearl St. remains privately owned and for sale.
In recent months, the New London Public Library and Museum Board has shifted its future library talks to a 6-acre lot on Wolf River Avenue. However, the Pearl Street site hasn’t been ruled out.
The New London Public Library and Museum Board didn’t vote on whether to demolish the buildings at its Nov. 21 meeting.
Hunt told the board she received an $80,000 estimate to demolish the buildings together. She recommended doing both at once.
New London Public Museum Director Christine Cross told the board the buildings are separate without a shared wall. The city could demolish 405 S. Pearl St. and leave 401 S. Pearl St., she said. The latter is in better shape.
Hanlon, on the other hand, told the Press Star the buildings contain adjoining structures, so they both must be razed.
Letting buildings in rough shape stand would be hypocritical on the city’s part, Hanlon said, given its recent push for downtown beautification.
“We’re encouraging people to put money into their buildings and make them look nice, and yet we have this building that is sitting there and doing nothing,” Hanlon said.
The 405 S. Pearl St. property has a roof in poor condition, a hole in the parking lot and a run-down facade, Hanlon said.
A look back at buildings’ histories
According to archive materials at New London Public Museum, the building at 401 S. Pearl St. was constructed in 1900 by Gustav Falbe for $4,000. He ran a meat market there for 16 years before selling it to Frank Jennings.
Jennings operated a meat market there and added a grocery store. In 1928, he hired Austrian sausage maker Fritz Bernegger. Less than a year later, Jennings sold 401 S. Pearl St. to Bernegger and his co-worker Billy Schmidt. They named their meat business Quality Market.
Sometime before the early 1930s, the building at 405 S. Pearl St. was erected. In 1933, Bernegger and Schmidt bought it. The men converted what was then a restaurant and bowling alley into a meat market and rented the grocery part to Red Owl.
Their business grew and went on to become Hillshire Farms.
Businesses housed at 405 S. Pearl St. throughout the last several decades included Denny’s, Hofherr’s Meats and More, and NAPA Auto Parts.
The 401 S. Pearl St. is remembered by today’s residents as the long-time New London Trophy & Crafts store. Its logo remains on the side of the building.
Businesses with much shorter lifespans popped up after the trophy shop closed, according to Connie Neely, who owned the building from 2000 to 2010. Those included a retail shop, a computer store, the seasonal costume shop Clowning Around and another trophy shop.
Neely said it would be a shame to see the historic New London buildings gone, but as the former owner of one of them, she understands how expensive it is to heat and repair the buildings.
Demolitions common in town
Razing longstanding downtown buildings isn’t unheard of in New London. Some recent examples:
• Last year the former Wolf River Theatrical Troupe building, 225 W. North Water St., came down.
• The building at 300 S. Pearl St., most recently home to Firehouse Restaurant and Time Away Lounge and Grill, was razed to make way for Hilby’s Restaurant & Sports Bar, which opened in 2011.
• Wolf River Lumber was torn down in April 2006. The business gave its 6-acre parcel on Wolf River Avenue to the city, and it has sat vacant since. Wolf River Lumber moved to County Highway S and filed for receivership in 2010. Granite Valley Forest Products bought that mill.
• The Franklin House, 501 S. Pearl St., was demolished in June 2002 to make way for Maiman Chiropractic.
• In a fire New Year’s Day 2001, the London Studio and First Impressions print shop buildings burned down between John’s Bar and the former Curt’s Barbershop. The lot has been empty since.
• The Corner Bar at West North Water Street and Wisconsin Street was condemned in 1992 and razed shortly after. It became parking for F&M Bank. Today it’s First Merit Bank, 401 W. North Water St.
• First State Bank tore down the Cristy’s Department Store in summer 1986 to expand 24,000 square feet.
• The Elwood Hotel, built around 1892-93, was razed in 1963 to make way for the New London National Bank. Today this is First Merit Bank.
• The Grand Hotel, built in 1897, came down in the 1940s so the post office could be built.
• A New Year’s Day fire in 1924 destroyed six buildings along West North Water Street, east of Taft Park. The land was redeveloped.