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The Mitchell Estate, now the Mitchell College campus, consisted of two primary residences, the Umbrella House and Sunflower Lodge, with associated outbuildings and guest cottages enclosed within a brick wall. These were set on a broad lawn sloping eastwards towards the Thames River. The original buildings were constructed during the Victorian era and reflect the popular styles of the time. The present-day campus has retained most of the original buildings and setting of the estate. Despite the construction of modern buildings within the estate enclosure, the plan is remarkably intact. While alterations, notably artificial siding, have been made to the 19th century buildings, they maintain their basic character.
Mitchell College retains the character of a late 19th century estate owned by a wealthy family. The brick wall which survives around much of the original estate defines it spatially and provides a sense of enclosure. Taking advantage of the natural topography of the site, sloping to the Thames River, the Mitchell family created a compound which combined the sweeping vista of the river and Long Island Sound with privacy and access to their own beachfront and. The Victorian-era houses and outbuildings are located to maximize their view of the water. Their placement also provides a dramatic setting for both the former Sunflower Lodge and the Umbrella House. The irregular arrangement of the buildings and the curving drives, together with the expanse of lawn and use of ornamental trees and shrubs, is a 19th-century plan in which a naturalistic landscape is consciously created. This enduring aesthetic creation has served the college well.
Mitchell College is significant as an early junior college in New England. The junior college movement was a development of the early 20th century, originating in the Middle West and Western United States. Most junior colleges were associated with secondary schools, normal schools, or were reorganized denominational colleges. Local residents, headed by former New London mayor Waldo E. Clarke, began to explore the possibility of establishing a two-year college in New London by 1936. For his doctoral dissertation, Richard P. Saunders agreed with Clarke to study the feasibility of establishing a privately owned and controlled junior college in New London. Mitchell College is a direct result of that dissertation and the efforts of a committee of local residents. At the time of its establishment as New London Junior College in 1938, there were only 12 junior colleges in New England. Saunders served as the first president of the college. The descendants of Alfred and Annie Mitchell conveyed most of the family estate, with a gift of $10,000, to New London Junior College in 1938. Alfred Mitchell Bingham, grandson of Alfred Mitchell, served on the Board of Trustees.
The Mitchells and Binghams were significant in local, state, and national affairs. Alfred Mitchell (1832-1911), the patriarch of the family, lived in Hawaii in the 1850s and early 1860s, supplying whaling ships putting in to Hawaii. Mitchell was a partner in C. A. Williams & Co., which engaged in whaling, sealing, and guano mining. He also was a founder of the Hawaiian Steam Navigation Company, which provided steam-powered freight and passenger service between the Hawaiian Islands. He served briefly in the U.S. Civil War. In 1871 Mitchell married Annie Olivia Tiffany, daughter of Charles L. Tiffany, founder of the Tiffany jewelry company. Income from shares of stock in Tiffany & Co. and other investments were the basis of the family wealth.
Hiram Bingham III, son of a missionary to the Gilbert Islands, married Mitchell's daughter Alfreda. Bingham was a professor of South American history at Yale University and discovered the Incan city of Machu Picchu in 1911. He later served briefly as Governor of Connecticut and as a U.S. Senator from Connecticut.
Alfred Mitchell Bingham, namesake of his grandfather, was a leftist radical in the 1930s. He co-founded the left-wing magazine Common Sense with Selden Rodman in 1932. He later moved to a more centrist position and became a supporter of the New Deal. After the death of Annie Tiffany Mitchell in 1937, Alfred Bingham Mitchell was instrumental in persuading the rest of the family to transfer most of the New London estate to New London Junior College. The concept of the junior college movement, which promised to democratize higher education, was a factor in this decision. Bingham served for years as a member of the Board of Trustees. When Waldo E. Clarke died, Bingham took his place as chairman of the Board of Trustees. His presence on the board linked the college with the Mitchell family and may well have been responsible for the preservation of the estate's appearance.
In addition to being the founding president of New London Junior College (now Mitchell College), Saunders founded Palos Verdes College in 1946. In 1951, he became president of Save the Children Foundation and founded Futures for Children in 1960 and a sister organization in Columbia, Futuro para la Ninez, in 1962. Robert Weller, president of Mitchell College from 1951 until his retirement in 1987, shaped the growth of the college in the post World War II era. Under his leadership, the modern buildings on campus were constructed in the 1960s.
The Mitchell estate was part of an important development in America: the establishment of resort communities of the wealthy. In 1852, New London was linked by railroad to New York. The Pequot Hotel was constructed in the same year on Pequot Avenue, south of the Mitchell campus. Catering to a wealthy clientele from New York, Hartford, and other urban centers, the success of the enterprise led to the construction of rental cottages nearby. In the post Civil War era, wealthy families purchased land in this section of New London and constructed large-scale homes or remodeled existing houses. The resulting settlement became known as the Pequot Colony, of which the Mitchell Estate was a part.
Actor James O'Neill, noted for his performance onstage as the Count of Monte Cristo, purchased and renovated a home on Pequot Avenue in the 1880s, christening it the Monte Cristo Cottage. This home is located north of the campus. American playwright Eugene O'Neill resided here. In 1913, when he wrote his first plays, he lived in a boardinghouse across Pequot Avenue from the present college campus. The Mitchell family estate was part of the neighborhood in which O'Neill grew up and is part of the social milieu in which O'Neill's character was formed.