Will its new owners protect New London’s Union Station?

April 6, 2019

James Coleman Jr.’s purchase of Union Station in 2015 seemed like a positive development for New London, with his assurances of protecting the landmark building that is such an important cornerstone of the downtown.

Coleman, a New Orleans-based businessman whose family sold a bulk liquid tank farm business in 2014 for 3 million, he said, to facilitate construction of the museum, which is planned to share the city’s waterfront very near the station.

The work that has been done on the station since appears to be careful and respectful of the historical character of the building, including most recently work on the massive brick chimneys, with handsome new copper flashing installed where they meet the slate roof.

But Coleman’s death in March raises new questions about the fate of the station, the work of architect Henry Hobson Richardson.

I hope that, as his family recovers from their loss and turns to settling Coleman’s estate, they will offer some assurances to the people of New London about the fate of the station that is so important to the city.

Coleman purchased it with the entity Union Station Development LLC. He suggested at the time of the purchase that it was being made to facilitate the design of the pedestrian bridge across Water Street to the proposed museum, since it will pass so closely to the station that the station owners might need to acquiesce.

He said then he would confer with the people of New London about how the station would be used and seemed enthusiastic about further restoring it and making it more vital.

Coleman, whose family and in-laws once owned the East Jersey and Union Pacific railroads, seemed excited about the station and its architecture. Richardson grew up in New Orleans, and one of Coleman’s sisters-in-law was a descendant of the famous architect, he said.

“It’s a big commitment on our part, but we believe in it,” Coleman told a reporter then about his purchase. “I consider the train station as one of the most important things for everybody in New London.”′

He got that right. I presume his heirs understand that, too.

The station was sold by the city’s redevelopment agency in 1975 to preservationists who promised to restore it. The deed at that time included extensive preservation covenants that ensured the building would not be torn down and the architectural design would be respected.

Those covenants were written to expire in 40 years, an expiration that would have come months after Coleman’s purchase. But they also were written out of land records in documents prepared for the 2015 sale, and no new preservation agreements were included in the new deed.

That means there is now nothing in the deed that would ensure the preservation of the station.

I reached out last week to Wes Pulver, president of the Coast Guard museum association, to see if museum officials know more about the fate of the train station. He didn’t return my messages.

Coleman left the board of the association last year and was chairman emeritus at the time of his death.

I spoke to Coleman last year, when some work was being done to the small building attached to the station, the former bus station.

Coleman was full of enthusiasm then for what he said would be a broad rehabilitation of the station, with new visitor restrooms, new offices on the second floor, storm windows, an elevator and better handicapped access. He also talked about a farm-to-table restaurant with indoor and outdoor seating.

He was excited about the prospects of the museum, comparing it to the popular National World War II Museum, which draws hundreds of thousands of visitors each year to New Orleans.

“I think the same thing is going to happen in New London,” he said. “It will be fantastic ... people will come from all over the world.”

Let’s hope his dreams, for the museum and Richardson’s magnificent train station, live on, a fine Coleman legacy in New London.

This is the opinion of David Collins.