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Avery Point Community
Rallies to Restore Lighthouse
By Richard Veilleux
n the grand scheme of UConn 2000, renovating the drab and dilapidated octagonal structure at the edge of UConn's Avery Point campus would barely warrant consideration, still less funding. But to people who frequent the seaside campus, the symbolism - and history - captured in the 55-foot tall lighthouse is brighter than its lights ever were.
Consequently, last fall a group of musically inclined students offered a benefit concert featuring an eclectic mix of genres. An English professor has offered the services of his son's boat-building firm to replicate the lighthouse's lantern room. The well-known forensic scientist Henry Lee will speak this month at a wine and cheese reception to benefit the structure. And, perhaps biggest of all, the state Bond Commission in March approved a $150,000 grant to help the project advance.
The efforts, by faculty, staff, and students, community members and even a national organization - the American Lighthouse Association - are all on behalf of a 60-year-old lighthouse, perched at the edge of Long Island Sound, on a precipice of the Avery Point campus. The crumbling sandstone structure is one of only 23 lighthouses remaining in Connecticut, and it was the last of those to be built, erected in 1943. Not in use since 1967, the light is one of three at the mouth of the Thames River, including Ledge Light on the New London side of the channel and the larger, more famous New London light in the center of the river.
"The community enthusiastically supports the work," says Joseph Comprone, director of the Avery Point campus. "It adds some luster to our campus which is, after all, fronted on three sides by water. I'd love to see it restored."
Comprone will likely get his wish, and he may get it sooner rather than later. Counting the state funding, members of the Avery Point Lighthouse Society (APLS) have already raised about $250,000, and a major fundraising event - a $25 a person wine and cheese soirée May 16, featuring Dr. Henry Lee - is expected to bring another infusion of cash to the group. The fundraiser will run from 6-9 p.m. at the Groton Inn & Suites on Route 184, Groton.
The APLS, led by James Streeter, Groton's historian and a colleague of Lee's at the state forensic lab, has a number of other irons in the fire, including T-shirts, a "buy a brick" program, screen savers, and a 3-inch replica of the lighthouse, more than 200 of which have been sold at $15 each.
"It's going to be saved, there's no doubt now," says Streeter. "It's a really special place. And when we complete the building programs, UConn 2000 and, hopefully, 21st Century UConn, it's possible this will be the only thing left to remind us of the Coast Guard's presence through the years."
The lighthouse was built when the Coast Guard developed a training station at the site, a 72-acre estate once owned by industrialist Morton F. Plant. In 1938, two decades after Plant's death, the estate was sold to the state. Four years later, the state sold the property to the federal government, and the Coast Guard took over the site in 1942. In 1967, when the Coast Guard moved all but its research and development program from the area, the state acquired the property again.
Subsequently, the UConn campus was created there.
The lighthouse is perched at the farthest point of a long, gravel walkway that meanders along the waterfront, on the left side of the sprawling lawn that descends toward the Sound from the stately Branford House.
It has been there through most of the changes, and it looks its age. The soft-colored sandstone walls are pockmarked, small piles of crumbled stone lie on its cement base, and most of its windows are shuttered with plywood. The lantern was removed several years ago and now sits in storage in the Marine Sciences Building.
Ultimately, says Streeter, APLS members would like to open the restored lighthouse to the public, with a small museum on the ground floor reflecting the history of the Avery Point property, the Coast Guard and UConn presence there, and the story of the lighthouse.
When that day comes, he says, the Avery Point lighthouse will shine once again.