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A preservation plan and new events at the Monte Cristo Cottage

By Kristina Dorsey

Publication: The Day

Published 02/01/2013 12:00 AM
Updated 01/31/2013 04:07 PM
O'Neill studies preserving Monte Cristo and hosts events there

It could be a new era for the Monte Cristo Cottage.

The Eugene O'Neill Theater Center, which owns and operates the cottage, is focusing in new ways on this boyhood summer home of playwright Eugene O'Neill.

It is hiring a company to develop a plan to rehabilitate and preserve the cottage.

And it is opening the building for new, free "First Friday @ the Cottage" events.

Jeremy E. Ladyga, the O'Neill's director of institutional development, describes the Monte Cristo Cottage as "one of the cultural gems of southeastern Connecticut."

"As the O'Neill is approaching its 50th anniversary (next year), it's important for us organizationally and historically to do right by the cottage," he says.

In the past, he says, the center hasn't had the resources to bring the cottage "back to a place it truly belongs."

The Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation recently gave the O'Neill Center a $10,000 grant to develop a plan to preserve the 1840s cottage. The O'Neill is matching that total, which should more or less cover the cost of the study.

The group that is developing the plan - which Ladyga says will give the center a roadmap to prioritize improvements - is Building Conservation Associates (BCA). BCA is a consulting and research firm practicing preservation design, conditions assessments, materials science and historic building documentation.

In the past, it has worked on such hallowed buildings as Carnegie Hall, Radio City Music Hall and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It has offices in New York City, Philadelphia and Dedham, Mass.

BCA president Ray Pepi says a team will start its physical assessment of the Monte Cristo Cottage today, weather permitting.

They will first take photos to establish a record of the structure's present state. BCA will assemble that into a database and then return to look at the site in greater detail.

The BCA team uses various means to study buildings in nondestructive ways. They might, for instance, use special heavy plastic mallets to gently tap on the plaster walls to hear where any hollow spots are and whether the surface is detached from the support.

If they want to see inside a wall, they can insert a narrow probe, and the camera can see inside the wall cavity.

Ultimately, BCA will assign a condition to each material in various parts of the cottage and will make recommendations on what the O'Neill might do.

Pepi says it's a balancing act to treat a historic building without having it lose its character.

For instance, if there is a rotted window sill, they could inject it with low-viscosity resins to strengthen the wood and give it its structure back. Or they could rip out the rotted piece and replace it with a facsimile.

"But our approach typically is to conserve every bit of the historic material we possibly can," Pepi says.

BCA also will come up with a cost estimate for the preservation works it recommends, which will probably be carried out by another firm. Pepi says, "If it's a cosmetic repair or it's a very small repair, we're capable of executing all of the recommendations we make on a small scale. But our purpose is not to do the work; it's to design the work."

Eugene O'Neill lived at the cottage on Pequot Avenue during the summers from 1900 to 1917. The building opened to the public in 1982, after curators Sally Pavetti and Lois McDonald coordinated the restoration. The interior has been decorated according to O'Neill's set directions for "Long Day's Journey into Night," his autobiographical drama set there. The cottage is a National Historic Landmark and houses O'Neill artifacts and memorabilia.

"The connection between cultural - literary - significance and the object (meaning the building) has profound implications," Pepi says. "That informs the process as well. We take notice of that and are very sensitive to it."

Even as the O'Neill is studying how to preserve the Monte Cristo Cottage, it is also showcasing it in a new way. The house will be the site for "First Fridays @ the Cottage" every three months, starting tonight.

"At this point, it's a simple, cost-effective way to build awareness of the cottage," Ladyga says.

The center pulled together a group of local supporters in November under the name the Friends of Monte Cristo Cottage. Those are community members who, Ladyga says, "value the cottage, who would like to see things done there, who want to have a hand in helping us in preserving the space ... but also have an interest in seeing programming there."

They helped come up with the concept for First Fridays.

Since O'Neill was an artist and a member of the local community, the center decided to bring in local emerging artists - musicians, writers - to perform at First Fridays.

This Friday, though, will be more of a kickoff event, with the center announcing what will be going on at the cottage. Pepi will be there to discuss the project.

The cottage also will offer tours during First Fridays.

Future First Fridays dates include May 3, Sept. 6 and Dec. 6.

IF YOU GO

What: First Fridays @ the Cottage

Where: Monte Cristo Cottage,

325 Pequot Ave., New London

When: 6-8 tonight

Cost: Free

Contact: Visit theoneill.org or email theaterlives@theoneill.org

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