The Hygienic was built in 1844 by Captain Harris, a member of one of New London's prominent whaling families, as a ship's provision store and crew's quarters. Known then as the Harris building. It was constructed in the Greek Revival style that was the prevailing architectural influence in New London at the time.
The city was burned to the ground by British forces under the
command of Benedict Arnold in 1786, and was slow to rebuild until
the lucrative profits of the whaling trade financed the
reconstruction of the waterfront, in the early nineteenth century.
As a part of the redevelopment, the grade of Bank Street (referring
to the bank of the river) was raised 8 feet to cover and fill the
old foundations of burned colonial structures and to have a
commanding view of the riverfront wharves. The Hygienic building
foundation was built on the foundation of one of those colonial
It is interesting to note that while digging out the dirt basement for the Underground Gallery, which was composed of river sand and shore rocks, a cannonball was found. Also discovered, when the building was meticulously dismantled to save historic details, was a bill of fare for the ship's chandlery featuring supplies of different weights of hemp, light and dark varnishes and tannenbark.
The next transformation of the building occurred during the decline of the whaling trade. In a picture map of New London from 1878 the building was listed as the Columbia Hotel. It was probably at this time that the original storefront of brick arches was replaced by cast iron carrying beams and decorative columns. The cedar shingled roof was replaced by slate and four dormers were built to accommodate rooms in the attic.
In 1919 the Swanson Brothers started a restaurant in the building. In 1931 the restaurant became the Hygienic Restaurant and Delicatessen after the Sigros family, who were partners with the Swanson brothers, purchased the business. The name is derived from the Greek mythological god, Hygia, the god of health and cleanliness. One can only assume that at a time of no health inspectors and crude refrigeration, the name Hygienic was used to advertise the purity of the food sold there.
The Hygienic Restaurant became a popular 24 hour eatery with a catering kitchen and rooms on the upper floors. In the 40's and 50's it was very popular and was the place to go for late night dining and Sunday breakfasts. President Roosevelt, when at a train stop at New London station, asked about a good place to lunch and was brought through the alleyways to the Hygienic Restaurant. Al Capone was also said to have dined there.
In the late 1960s as the wrecking ball all but destroyed the residential community in downtown New London and de-urbanization was the trend, the Hygienic Restaurant attracted street people, drug dealers, prostitutes, sailors and denizens of the night. Sailors on shore leave were purported to have frequented the alleged brothel on the upper floors and in 1969 the cocktail lounge was listed in the national directory of gay bars in America.
In 1979, amid the sleaze of Bank Street, local fine artists began having yearly non-juried art exhibitions modeled after the Salon des Independants movement in Paris.
The restaurant closed in 1985 and was bought by developers. The building lay vacant until 1996 when it was slated for demolition to make a parking lot for a neighboring bank. The artists who started the Hygienic Art Exhibitions rallied a grassroots effort to save the building and purchased it in 1998. The building was completely gutted and rebuilt and now stands as a testament to community activism.
Hygienic Art, Inc. has proven to be a key leader in the revitalization of downtown New London. In January 2000, the derelict landmark building was restored, bringing artists, residents and the community back to the nearly deserted downtown area, spurring economic development and the creation or relocation of other fine art venues, like the Alva Gallery, The Burnished Chariot Gallery, Empress of Art, and the Golden Street Gallery.
Hygienic Art, Inc., now established as the center of the fine arts community, accomplished its first phase mission by restoring the Hygienic Building and creating residential artists studios and a public art gallery. Phase two of the project transformed its surroundings into a beautiful public art space. In September 2001 Hygienic Art completed its second renovation project. A dark corner lot in the rear of the building on Golden Street has been transformed into the Garden of Hygienia, a sculpture garden with wrought iron fences, red brick walkabouts and lampposts. A street that could not be walked down at night has now become inviting.
Hygienic Art, Inc., driven by its mission to save the view of the mural on its south wall from speculative developers, negotiated the sale of two adjacent vacant lots and acquired them for $110,000 on December 28, 2001. Funding for the sale was raised from private donations and the Hygienic Endowment Fund. Hygienic then sold the lot adjacent to the Bulkeley House Restaurant to them for $50,000.
Hygienic Art developed site plans for Hygienic Sculpture Gardens and Outdoor Theater Art Park. The plan emulates a classic renaissance design in the Greek Revival style. The park was designed to accommodate sculpture, fountains, seating, reception areas, and a large performance area. Landscape architect/designer
Brian Kent was hired and a meeting of community members was held to share ideas on the design and planning of the park. The panel included resident artists, international sculptors, Hygienic board members, musicians, master landscapers, theater professionals, construction managers, and downtown property owners. The resulting site plans can be viewed at the Hygienic Art Galleries.
With full support from the City of New London, Hygienic Art received planning and zoning approvals and raised $384,500 and to start the construction phase. Generous grants from The State of Connecticut D.E.P.,the Frank Palmer Fund, The Day Publishing Co., Citizens Bank, N.L. City Center District, AT&T Corp., Raymond and Helen Langfield, D.N.L.A., Mr. Toby Griffis, Mr. David and Muriel Hinkle supported this project through its design and construction phases.
The park is open to the public during the day and during gallery hours. It is available for use in collaboration with other nonprofit arts and academic organizations for performances and educational presentations. The O'Neill Theater Center, The Garde Art Center, the Secret Theater and the Eastern Connecticut Symphony have expressed interest in the project. An outdoor film series is planned to be projected on the side of the Hygienic building on summer evenings. The park is also available to rent for private events. Fees from this usage will be used to defer the costs of maintenance, insurance, and utilities.