This row of buildings is unique. The four
(nearly identical) houses were built between 1835 and 1845, and are fine
examples of the Greek Revival Style. Ezra Chappel built them on
speculation. The original purchasers were Thomas Williams, who owned ten
whale ships; Enoch Stoddard, who owned two whale ships; Elisha North, a
physician; and William Chapman, a merchant. The residents of New London
have dubbed them Whale Oil Row due to the fact that the owners’ wealth
stemmed from whaling. In the mid-nineteenth century New London had a
thriving, lucrative whaling industry surpassed only by New Bedford and
In O’Neill’s youth, elderly New Londoners lived with memories of the city’s past glory. Whale Oil Row was a familiar place to the young writer and wandering by the elegant houses he probably asked himself what secrets were hidden within.
Huntington Street with Whale Oil Row on the right, c. 1880
He might have been thinking of these New London mansions when writing the trilogy Mourning Becomes Electra, his New England tragedy set in the aftermath of the Civil War. His setting for Homecoming, the first play in the cycle, may evoke Whale Oil Row. "Act One. Scene. Exterior of the Mannon house on a late afternoon in April, 1865...Behind the drive the white Grecian temple portico with its six tall columns extends across the stage...The white columns cast black bars of shadow on the gray wall behind them. The windows of the lower storey reflect the sun’s rays in a resentful glare. The temple portico is like an incongruous white mask fixed on the house to hide its somber grey ugliness" (Collected Plays, 822-3).
It should not be surprising that O’Neill was able to create a convincing portrait of Reconstruction era New England, more survived from the period than its Greek Revival architecture. In his youth there were many living Civil War veterans, and they enjoyed reminiscing about their wartime experiences.
© Copyright 1999-2007 eOneill.com