Published January 17. 2013 4:00AM Updated January 18. 2013 12:01AM
Margaret Erickson, who grew up in Deep River, has always loved history, especially Fort Griswold in Groton.
But when the former quality control inspector moved into the Mohican Senior Apartments on State Street 13 years ago, her fascination with old things turned toward the 11-story building she calls home.
"When I first got here, I knew little about the building,'' said Erickson, who had polio as a child and is now confined to a wheelchair. "Then I started looking into its history."
Today, she and fellow resident Ronald Gaska know every nook and cranny of building, which was designed by architect William B. Tuthill in 1897, who also designed Carnegie Hall in New York City. He was hired by Frank Munsey, a New York publisher and millionaire, to design a building that would house the presses for his New York publishing company.
But following troubles with union workers, the building was retrofitted and opened as a hotel in 1898. It was briefly converted to a department store called Mohican Dry Goods, but eventually was returned to a hotel. Two new stories were added and a roof garden, which brought the building to 11 stories and 165 feet tall.
Gaska, who has lived in Mohican for 16 years, is also confined to a wheelchair following a car accident. But the limited mobility of these two friends does not deter them from pursing their passion.
"We consider ourselves the building keepers,'' Gaska said.
Together they search out memorabilia that shows the glory days of the building, when the hotel offered steam heat, electric lights, two-passenger elevators and the cost for an overnight stay started at $1. They have stories from the basement to the ballroom on the top floor with its open terrace and sweeping views of every corner of New London.
The building was turned into senior apartments in the 1980s
Erickson has a dinner plate from the former hotel restaurant hanging in her fourth-floor apartment that overlooks State Street. She has an old room key on a leather tag and a silver teapot, which another resident of the building who used to work at the hotel restaurant confirmed was real.
Gaska grabbed a few bricks from the original foundation several years ago when some excavation work was being done in the back.
Erickson has scoured eBay looking for items related to the hotel and has accumulated some things in a three-ring binder.
There's a book of matches that advertises a hotel lunch for 65 cents and dinner for 95 cents. She also has a booklet, published around 1920, that lists the amenities of the hotel, where "service begins when you drive up."
The 15-page booklet features interior photographs of the lobby, main dining room, cafeteria and a typical suite of guest rooms. There is also a two-page "airplane view" of New London that shows the hotel and hundreds of buildings downtown that were lost to redevelopment in the 1960s and 1970s.
There is also a list of "points of interest in and about New London'' and directions, either by walking, trolly or automobile.
Ocean Beach Park is described as a trolley ride away or a pleasant car ride through the residential section of the city. Connecticut College as accessible by following the "car tracks on Williams Street, north to Mohegan Avenue." The U.S. Coast Guard Academy was located at the time at Fort Trumbull. The Nathan Hale Schoolhouse was in the "Ancient Burial Ground" off Hempstead Street, where it had been relocated from its original site on Union Street. Today the schoolhouse sits at foot of State Street.
Erickson is also interested in the role the hotel building played in people's lives. The ballroom was used for dance lessons, weddings and formal occasions such as balls. And many a young couple spent their honeymoon night at the Mohican.
Erikson has a letter written in 1942 on hotel stationary from a Brookline, Mass. woman named Francis, who stayed at the Mohican while attending her beau's graduation at the Coast Guard Academy and the formal dance that followed.
"I'm at the gorgeous Munsey Building, or the Mohican Hotel,'' Francis wrote to her friend Better Hasner, pointing out the stationary which featured a picture of the hotel.
Erickson also has a check for L. Fisher and family, who stayed at the hotel in 1963, paying $20 for a room.
"I'm trying to gather information about the people,'' she said. "It's not just the building. It's the people, too."
And she's rewriting a reference directory of newspaper stories and advertising.
"It's a labor of love,'' Erickson said. "I love this building. Everyday I'm grateful to Mr. Munsey.''