Between an excellent breakfast at The Skinny Pancake one morning and an equally rewarding dinner at Leunig’s Bistro the following evening, I had ample time to amble around Burlington, Vermont. Along paths and sidewalks blanketed with autumn’s detritus of fallen yellow and crimson leaves, I strolled into the heart of the town, watching V-shaped flocks of geese heading south. Rising from the eastern shore of Lake Champlain, Burlington has the state’s largest airport and its largest hospital, and in 2015 it became the first U.S. city to be run entirely on renewable energy. Its history dates back to 1763, and by 1869 it had become the third-largest lumber port in the United States — an achievement that enabled the prosperous city to erect some striking structures. These are my favorites.
#1 Richardson Building
Right at the head of the Church Street Marketplace, the corner-lot Richardson Building makes an impressive introduction to the open-air, pedestrian-only, brick-paved stretch of shops and restaurants, Burlington’s hive of social activity. This formidable four-and-a-half-story structure went up in 1895 for $50,000, with retail space on the lower levels and apartments on the upper floors. Nearly a century later, it won an award for “significant contribution to the physical or architectural quality of downtown Burlington,” and it became a key component of the Head of Church Historic District. Described as “Scoto-French,” its style combines Scottish baronial revival and French Chateauesque. The main façade of the brick building, facing west on Church Street, features five round fenestrated towers with arrow-slit windows at the top dividing the main window bays (including a column of slender oval windows), each one capped by a shingled conical roof topped with a finial. All of the iron balconies sport a capital R in their center. In 1911, the retail space became Abernethy’s Department Store, the largest such store in the city. Those iron Rs were replaced by As to note the change. It operated as such until 1982, when new retail stores moved in, the apartments were converted into office spaces, and the Rs were restored. Despite its change of owners over the past 125 years, the Richardson has always remained the street’s handsome anchor.
#2 Williams Hall
Visiting college campuses is always a fun diversion. I never know what I’ll discover, like the wonderful trio of the botanical garden, Japanese garden, and Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, a gorgeous backdrop for the University of Montana, Missoula, or simply the utopian campus at the University of Colorado, Boulder. In Burlington, the University of Vermont establishes a very viable presence in the city, just about a half-dozen blocks from Church Street Marketplace. Chartered in 1791 (the same year Vermont became a state), UVM was established as the fifth college in New England, right after powerhouses Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, and Brown. Marching down University Place, a collection of impressive buildings fronts the gently sloping University Green, an inviting open space of trees, grass, benches, statues, flowerbeds, and fountains. Williams Hall is arguably the most beautiful (at least I thought so), but it has some serious competition. Originally a science building, Williams Hall was erected in 1896 as the first fireproof building on a U.S. college campus, with 9”-thick concrete floors, iron and steel staircases, steel ceiling girders — and no wood, save for the window and door casings. That proved to be a well-considered decision, when a fire here in 1991 resulted in only minor smoke and water damage to a second-floor lecture hall. One million bricks cover the massive three-story Victorian Eclectic building (175’ wide and 50’ deep) with an attic, high gables, a steeply pitched slate roof, and wonderful terra cotta Gothic ornamentation. From afar, it’s eye-catching; close up, it’s positively arresting. The main entrance is accessed via a large recessed Romanesque arch. Above it, a fine display of terra cotta unfolds: embossed and ornamental columns, pilasters, and arched moldings; a trio of medallions with reliefs of noted American scientists, including Samuel F.B. Morse, who happens to be buried in Green-Wood Cemetery in my hometown of Brooklyn, New York; and a pair of winged-dragon antics at the base of the gable parapets. Although the sciences moved out in the 1970s and the building became home to the art and anthropology departments, as well as an art gallery, “THE WILLIAMS SCIENCE HALL” still curves around the uppermost arch, above a row of interlacing arches and some detailed filigree work in the tympanum.
