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Lawyer’s signs on historical house draw complaints

July 28, 2018

I’ve long been impressed with the way that lawyers in New London have been some of the most prominent curators of historic buildings.

In the neighborhoods around the city’s two courthouses, some of the most careful renovations have been done by lawyers for their offices. It’s a winning combination of practical use of these buildings — some very large and in need of a lot of maintenance — and civic pride.

But one of the newest lawyers in town, a self-promoting personal injury juggernaut who is opening his fifth office in the state in New London, has turned this tradition of lawyerly historic preservation on its head, defacing one of the more beautiful buildings in the vicinity of downtown, on one of its most gracious intersections, with big billboard-like bright green signs on two sides of the building.

Jonathan Perkins, who recently bought the building at 164 Hempstead St., at the corner of Broad Street, for $540,000 and took out a permit for the signs, which went up even before the first employees of Jonathan Perkins Injury Lawyers have moved into the building.

Paperwork filed with the city shows the Perkins firm will occupy one office in a corner of the first floor. The rest of the space has long been leased to other lawyers.

The city’s zoning enforcement officer, who signed off on the sign application, was on vacation last week but left word at City Hall that she has fielded complaints about the new signs and will review the situation when she gets back.

The officer’s final decision ultimately is subject to appeal to the Zoning Board of Appeals. And yet it appears the signs meet the size allowances for a commercial zone, which is where the building is located.

Perkins, when I caught up to him this past week, assured me the signs are legally compliant. When I raised the complaints about their unsightly appearance, he attributed some of the grumbling to his local legal competitors.

He said people will get used to the signs.

“It is almost impossible to satisfy everyone’s personal preferences,” he told me.

Sorry, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to suggest that bright green billboard-like signs on a house on the National Register of Historic Places are not in good taste.

The 1905 Colonial Revival building at 164 Hempstead is a contributing part of the Williams Memorial Park Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places. It is directly across the street from the park, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, and across the street corner from the impressive granite Gothic Revival Second Congregational Church.

This is the way 164 Hempstead is described on the 1987 National Register nomination: “The classical detailing, including a Palladian window in the projecting central bay, Ionic pilasters, fluted columns, turned balusters, bow windows, and swags, makes it an impressive representation of the style in the district and the city.”

One written complaint about the sign was filed by Avner Gregory, who lives two blocks away and has restored many buildings in the neighborhood.

Gregory, when I talked with him, had a lot of unflattering things to say about the kind of law the new firm practices, but mostly he was appalled by the signs. It’s how New London slowly loses its charm and historic character, drip by drip, he lamented.

Gregory says he believes rules about signs on building rooftops might apply here, given that the lawyer’s sign is built on top of the porch roof. That will require a call by the zoning enforcement officer.

Meanwhile, there are a couple of lessons here. One is that the city needs to create a system of rules for its historic districts and enforce them. The other is, if you are looking for a lawyer, you should go truly local and choose among those with obvious civic pride.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

d.collins@theday.com

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