The Day – Years of hard work culminates in the reopening of the Lighthouse Inn in New London
New London – The restaurant at the Lighthouse Inn will open its doors to host an invitation-only brunch for a group of friends and family this weekend, the culmination of more than five years of restoration work at the historic property.
Owner Alwyn Christy, 47, of Glastonbury, obtained a certificate of occupancy from the town last month for the first floor of the property’s historic building. He intends to open the restaurant and its 1902 tavern – currently unlicensed – to the general public in the coming days and has already received dozens of calls from people looking to book special events.
There is no date set for the official reopening yet.
This weekend’s food service, which is led by consultant chef Mark Vecchitto, will be a good chance to try out to fix bugs and help train newly hired staff members, Christy said. Much of the staff was on hand this week to familiarize themselves with the kitchen, the point-of-service system and the sprawling layout with multiple dining areas.
This will be the first time the hostel has been open to the public since its abrupt closure in 2008 and comes with high anticipation and expectations from locals with fond memories of the hostel. It’s been the go-to spot for dinners, parties and special events for decades.
Jill Johnson, a neighbor of the inn, has been walking past the building site for years and, at the start of the rehabilitation project, met Christy and Robert Duleau, a renovator from New Britain who led the restoration effort.
Johnson and her friend and artist Suzanne Laycock Sypher were the self-proclaimed “inspectors” of the project.
At one point, Johnson, half-jokingly, gave work crews a deadline. Her mandate was for the work to be completed by December 12, 2020, in time to celebrate her 50th birthday with her husband Mark. The couple met at New London High School, dated and became engaged in the drawing room of the Lighthouse Inn in 1970. The two were married the same year and held their wedding reception at the Inn. Her children threw a surprise party for the couple’s 25th wedding anniversary at the hostel.
“Both of our families, we’re New London people,” Johnson said. “We have attended weddings, retirements, vacations, dinners and birthdays there. There is so much history for us.
During the eight years it had been inactive, Johnson had watched with dismay as the weather and lack of maintenance took its toll on the inn. Like dozens of others watching, she had resigned herself to the fact that it would never reopen.
But Johnson, on his frequent visits to the inn, was always reassured by Christy and Duleau that the work would continue. Both had taken the inn as full-time jobs.
“A lot of people doubted it. They said it wasn’t going to happen,” Johnson said. “But there was something about them. had to cope. They just kept plugging in. They were passionate and determined.
Christy called Duleau a true craftsman who was involved in all facets of the project, from installing hardwood floors and rehabilitating existing furniture to choosing color schemes and restoring light fixtures. Everything that could be saved and restored was, says Christy.
As for the final result of the work, Johnson called it “recognizable but much more beautiful”.
“The Lighthouse Inn was in such a state of disrepair when they started. It was intimidating. Their hearts and souls were there. You can see that,” Johnson said. “It’s definitely a ‘wow’. I think people will be very satisfied with the work they have done.
Charles Cunningham, 88, a local legend who held various roles at the inn for 32 years, agreed with Johnson’s assessment of the inn during a visit this week. “It brings back so many memories for me,” he said. “I give them a lot of respect for doing something the residents needed.”
Much to her delight, Christy honors Johnson’s perseverance and hard work by naming one of the dining rooms the Johnson Room. Johnson chose the colors for the majestic domed ceiling, furniture, wall sconces and helped enlighten Christy on what the inn means to people.
Two works of art by Sypher, one by Marilyn Monroe and the other by Louis Armstrong, will adorn the walls of the hostel when it opens. Christy said he plans to bring more works from local artists to the hostel.
Christy said that hearing the stories from Johnson and others who came to visit “is what kept us going all this time.”
“We got to know the character of this place,” he said. “I would like to say that we did everything right.”
“Something we could do for ourselves”
For Christy, the project exceeded her expectations when he and his friend Edwin Abraham won the property at auction in 2016 for $260,000. The auction came three years after the city acquired the property after several failed attempts to attract a developer. The city’s decision to keep the property likely saved it from being razed.
Abraham and Christy, who holds a master’s degree in business administration, both came from a corporate background with management positions in multinational corporations, but had never dived into the world of historic restoration or hospitality.
Both had made careers working for others. Inn, Christy and Abraham agreed, “might be something we could do for ourselves.”
The two had committed a significant amount of their own money to the project, but local lenders, to Christy’s surprise, were reluctant to finance the project. Christy declined to comment on the amount of money spent to date.
The advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, skyrocketing material costs, and supply issues have led to more delays. Christy’s business partner, Abraham, died suddenly in 2020. Christy said it was financial support from another friend, Sai Kumar, that kept the project going.
Duleau remembers that when the work began, “every piece was a surprise, and not a beautiful one”. Initial work focused on shoring up the roof and tackling damage from years of water leaks and repairs.
The inn, overlooking Long Island Sound from its perch at 6 Guthrie Place, was originally built as a home for steel magnate Charles S. Guthrie and designed by architect William Ralph Emerson. It opened as an inn and restaurant in 1926. From 1945, under the ownership of William and Albert Ronnick, “the inn’s reputation soared to new heights”, according to a National Register of historical places.
“For the next 30 years, Lighthouse Inn was widely regarded as Southeast Connecticut’s premier dining and dancing establishment…in addition to its superb reputation as a place to stay,” the entry reads.
But the inn’s last major renovation was completed in the years after a fire in 1979. Christy said work would continue in the coming months to restore and reopen the two dozen rooms on the second floor.
Christy, a father of four, saw many people shed tears when reminiscing about the inn. He himself was moved when talking about the time he had spent on the project.
Asked about her children, Christy said: “They don’t care that I was vice president of a company. Now I’m the owner of the Lighthouse Inn and that’s important to them. They can tell my old man did something.