#3 Billings Memorial Library
The native Vermonter Frederick Billings, president of the Northern Pacific Railroad, not only lent his name to the city in Montana that was planned by his company but also to this library on the campus of his alma mater, the University of Vermont. This masterpiece by legendary architect Henry Hobson Richardson was dedicated in 1885. Billings had acquired the 12,000-volume library of congressman, diplomat, and conservationist George Perkins Marsh and donated it, and funds, to create the library. Unlike its next-door neighbor, the coeval Williams Hall, ornamentation is kept to a minimum on this monochromatic sandstone building. A huge arch enclosing a small porch marks the main entrance. Above it, there’s some inlaid stonework and a decorative flower in the spandrels. Continuing up to the gable, an arcade of five arched-top double windows is topped by four figure heads (two human, two animal), three lancet windows, a round seal, and a single finial. Two towers of different heights flank the entrance, a circular one to the right and a taller, octagonal one with an open belfry to the left. The rest of the building consists of a wing to the left, with a band of windows positioned high up against the cornice, and an apsidal wing to the right with windows encircling the entire polygonal room. Almost from its completion, seemingly endless changes were made within the Billings Memorial Library, from room configurations to materials, but they never seemed to fully meet the university’s growing needs for research, reference, periodicals, and changing technologies. Finally, in 1962, a year after a new library was constructed, Billings was redesigned again and emerged as the new student center. That lasted until 2007, when a new student center opened. After an $11.4 million renovation, Billings underwent a further change and reopened as… a library. Despite the tumultuous history of this enduring structure, the outside it just as beautiful as it was over a century ago.
#4 Grasse Mount
Another University of Vermont building stands just a couple of blocks from the main campus. At first, I assumed it to be a private, and very beautiful, mansion, but I soon learned it was the school’s offices of University Development and Alumni Relations. Originally, however, it was, indeed, a mansion. Built in 1804 for Captain Thaddeus Tuttle, a local merchant, Grosse Mount has had a curious history. In 1817, Tuttle sold the estate, which included 90 acres of land, to diplomat Cornelius P. Van Ness for $9,000. But only three months later, for unknown reasons, Van Ness re-sold it to Tuttle—for a mere $5. After Tuttle lost his fortune in 1824, he sold the estate yet again to Van Ness, now governor, for $6,000. After that, the mansion received its new moniker, Grasse Mount, named for the French admiral François Joseph Paul de Grasse. A year later, the famed American Revolutionary War general Marquis de Lafayette spent a few hours here. The estate was sold in 1845 to a lawyer who subdivided the property, and again in 1853, to a retired naval officer and merchant who had made a fortune in the 1849 California Gold Rush and who also made changes to the mansion that still exist today. A new owner took over in 1866, followed by another in 1892, the latter of whom sold it to the University of Vermont in 1895. UVM converted it into a dormitory for women, a function it maintained until 1971, when changes began to convert the building into office space. This Federal-style beauty, added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973, has now been restored to its full glory. The two-story brick mansion, painted yellow and with dark-green louvered shutters, features a Doric portico at the main entrance, with four fluted pillars, two pilasters, and a fanlight and colored glass sidelights. The second story sports pilasters between, and oblong and oval panels above, the windows. At the roof, a balustrade with small urns runs along the perimeter, and an Italian belvedere structure offers terrific views of Burlington, Lake Champlain, and the Adirondack Mountains across the lake in New York. This cupola, along with the spacious sun porch, were later additions to the original structure, but they fit seamlessly and keep the former Tuttle House as handsome as ever.
#5 Made Inn Vermont
In the South Willard Historic District, a neighborhood filled with spectacular homes that once constituted the most fashionable residential area of Burlington, the Made Inn Vermont really stands out, and not just because of its clever name. The bed and breakfast, with four guest rooms, started out as the private home of L.A. Walker, the owner of a marble and granite works in Burlington. Built in 1881, the home served as Walker’s residence until 1907, and after a few more resales, the current owner purchased it in 2006 but didn’t complete its rebirth as a B&B until 2012. Her efforts are certainly noteworthy. The Queen Anne–style building features a welcoming front porch, bay windows, subtly detailed window frames, a bracketed roofline, and two brick chimneys. The most arresting feature caps the entire structure. A rooftop Italianate belvedere, with a bracketed cornice and topped with fancy iron filigree, contains 10 windows, through which women would look toward Lake Champlain for any sight of ships bringing their husbands back to safety — not always the case, as more than 300 sunken ships litter the lakebed. Today, it serves a happier function, with guests of the B&B utilizing it not only for terrific views of the city and the lake, but also of the sky and stars, thanks to the telescope the Made Inn provides.
- Burlington Savings Bank Building (1900)
- Burlington City Hall (1928)
- Follett House (1840)
- College Street Congregational Church (1860)
- First United Methodist Church (1870)
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