It never takes long for the fact to be mentioned that Montpelier is the nation’s smallest state capital so let’s get that out of the way up front. In spite of its size Montpelier packs an architectural wallop worthy of towns many times its population. In addition to the handiwork of local designers big-name architects made the journey up from Boston when the need arose to contribute to the town streetscape.
Colonel Jacob Davis cleared the first land and started settlement in 1787. Davis had a penchant for naming things after the French so his little enclave got the name Montpelier. Population was fewer than 100 and there was one road (today’s Court Street) when Montpelier got the nod to be state capitol.
Through the 1800s the town developed into a center for water-powered manufacturing and the Vermont Central Railroad arrived in 1849 to kickstart other businesses. Banking and insurance and, of course, government have been the primary economic engines for the last century or so.
And here is an interesting tidbit about that tiny population - the United States Census headcount in 1910 was 7,856. In 2010 the official tally was 7,855. A difference of one person in a century’s time. Our walking tour of the Vermont capital will begin with what has been hailed by some who know as the finest example of Greek Revival architecture in America...
Vermont State House
north side of State Street
The first Vermont State House was a ramshackle wooden affair designed by Sylvanus Baldwin that nonetheless served the government from 1809 until 1836. Ammi B. Young, who would soon be Supervising Architect of the United States Treasury, designed its replacement, a striking Greek Revival temple behind a magnificent Doric portico composed of native Vermont granite. The interior was destroyed by fire in 1857 but a student of Young’s, Thomas W. Silloway, was able to salvage the portico and the granite walls and begin the task of rebuilding. Silloway rebuilt the copper dome higher and added a bay of windows to either side. State House III was ready for occupancy in 1859; it would be praised as one of the outstanding examples of Greek Revival architecture in the United States. A few years later Silloway would be ordained a Universalist minister and go on to design more than 400 church buildings until his death in 1911, said to be more than any other American. The dome was originally painted a deep rustic red but was gilded in a thin layer of gold leaf in the early 1900s. Notable Vermonters are honored inside the State House, most notably Ethan Allen, commander of the Green Mountain Boys during the American Revolution, who is depicted with a granite statue at the main entrance.
FACING THE STATE HOUSE, TURN TO THE RIGHT TO SEE...
Supreme Court Building
111 State Street
This light gray Barre granite government building came online in 1918. In addition to the Supreme Court the Historical Society Museum, Vermont State Library, eight other state agencies and a free public library also bivouced here. $300,000 in funds for the project came from the Vermont Supreme Court Building Act in 1914. The result is this symmetrical Neoclassical composition rendered in the state’s signature stone - it is said that one-third ofall the public and private monuments and mausoleums in America are products of the Barre, Vermont quarries.
TURN AND WALK ACROSS THE STATE HOUSE GROUNDS AND OUT TO STATE STREET. AT THE SOUTHWEST CORNER IS...
National Life Insurance Building
133 State Street
National Life was founded in 1848 with Julius Yemans Dewey, a local doctor, at the head of the affair. Dewey was born on a Vermont farm in 1801 but turned his back on the plow to attend Washington County Grammar School and the University of Vermont. Dewey, whose son George became an admiral in the United States Navy and a national hero for his decisive actions at Manila Bay in the Philippines during the Spanish-American War, personally delivered the $1,000 remittance for National Life’s first claim on July 26, 1850. The success of National Life propelled Montpelier into the position of third largest insurance center in New England and in 1922 the company moved into this appropriately grand Neoclassical office building, designed by influential Boston architect Ralph Adams Cram. The highest quality Vermont granite was used outside and the Vermont Marble Company of Proctor supplied stone for the interior. This was headquarters number five for National Life which has since moved on to be replaced by state office workers.
ACROSS THE STREET IS...
Vermont Arts Council
136 State Street
This wood frame house dates to the 1850s when it was said to have been a stop on the Underground Railroad. It was constructed in the flat-roofed Italianate style that dominated American streetscapes at the time. Decorative window hoods and an ornate overhanging cornice are telltale characteristics. Today it houses the Vermont Arts Council.
WALK EAST ON STATE STREET (THE STATE HOUSE WILL BE ON YOUR LEFT).
