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Book Review: Buildings of Vermont, Glenn M. Andres and Curtis B. Johnson


If you've ever passed an eye-catching building while driving around Vermont and wondered about its history, you can now consult Buildings of Vermont. The authors of this invaluable resource, Glenn Andres and Curtis Johnson, spent the last 20 years researching the state's built environment.

From an original pool of more than 40,000 buildings listed in the state and national Registers of Historic Places, Andres and Johnson chose 643 notable examples and wrote an encyclopedia-like entry for each. The final product pairs about half of these entries with small black-and-white photographs by Johnson.

The scope of the book — from pre-statehood through today, inclusive of the entire state and every extant style and type of building — makes it the first of its kind. Local historical societies tend to produce histories of the buildings in their respective towns. Other works on Vermont architecture have focused on movements or single cities, such as Janie Cohen's Architectural Improvisation: A History of Vermont's Design/Build Movement 1964-1977; or David Blow and Lilian Baker Carlisle's two-volume Historic Guide to Burlington Neighborhoods.

Andres, who teaches in the art and architectural history department at Middlebury College, realized that Vermont needed a statewide guide when he was studying on a Fulbright scholarship in England in 1987, he recalls in a recent conversation. While there, he encountered Sir Nikolaus Pevsner's series of 46 guidebooks to practically every building in the UK, which Brits used to chart weekend outings.

  • Courtesy of Curtis B. Johnson

On his return, Andres learned a similar idea had already found footing with the Society of Architectural Historians, which planned a series called Buildings of the United States. As he puts it, "The good old boys in the SAH had divvied up the states. Vermont was assigned to a Harvard historian with a summer house in Vermont. But that person never got around to it."

After three years of lobbying, Andres convinced the SAH he should take on the delayed project. He joined forces with Chester H. Liebs — founder of the University of Vermont's historic preservation program, who contributed several entries before moving to Japan — and Johnson, then architectural historian at the Vermont Division for Historic Preservation.

Andres and Johnson persevered with the project through several obstacles. Those included a change of publisher from Oxford University Press to the University of Virginia Press — which required them to cut nearly a third of the book's entries — and a "huge battle" over the cover image. UVP elected to feature a barn in Shoreham amid flowering fields, even though the introduction begins by urging readers to look beyond Vermont's stereotypical image of a barn to recognize the rich variety of its architecture. The authors' choice, a shot of Newfane's courthouse that they believed highlighted the state's tradition of civil democracy, made it to the frontispiece.

Buildings of Vermont is not a coffee-table book. The series, of which Andres and Johnson's book is the 18th, lacked the budget to include photographs on the order of the showstoppers Johnson enlarged for a tandem exhibit called "Observing Vermont Architecture," currently on view at Middlebury College. More's the pity: Johnson took nearly all the book's photos himself, a feature that makes it unique in the series.

Also unique, according to Andres, is the introduction's tracing of broad trends. In Vermont, for example, each town's architecture was influenced by buildings downriver rather than by those in neighboring towns, because settlement patterns followed the watersheds of the Connecticut River and Lake Champlain.

Other trends reverberated nationally. Episcopal churches gained their established Gothic Revival look because of an 1836 treatise on the subject by Vermont's first Episcopal bishop, John Henry Hopkins. The bishop designed examples for Brandon, Burlington and Rutland, and his followers created several more. Eventually, Gothic Revival became synonymous with ecclesiastic, and the look spread to Congregational and Catholic churches.

Readers unsure of what Gothic Revival is needn't worry. Buildings of Vermont's audience is not limited to architecture authorities. The authors provide a helpful glossary indicating, for example, what to call the ornately carved trim on the eaves of the Morrill Homestead in Strafford (bargeboard), and they write in accessible, narrative styles. Andres focuses on buildings in architectural high styles, such as Romanesque and International; Johnson takes on the vernacular structures, which include barns, country stores and tourist cabins.

Andres and Johnson's research turned up fascinating connections. Grasse Mount (1804) in Burlington, for example, is deemed "the most conceptually sophisticated extant example of Federal domestic architecture in Vermont," despite the Greek Revival porticos added in the 1820s and the Italianate belvedere from the 1850s. That sophistication goes deeper than previously thought: Andres discovered that the house's original plan likely came from Charles Bulfinch, the Boston architect who served as commissioner of public buildings in Washington, D.C.

Bulfinch's houses in Boston and Salem, Mass., built between 1794 and 1804, are "the only place that one can find the entire set of details and compositional themes present in Grasse Mount," the entry asserts. The house's original owner clearly aspired to "emulate the culture of New England's great centers."

Johnson uncovered a trove of detailed records at Warden Farm in Barnet, a farmstead with a history of continuous inheritance since 1785. Scottish immigrant William Warden paid "Ninety-five Spanish Milled Dollars" for the land that year, and each subsequent generation left "a record of ... agricultural practice in stone walls, tree lines, and barbed wire," the entry reads. Thus Horace Warden's 1909 shed-roofed addition to the barn marked the moment when "fluid milk replaced butter as the cash product for dairy farmers."

Andres and Johnson's research went on so long that some of their case studies have disappeared. The charming, columned Greek Revival house in Bristol Flats by Bristol master builder Eastman Case (circa 1850) was recently dismantled and re-erected on private property in Essex, N.Y. Nonetheless, the authors chose to keep the entry.

Of course, the built environment changes continually. Buildings of Vermont, as Andres and Johnson write, can offer only "a start" when it comes to surveying the wealth of structures inside state borders and placing them in a national context. But their efforts will undoubtedly help Vermont preserve its already well-stewarded built heritage. As the authors point out, "Buildings become important to their public when something is known about them."

Buildings of Vermont by Glenn M. Andres and Curtis B. Johnson, University of Virginia Press, 481 pages. $76.50.