Situated along the Winooski River and the North Branch, little Montpelier has the distinction of being the smallest capital city in the United States, with a population of only about 7,500. I parked my car at the visitor center, and the kind lady there said I could leave it there all day. I didn’t have to walk very far in this tidy city to see its architectural treasures, handily concentrated in the small downtown area. These are my favorites.
#1 Vermont State House
The first Vermont state capitol was razed. The second capitol burned down. So I was now admiring version 3.0, a Greek Revival structure completed in 1859. A pleasant lawn with an inviting walkway leads up to the broad staircase, the Doric portico, and the gold-leaf dome topped with the statue Agriculture. Inside, I first noticed the fossils embedded in the black marble floor tiles. Then I roamed around the two main floors, accessible by a pair of lovely circular stairways. The Senate and House chambers (the oldest legislative chambers in their original condition anywhere in the United States) feature coffered ceilings and fantastic chandeliers hanging from impressive medallions. In Representatives Hall, I found a large portrait of George Washington that survived the fire that destroyed the previous building. The governor’s office is home to the Constitution Chair, carved from timbers from the U.S.S. Constitution. I saved the best for last: the Cedar Creek Room. Restored to its 1888 appearance, this reception room features two stained-glass skylights in the deeply coffered ceiling, one depicting the state’s coat of arms. The walls and 20’ ceilings are painted in blue-green, copper, russet, and salmon colors, while the wall stencils are recreations of the original patterns. A 20’ x 10’ painting, The Battle of Cedar Creek, dominates the room in its depiction of the contributions of Vermont troops in this Civil War battle.
#2 The Pavilion
Located next to the capitol, the old Pavilion began life as a hotel in 1876. The 90-room hotel, built in the French Second Empire style, was a five-story beauty with a mansard roof, steam-powered elevators, and ballrooms, dining rooms, and lounges all lit by gas jet. It remained the grandest hotel in Montpelier until it began a steady decline, largely spurred by legislators who used to stay here for their jobs next door and were being drawn away in a wave of commuter culture that enabled them to drive back and forth to work every day. The hotel ceased operation in 1966, and the state of Vermont acquired the property three years later. The government’s need for expansion resulted in the complete razing of the building, but I wouldn’t have guessed that merely by looking at it. This 1971 reconstruction is a very faithful reproduction of the original. Although the new version is missing the chimneys and cast-iron cresting along the mansard roof from the original, the new structure recreated the wonderful two-story Italianate-style piazza that wraps around two sides of the building, the entrance staircases, the mansard roof, and even the keystones above the windows and the Pavilion lettering at the roof line. Now the home to the offices of the governor of Vermont, the Vermont attorney general, and the state treasurer, you can still pop in to visit the other occupant, the Vermont Historical Society and its museum, and admire the entry foyer and reception room that recreate the original ornate interiors with their furnishings, period artwork, and polychrome stenciling.
#3 Department of Agriculture Building
Across the street from the capitol, this substantial and solid 4 ½-story structure was erected in 1891 as the headquarters of the National Life Insurance Company. That organization remained here only until 1922; the building was then sold to the state, and it’s now the home to the Department of Agriculture. The picturesque brick building, constructed in the Richardsonian Romanesque style, features a healthy smattering of sandstone in the base, quoins, arches, and window surrounds. The main entrance features a beautifully intricate floral, wood-carved tympanum. A monumental conical-roofed octagonal tower on one corner commands the front of the building, while a curved projection enlivens the rest of the façade. Projecting dormers keep the roof lively. I didn’t stop admiring the building just from the front. Unattached on all sides, I made a complete circle around it to appreciate the broad arched window and a wonderful Flemish gable with an ocular window on the western side; an open, green plaza with benches and brick paths on the eastern side, which sports more arched windows and a roof tower; and the rear of the building, with another Flemish gable and a corbelled “candle-snuffer” roof tower.
#4 Christ Episcopal Church
Constructed entirely of light Vermont granite, Christ Episcopal Church opened in 1868 as a handsome presence in Montpelier and looks largely the same today (except for a steeple with spire that was removed in 1963 due to a failure in its integrity), despite a series of disasters. Measuring 108’ long by 55’ wide, the asymmetrical façade features a trefoil rose window above the entrance and a bell tower with remarkably narrow lancet windows to the left. A fire in 1903 destroyed the roof and much of the interior; the church was almost ruined again by the Great Vermont Flood of 1927 that killed at least 84 people and destroyed 1,285 bridges throughout the state; and a collapsing crane crashed down on the roof in 2015. Despite all that, you can still admire the attractive façade as well as the cluster columns, Gothic arches, and wood brackets on the ceiling inside. Like the rest of the church, the great window also became a victim, when a plexiglass covering was placed over it to protect it from the elements. Dirt, soot, and the passage of time darkened the covering so much that the beautiful colors of the stained glass were virtually nullified. Now, with the plexiglass removed and the stained glass restored, the full figure of Jesus, surrounded by medallions of the Four Evangelists, the alpha and the omega, and the Holy Spirit dove, shines as brilliantly as ever.
#5 St. Augustine Roman Catholic Church
Although the cornerstone of St. Augustine Roman Catholic Church was laid on July 4, 1892, the first Mass wasn’t celebrated until 1903, after 11 long years of construction, including two suspensions due to lack of funds. Built in the Gothic Revival style, with rusticated gray Vermont granite and a slate roof, the church differs not only from the architect’s original plans, but also from its original ornamentation. A rose window with a lancet pediment rises above the central entrance, flanked by two towers, the taller one missing the spire and parapet originally intended and now capped with a low hip roof. Inside, the airy space, with pews to seat 900 people, was subject to some highly questionable choices in the 1940s and late 1960s, when the chandeliers, ornate mid-nave pulpit, and three altars were removed; the neogothic columns were encased in a form of white drywall and remain rather unusual, flaring out toward the top; ornamental wall stencils were painted over in white; and the polychrome cast-plaster Stations of the Cross were repainted in a monochrome gray and now look like stone (although they’re still quite attractive). The 18 wonderful stained-glass windows, survivors from 1938 and placed in Gothic arches, maintain their deep, rich colors, and remain the highlight of the church. Particularly helpful are the little captions included in the glass, explaining who or what you’re looking at—St. Gregory, for example, or the raising of Lazarus.
- Brock House (1876)
- College Hall, Vermont College of Fine Arts (1872)
- City Hall (1909)
- Washington County Courthouse (1880)
- The Inn at Montpelier (1828)
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