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New London's Garde Arts Center named 2022's Outstanding Historic Theatre

The award is based on the theatre's historic and current cultural achievements

New London’s Garde Arts Center has been recognized by the League of Historic American Theatres with the 2022 Outstanding Historic Theatre award. The award was presented at the league’s 46th annual conference in Cleveland on Sunday, July 10. 

Each year, the league's Awards Program inspires excellence by recognizing theatres and individuals for their significant accomplishments and distinguished services to the field. The Garde’s award is one of two presented each year. 

The Outstanding Historic Theatre Award recognizes a theatre that demonstrates excellence through its community impact, quality of programs and services, and quality of the restoration or rehabilitation of its historic structure. The Garde was recognized for demonstrating excellence through significant achievement, the impact of its services and breadth of populations served, and the length of time and/or intensity of its activities.

“This award acknowledges the passion, persistence, and resourcefulness of a city and a region determined to save its historic downtown movie palace and reinvigorate it with contemporary programs, community participation, and architectural preservation,” Executive Director Steve Sigel said. 

Sigel and his wife, Jeanne, who serves as the Garde’s marketing and development director, were part of a coalition of Connecticut’s independent theaters that worked together to sustain each other’s success and advocate for state and federal aid during the pandemic. 

The Garde Arts Center is a nonprofit performing arts organization that was founded in 1985 to save and repurpose the historic Garde Theatre, one of the few remaining movie palaces in Connecticut. Built in 1926 during the golden era of motion pictures and vaudeville theatres, the recently restored Moroccan interior of the Garde, along with its new seats and state-of-the-art stage equipment, provide an audience-friendly venue in a warm and beautiful atmosphere. 

The center has since become an “arts block” of historic buildings that are currently being transformed into a multi-space center for arts, education, commerce, and community events. The four-story Garde Office Building, one of the most desired professional and commercial buildings in New London, now features expanded lobbies, box office space, and a 130-seat performance and function hall called the Oasis Room. 

The three-story Mercer Building houses offices for Garde administration, classrooms for ISAAC, the neighboring charter middle school, and a historic function hall that is slated to become a performance space. The one-story Meridian Building houses commercial and nonprofit businesses, as well as stage support space. 
The oldest building on the block is the cottage at 345 State St. Built in 1920 by Connecticut Power, the building currently houses Title IX, an independent satellite book store operated by Bank Square Books.

The Garde, Meridian, and Mercer buildings were all built between 1924 and 1926 on the site of the baronial mansion of whaling merchant William Williams. The Garde Theatre sits on a portion of the Williams estate that was purchased from the Williams family by Theodore Bodenwein, the founder of The Day newspaper. The newspaper magnate sold the land to the new theatre developers so that something would be built “for the good of New London.”

Named after Walter Garde, a Hartford and New London businessman, the Garde Theatre opened on Sept. 22, 1926, with the silent film “The Marriage Clause,” starring matinee idols Francis X. Bushman and Billie Dove. The Garde was hailed by the press at the time as “one of the finest theatres in New England.” 

For decades, the Garde Theatre played a central role in the community life of New London and Southeastern Connecticut. Its ornate Moroccan interior, giant screen, and marvelous acoustics ensured that Warner Bros., who purchased the Garde for $1 million in 1929, would maintain it as one of the region’s most stunning and viable movie theaters. 

In 1977, the Garde closed due to declining attendance. In 1978, it was sold to Robertson Paper Box Company, a locally owned business that, after attempting to operate the theater regularly, sold the building to the newly created Garde Arts Center in 1985. 

The Garde hired its first executive director, Sigel, in 1988, and began presenting a full spectrum of performing arts series: dance, musical theatre, contemporary music, and family events. Notable performances from that period include Marvin Hamlisch, Itzhak Perlman, Johnny Cash, Tony Bennett, The London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas, and two sold-out concerts by Bob Dylan.

In 1988, the state of Connecticut awarded the center $750,000 to replace the theatre’s heating and air-conditioning system, the first of several major facility grants three successive governors shepherded for the Garde. 

The Mercer and Meridian buildings were purchased in 1993. In the summer of 1994, movies were added to the Garde’s live programming. That year also began a more than $15 million fundraising effort (Campaign for the Garde 2000) to restore and expand the theatre. In October 1998, the Garde Theatre opened with new lobbies and storefronts and a year later opened with its interior restored. 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Garde did more than keep the community entertained. Its marquee, which can be rented for personal messages, also made critical announcements about vaccines and testing. 

The Garde is currently hosting summer theater for children and more. For more information on all upcoming events, visit