New London – Three years ago the Thames Club, a venerable institution whose membership for the past 153 years has included a variety of influential eminences and civic luminaries as well as the father of a future Nobel laureate, was on the ropes.

Membership of the private social club – the oldest in Connecticut and the third oldest in New England – had plummeted. Red ink rose on the club’s ledger.

In late 2019, club members began negotiating the sale of the club’s 290 State St. location, eventually agreeing to accept an offer of $600,000 from Newport Financial, an entity represented by club member Richard Dvorak, a Franklin construction contractor and risk manager. In early 2020, COVID-19 hit, pushing the closing date back to June and then September, club chairman Derron Wood said in an interview.

Ultimately the deal fell through, Wood said, although the club was able to keep Newport Financial’s $30,000 deposit, a windfall that proved more than convenient.

Less than two years later, the club is enjoying something of a renaissance, according to Wood, whose tenure as president has surpassed that of many of his predecessors. First elected at the club’s annual meeting in May 2019, he was recently elected for the third time. No annual meeting was held in 2020.

“When I became president, it was like they were saying, ‘Here are the keys to a sinking ship,'” Wood said. “I didn’t know anything.”

The deal with Newport Financial would have allowed the club to write off its debt and lease space in the building for $1 a year in perpetuity, according to Wood.

Dvorak said Newport Financial planned to develop offices on the building’s top floor while the club would have occupied the lower levels, including the basement’s vintage bowling alley.

“In a way, COVID ended up being a blessing,” Wood said. “We had no staff to pay. We basically turned the club into a cold building. We got a low-interest loan, and in a year and a half we cleared our old debt. , repaired the roof and modernized the kitchen.

About 60 club members, three-quarters of pre-pandemic members, resisted during the lockdown, Wood said.

In 2021-22, 18 new and old members have joined or joined the club and four or five more are in the process of joining.

“My goal is to get back to our peak of 150 members, which would be phenomenal,” Wood said, acknowledging that a more realistic goal is “over 100.”

His approach has been to open things up.

The Connecticut Storytelling Center, founded 40 years ago at Connecticut College, now has a third-floor house, as does a local architect who is a member of the club. Flock Theatre, the New London-based theater company Wood founded and serves as executive artistic director, also descended into the club, stocking costumes and equipment and staging rehearsals and plays there.

“Rotary meets here, Kiwanis meets here,” Wood said.

Ann Shapiro, executive director of the Connecticut Storytelling Center, said she learned last summer that the organization would have to leave Connecticut College. Wood, whom Shapiro knew from the Flock Theatre, offered him space at the Thames Club.

“I couldn’t believe my eyes,” she said of the accommodations available – an office, storage space in the attic and a room in the library for the center’s 800-volume storytelling collection.

Being downtown near other arts organizations and “a whole new audience” has been a boon to the center, she said.

As a tenant paying rent, Shapiro was expected to join the club, which she did.

In May, the Thames Club and the Garde Arts Center, located diagonally opposite the club, co-sponsored ‘Building Communities’, featuring authors Millie Devine, the club’s first female paying member; Lottie B. Scott, former chair of the Backus Hospital Board of Trustees; new London restaurateur Rod Cornish; and Frankie Ann Marcille.

“We’ve had over 40 people here, many of them for the first time,” Wood said of a reception at the club that preceded the Guard program.

Wood hopes to increase its membership by bringing in young professionals, including newly hired Electric Boat employees who have moved to the area. It presents the club as a welcoming place that genuinely embraces diversity, which is a requirement of its federal income tax-exempt status as a 501(c)(7). This status also prohibits the club from providing goods and services to the general public or operating a restaurant or bar, for example, as a business.

Membership fees, the schedule of which Wood has simplified, range from as low as $50 per month for those under 30 to $200 per month, depending on the member’s age and proximity to the club where they live. The statutes require that a prospective member be recommended by a current member. For more information, visit the club’s website, thamesclubnewlondon.org.

Another selling point is the club’s reciprocal agreements, which allow members access to some 75 other social clubs across the country, including more than half a dozen in Connecticut, as well as a few foreign countries.

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Formed in 1869, the Thames Club later acquired a residence built on the corner of State and Washington streets in 1838. The house burned down in 1904 and was replaced by the club’s existing house the following year.

In the club’s basement pub, the walls are lined with stacked rows of more than 400 white tiles bearing right-facing black silhouettes of club members dating back to the 1800s.

Is a likeness of James O’Neill, father of playwright Eugene O’Neill, who won four Pulitzer Prizes and the Nobel Prize, among the tiles?

Only in the past decade has this question been answered, according to Wood, who said a concerted effort to locate the elder O’Neill’s figure took place some time after Wood joined the club in 2012. The search focused on a row of tiles that appeared to have no names, only because, it turned out, the names were obscured by a strip of molding holding the tiles in place. square.

Wood credits a former head of the club, Jennifer Spaulding, with raising the tiles, revealing one with “J. O’Neil” written across the bottom.

Misspelling aside, the figure clearly matches James O’Neill’s photographs, Wood said.

“We knew he was a member,” he said. “We thought he must be here somewhere.”

Indeed, Eugene O’Neill’s posthumously published “Long Day’s Journey into Night”, an autobiographical work set in 1912, contains multiple references to the visits the James O’Neill-based character makes to the “club”.

“He (James) would have been a member long before 1912,” said club member Robert Dowling, biographer of Eugene O’Neill who teaches English at Central Connecticut State University and lives in New London. “He would have been a member when it was built in 1905. He had then moved his family to New London. I imagine the silhouette would have been done by then.

In his 2014 book, “Eugene O’Neill: A Life in Four Acts”, Dowling wrote of James O’Neill, in 1915, “His popular appearances at the Crocker House bar and the exclusive Thames Club never ended. arrested, and a few local politicians even tried to convince him to run for mayor.

O’Neill “refused,” Dowling wrote, saying that if he entered politics he would want to run for president, “…and I cannot be president because I was born in Ireland, may God bless him!”

Dowling said another character in “Long Day’s Journey into Night”, a real estate broker named McGuire, is based on a Thames Club member of the same name.

In another tale of silhouette tiles, one of Elisabeth Kienle, a former club manager, is dated “1982” – a decade before Millie Devine, a former bank vice-president and founder of the Southeastern Connecticut Women’s Network, becomes the club’s director. first female member.

According to Brian Haagensen, chairman of the club’s board of directors, Kienle, a powerful presence who used to let members know when it was appropriate to take off their jackets, eventually married a club member and became herself. same member. In a break from practice, his “retroactively” dated tile bears the date of his hire as manager, Haagensen said.

As recently as Friday night, the two-lane bowling alley built by the club’s electric boat was on display. With the exception of the pandemic shutdown, it has been in continuous operation since around 1910.

According to Jim Giordano, the bowling club president.

“It’s like something out of a ‘Bugs Bunny’ movie,” Wood said. “Only certain members know how to unlock it.”

In hopes of preserving such history, the club is setting up a non-profit foundation that can raise money to fund restoration work.

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