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Books: 'Intimate Grandeur,' a Chronicle of Vermont's Statehouse


Published October 28, 2015 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated October 29, 2015 at 9:58 a.m.

Intimate Grandeur: Vermont's State House by Nancy Price Graff with David Schutz, Friends of the Vermont State House, 120 pages. $24.95.
  • Intimate Grandeur: Vermont's State House by Nancy Price Graff with David Schutz, Friends of the Vermont State House, 120 pages. $24.95.

The Vermont Statehouse stands as "a repository for and expression of our history as a state and a people," observes former Vermont Life editor Tom Slayton in a foreword to a new book on the building's past and present. Author Nancy Price Graff's account shows that Vermonters can take pride not only in the statehouse's appearance but in much of what has transpired inside it.

Both the legislative and aesthetic aspects of the building's history are examined in Intimate Grandeur: Vermont's State House, composed with the assistance of state curator David Schutz. The 120-page book, published by Friends of the Vermont State House, includes historical prints and contemporary photos by Seven Days contributor Jeb Wallace-Brodeur.

An epigram attributed to Schutz is the source of the book's title. As Slayton notes in his foreword, the statehouse is at once modest in scale and grand in ambition. That combination makes Vermont's most important edifice a metaphor in stone for the state's approach to self-governance. "It's hard to hide in this little building," Slayton writes. "Its size tacitly encourages open government."

The current edifice is actually the third to serve as the home of the state legislature. The first, an unimposing wooden structure, went up in 1808. It was replaced 30 years later by a larger granite building that proved to have an even briefer lifespan than that of New York's World Trade Center. The second statehouse was destroyed by fire in 1857 — 19 years after its completion.

The process of replacing the burned building proved to be an ugly affair, Graff relates. A political tussle broke out between Thomas Powers, superintendent of construction for the third statehouse, and Boston-based architect Thomas Silloway, who sought to travel to Montpelier to oversee installation of the 100-ton dome and its intricate supports. Powers, a former speaker of the Vermont House, insisted he had the chops for the oversight role and denied Silloway permission to take on that task. Silloway protested, and Powers responded by hiring another architect to finish the job.

The public dust-up "was a scandal of the first order, an embarrassment to state officials and no doubt a source of head shaking by the residents of Vermont," Graff writes.

An investigative committee appointed by the legislature issued a report critical of Power and favorable toward Silloway. Lawmakers subsequently decreed that Silloway would be identified as the official architect of the building, though it does not fulfill his aesthetic intentions.

The statehouse's look may qualify as "elegant," in Slayton's description. But if Silloway had been allowed to finish his work, "the interior decoration would probably have been as restrained as that of the exterior," Graff suggests. As it was, however, Silloway's replacement, Joseph Richards, "was free to indulge his penchant for the frills of the Renaissance Revival style," which was characterized by heavy, ornate detailing.

The lavish House chamber has also been the scene of foul spectacle.

Beginning in 1915, legislators staged weekly entertainments as diversions from Montpelier's long winter. Most revues presented during these so-called Farmers' Nights were harmless enough, but on at least one occasion in the 1930s, the elected representatives of one of the whitest states in the Union put on a blackface minstrel show, Graff notes.

Many splendid elements do grace the statehouse rooms. Probably the best known — and most admired — is the large-scale painting titled "The Battle of Cedar Creek" completed in 1874 by wounded Civil War veteran Julian Scott.

Also familiar to visitors is the stately portrait of George Washington that now hangs above the well of the House chamber. Executed in 1837 by George Gassner, it was among the many items rescued from the fire that destroyed the second statehouse in 1857. The Doric columns supporting the current building's portico are the sole exterior survivors of that blaze.

The statue atop the golden dome, probably the statehouse's most emblematic feature, has a story that's nearly as distressing as the tale of the Powers-Silloway smackdown.

In 1858, sculptor Larkin Mead designed a 19-foot-tall wooden figure that quickly became known as "Ceres," the Roman goddess of plenty, even though Mead had named it "Agriculture." His dome topper was meant to signify the state's status as a peaceful agrarian society.

A succession of 80 Vermont winters rotted the statue, so the legislature decided in the 1930s that it should be replaced.

Sergeant at Arms Dwight Dwinell argued persuasively, however, that the cost of creating something as striking as Mead's original would exceed the frugal state's resources. Dwinell, who had been trained as a woodworker, offered to carve the head of a new version of "Agriculture," while two janitors were charged with carving the body.

The head Dwinell created is "too small for the body," Graff observes. "The once-delicate drapery hangs heavily and the face lacks refinement. It is folk art, not fine art," she concludes.

A restoration initiated in the 1980s did not recreate the original "Agriculture," but it did eliminate many of the additions that had cluttered the building's interior. Arthur Williams, the founding director of the Vermont Arts Council, joined art historian Daniel Robbins in planning the restoration. "The wisdom of their crusade to restore the State House is now evident to all who enter the building," Graff writes in a coda. It is for that reason, she adds, that Intimate Grandeur is dedicated to Williams and Robbins.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Grandeur and Bumpy History:A Chronicle of Vermont's Statehouse"