Taking Stock of Vermont’s Architecture
"Buildings of Vermont" by Glenn M. Andres and Curtis B. Johnson
"Vermont's Elusive Architect: George H. Guernsey," compiled by The Historical Society of Bethel, Vt.
For a state that’s defined as much by its small villages and civic cohesiveness as it is by its green hills, Vermont gets only modest notice for its architecture.
Or maybe it’s because of those small villages with their white churches and brick commercial blocks that Vermont’s building are overlooked. Residents get to know them, but for people who aren’t immersed in the state, it’s all too easy to perceive a sort of cookie-cutter aspect to the built landscape.
Thankfully, pretty much every time someone tries to knock down a significant building, a knowledgeable citizen pops up to protest. Hartford’s soon to be renovated municipal building comes to mind.
Aside from town histories, there aren’t many thorough surveys of Vermont architecture. A pair of recent books show two very different directions for future cataloging of the state’s treasured structures.
Buildings of Vermont, by Glenn Andres, a Middlebury College art history professor, and Curtis B. Johnson, an architectural historian and photographer, is a broad, thorough look at the state’s buildings.
An unrelated book, published around the same time, is a survey of buildings designed by George H. Guernsey, a prominent Vermont architect of the late 19th century. Vermont’s Elusive Architect is a livelier, more colorful work than Buildings of Vermont, and is the work of the Bethel Historical Society.
“Knowledge of Vermont’s architecture is not widespread,” Andres and Johnson wrote in their acknowledgments. Buildings of Vermont, which is part of the Buildings of the United States series sponsored by the Society of Architectural Historians, isn’t meant to be a comprehensive work. Instead, it’s “a progress report in what the authors hope will be an ongoing scholarly inquiry into Vermont’s built past and a stimulus to efforts to conserve the state’s remarkable architectural wealth for future generations.”
Still, Buildings of Vermont is a book for grazing, rather than traversing from one end to the other. Arranged by county, the book consists of short entries about hundreds of buildings and a handful of short sidebars on particular towns and features of the landscape, for example worker housing or hilltown centers. The index is easy to read and helpful in discovering the book’s many strengths, as well as its few weaknesses.
The index breaks out the works of notable architects, including the likes of H.H. Richardson, who didn’t design many Vermont buildings but whose work elsewhere was hugely influential, and Ammi B. Young, whose firm designed a heap of important buildings, including the second Statehouse and many prominent structures in the Upper Valley. The index also breaks down buildings by type: commercial, residential, industrial, libraries, post offices and so on.
For a book that’s largely about the architecture of the past, the title Buildings of Vermont seems oddly neutral. A more realistic title might be Mostly Older Buildings of Vermont.
Indeed, the volume seems oddly bare of buildings erected after World War II. There isn’t a single 1950s or 1960s supermarket in the entire book, for example. Are there no such buildings that are historically significant, or is it too early to say?
The newer buildings mentioned in the book are mainly institutional, including a new library wing at Middlebury College, and the college’s Center for the Arts, completed in 1992. The latter was widely considered a post-modern folly when it opened, characterized by its lofty, chaotic and wasted space and Andres’ dry description of it hews to the institutional line without crossing it into praise.
It’s interesting how the new buildings are institutional rather than private developments for business or industry. The book doesn’t talk much about recent social history, but it’s a sign of where the state’s money is.
Andres and Johnson do particularly well to situate the buildings in historical context. Here’s an example from a sidebar on Randolph village:
“The buildings erected during the prosperous years between 1850 and 1910 still define Randolph as a railroad village. The passenger and freight depots and coal pocket are here, as well as the small, brick, trackside Randolph National Bank building,” the authors write. “Altogether,” they add, “Randolph is perhaps the best-preserved Victorian railroad village in Vermont, although Bethel, South Royalton, and Lyndonville are all in some measures its rivals.”
What the book lacks is some visual punch. A recent exhibition of Johnson’s fine, formal black and white photographs of Vermont buildings at Middlebury College Museum of Art was a helpful window into the state’s architectural history. In the book, Johnson’s photographs are tiny, and have relatively little impact.
The opposite is true of Vermont’s Elusive Architect, which is full of visual appeal in the form of photographs, vintage postcards and other historical elements.
The Bethel Historical Society started researching Guernsey during the rehabilitation of the Bethel Town Hall a few years ago. Guernsey designed the town hall, which was completed in January 1893.
Guernsey’s parents were from New Hampshire, but he was born and raised in Vermont and was living in Montpelier when he designed the town hall, wrote Janet Hayward Burnham and Heidi Boepple Nikolaidis, who edited Vermont’s Elusive Architect. The title refers to how thin the record is of Guernsey’s life and work. Even though many of the buildings he designed were public, including town halls, churches and business blocks, little documentation exists about Guernsey.
His stamp on the Upper Valley, particularly in the White River Valley and Orange County, is undeniable. In addition to Bethel Town Hall, he designed South Royalton’s brick business block, which was erected in 1887 after a devastating fire, South Royalton’s first centralized school, in 1892, which is now part of Vermont Law School, the Woods School in Bradford in 1894 and the Quechee railroad bridge, which spanned Quechee Gorge. He was also a prominent designer of churches around the state.
Guernsey worked 32 years and died in 1900. The Bethel Historical Society’s colorful book about his life and work is a fitting tribute.
Alex Hanson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3219.