Roger Tory Peterson Estuary Center Plans Purchase of Bee and Thistle Inn in Old Lyme

OLD LYME — The iconic Bee and Thistle Inn, known over the years as a destination restaurant, cozy watering hole, wedding venue and getaway bed and breakfast, will soon be transformed into the Roger Tory Peterson Estuary Center, a nature and education organization that is part of the Connecticut Audubon Society, if the plans get the go-ahead this fall.

Claudia Weicker, Roger Tory Peterson’s board chair, said Monday in an interview with CT Examiner that she expects the center will close on the property before the end of 2020. Phased renovations within the existing historic footprint are expected to last from 24 to 36 months.

A 1.12-acre parcel at 314 Ferry Road previously purchased by the nonprofit in 2019 for $199,000 to serve a similar purpose, will be put back on the market.

The environmental nonprofit is organizing an ambitious two-year campaign to raise $5.6 million for the purchase of the inn and to endow funds for maintenance and operations. 

Grounds behind the Bee and Thistle along the Lieutenant River (CT Examiner/Stroud)

Weicker said the purchase of the property will provide a welcoming green space for the public on the Lieutenant River.

“Even though the Bee is transitioning to a new phase, it will remain part of the community and we’re really happy to be able to do that. It’s not going to be an exclusive property. It’s going to remain part of the greater Lyme-Old Lyme community,” she explained.

The 10,000 square foot inn was built in 1756 on the 5.25-acre site at 100 Lyme St., now adjacent to the National Landmark Florence Griswold House and Museum, in the town’s historic district. The inn was last purchased in 2006 by Two Jacks LLC for $1.575 million.

“Our plan is to phase in renovations to address those issues which are most urgent in the first several months after closing and then to reach more of our aspirational goals over a three year period,” said Weicker, who described the project as a preservation effort of the structure.

View up the Lieutenant River behind the Bee and Thistle Inn (CT Examiner/Stroud)

Weicker said the organization’s new home will allow the center to provide an afterschool program, a science-based summer camp for children, a discovery room for younger children, and more workshops, especially for adults. The center will also be able to add more citizen science training and masterclass programs, and increase participation in the Student Opportunities Academic Research (SOAR) program.

In addition, Weicker said the nonprofit hopes to work collaboratively with the Florence Griswold Museum 

“We’ll have the flexibility to grow our programs over time so that it’s a logical progression for our organization to build on. Our base is education, science and nature,” she said. 

On the aspirational list is also the addition of a scientist-in-residence program as well as the construction of a nature trail linking to the one at the Florence Griswold Museum next door. 

Claudia Weicker, board chair of the RTP Estuary Center (CT Examiner/Stroud)

Weicker described the juxtaposition of art and science as a return to roots of the Old Lyme Art Colony and the nature and beauty of the area. 

“We see a lot of opportunities there for future collaboration with the museum and other organizations,” she said. “It really goes back to what the community is all about. Eventually, with our plans, there will be rain gardens, pollinator gardens and hopefully an organic garden— all of which lend themselves to teaching multiple opportunities for all ages, children and adults.” 

Along with preserving the structure, Weicker said that an interior public assembly room would take the place of the kitchen, which currently blocks the view of the river.

Alisha Milardo, director of the RTP Estuary Center (CT Examiner/Stroud)

According to Weicker, an architect has not yet been chosen for the project.

Alisha Milardo, director of the center, said the move will be transformative for the organization in terms of flexibility. 

“Now we’ll be able to have all of the community there, the students and the adults. They can help out with the garden, we can watch the flow rate of the Lieutenant River, we can talk about the resiliency options,” she said. 

Although Milardo admitted that the loss of the inn was bittersweet, she said that the center’s public mission and new public access to the grounds would give the community a great deal in return.

“We’re losing an inn, but we’re gaining a community space,” said Milardo.

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