At first, life in Old Lyme revolved around the sea. Its industries were fishing, shipbuilding, and salt-making. Like many Connecticut river towns it became known as a home of wealthy clipper ship captains who sailed to the Far East and the West Indies trading in exotic (and, it was whispered, human) cargo.
Today you can see their legacy in the distinguished homes on Lyme Street (the town’s main road) that make up the Old Lyme Historic District. Old Lyme is worth checking out simply for its pristine old-fashioned appearance, but the main draw here is art. Museums, schools, and galleries fill Lyme Street, offering a concentration of framed and sculpted beauty in an equally beautiful natural setting.
The best-known of these is the Florence Griswold Museum, really several museums spread out across the attractive grounds. Florence Griswold was the daughter of a ship’s captain from one of the earliest families of settlers. When business declined with the Civil War and the advent of steam-powered ships, the family began taking in boarders. In the late 1890s, with just Florence left at home, the place became an artists’ colony. Florence continued to welcome an eclectic group of painters, and cemented the arty character of the town.
At the impressive 1817 Griswold House, where the artists stayed, docents relate the history of the furniture in lovingly staged bedrooms and the artwork in the halls. Make sure to find out about the whimsically painted door panels and artists’ shenanigans (e.g., their stealthy disposal of all but two of Florence’s many cats.) In the airy rooms of the Krieble Gallery are changing exhibits of American art including, though not limited to, the Impressionists of the Colony. Many of the landscapes depicted are local. There’s also a lovely museum shop, stocked with great gifts for all ages, many of them art-inspired.
Behind the buildings are the lush gardens, where herbs and flowers have been arranged to resemble those that Florence Griswold once planted. This summer you can also catch a temporary outdoor installation, The Rambles, created from woven native saplings. You can also walk down to the sleepy Lieutenant River. Long after shipping ceased to be the town’s main focus, the artists who flocked here still faced the water, painting this unspoiled scene.
Other buildings include an original barn which on weekends from June through October houses the museum’s eatery, Café Flo. The preserved studio of William Chadwick, originally located at his home nearby, gives a charming peek into an Old Lyme artist’s working life.
You could spend hours at the Griswold, so what you do next depends on how much time you have. Right next door is the Lyme Art Association, a school and gallery with several pleasant rooms full of paintings and sculptures. The Association was opened in 1921 as an exhibition space for the artists of the Colony. Today they hold classes and workshops, and put on multiple shows a year featuring the work of professionals and students. Walk through the juried exhibitions and decide which paintings you think should win. (The Lyme Academy College of Fine Arts, a nationally accredited institution just down the road, also showcases the work of students.)
Also on Lyme Street, between the Griswold Museum and the oft-painted First Congregational Church, is the Cooley Gallery, located in a custard-yellow house. Art is sold here, but it’s also displayed; paintings ranging from 19th century to contemporary line the walls of the first and second floors. It’s a little like walking unannounced into someone’s home and checking out their collection, which just happens to be unusually good. (More galleries are close by, as are many of the town’s unique shops and restaurants.)
Whether or not you buy any of the pieces for sale in Old Lyme, you’ll come away with an appreciation of how artists work and a memory of a picture-perfect day.
IF YOU GO
Florence Griswold Museum
96 Lyme Street
Tues – Sat, 10am – 5pm; Sun, 1pm – 5pmAdults $9, Seniors $8, Students $7, Kids 12 and under, Free
Lyme Art Association
90 Lyme Street
Tues – Sat, 10am – 5pm; Sun, 1pm – 5pm
25 Lyme Street
Tues – Sat, 10am – 5pm