Edward Dewey House
128 State Street
In the 19th century, before houses were stuffed with intricate electrical wiring and plumbing systems, it was not unusual to move houses about town like chess pieces. This picturesque Queen Anne brick house was Edward Dewey’s that was constructed in 1889 and moved here in 1946 to make space for new the state office next door. At the time of its construction Dewey was the 60-year old vice-president of the National Life Insurance Company that his father had founded. The Dewey House is the handiwork of local architect George Guernsey, a Civil War veteran who returned to Montpelier after the war to run a granite company and served as mayor for a time. He outfitted the house with a standout corner tower, projecting bays and fine spindlework. Dewey’s son-in-law, Frederick Howland, who was president of National Life at the time, sold the house to the state in 1941 which tore down the old Riverside Inn that had stood for over 100 years to move it here.
Montpelier State Office Building
120 State Street
After its founding in 1937 the Burlington-based architectural firm of William Freeman, Ruth Reynolds Freeman and John French were responsible for much of the modernist design work, overseen by Ruth Freeman, in Vermont. The firm seldom came to Montpelier but contributed this Art Deco-flavored, five-story office building in 1949. The central entrance door is formed of burnished aluminum and sports a figure of Ceres, the Roman goddess of fertility, posing in a maple grove; look up to see the Vermont county names inscribed in the frieze between the fourth and fifth floors.
National Life Insurance Building/Vermont Department of Agriculture
116 State Street
S. Edwin Tobey, one of Boston’s leading Victorian architects, traveled up to Montpelier in 1891 to create the fourth home for the National Life Insurance Company. Tobey delivered a Richardsonian Romanesque tour-de-force based on the works of fellow Bostonian Henry Hobson Richardson, the most influential American architect of the post-Civil War era. The old headquarters displays such trademark features of the brawny style including massive arches, a recessed corner entrance, a corbelled tower penetrating a varied roofline and a monumental octagonal corner tower. The 4.5-story office space is now the home of the Department of Agriculture.
Vermont Mutual Fire Insurance Company/Vermont Department of Personnel
110 State Street
Daniel P. Baldwin started the Vermont Mutual Fire Insurance Company in his living room in 1828, the first such venture in the state. His house-office was expanded several times as the business prospered until the Greek Revival brick building could no longer contain it. In 1870 Baldwin tore down his old house and replaced it with this impressive Second Empire office building (the oversized arcaded entrance is a later addition). Baldwin was also involved with the building of the Vermont Central Railway which had its depot on the property as well until it was demolished in 1963.
109 State Street
Now known as the working space for the sitting Vermont governor and the museum of the Vermont Historical Society, historically this has been the site of a hotel. The first was erected in 1808 by Thomas Davis, working on plans supplied by self-taught architect Sylvanus Baldwin who had just finished designing the first Vermont State House that was constructed next door where the Supreme Court Building stands today. Its proximity to the state seat of power earned the hotel the reputation as “Vermont’s third house.” Mahlon Cottrill later bought the property, expanded it in a Greek Revival makeover while adding the piazzas that gave the hotel its name, The Pavilion. In 1874, when Theron O. Bailey was handed the deed he tore the hotel down and built a new one of brick, two stories higher with a trendy French Second Empire mansard roof while retaining the trademark pavilions. The last guests checked out in 1966 and the state of Vermont acquired the aging building. Instead of restoration The Pavilion was torn down again and rose again as a faithful restoration, save for the decorative cresting along the roofline and a few no-longer-needed chimneys. From the beginning the fifth floor was commandeered as working space for the governor.
99 State Street
This textbook example of Federal style architecture highlights a cluster of buildings (look back past the gas station fro one) that represent a splash of the early 19th century remaining on Montpelier streets. Look up to see a standout fanlight over the doorway.
93 State Street
This movie house opened in 1940 and the marquee hasn’t changed in over 80 years. What began as a single screen has been split into five today.
Christ Episcopal Church
64 State Street
The Christ Church parish was founded in 1840; among the first vestrymen were Julius Dewey and Daniel Baldwin. A meetinghouse was consecrated just after Christmas in 1842 and in 1846 the ladies of the parish raised $100 for a bell. By the 1860s the congregation had grown from 15 to 68 and was flush enough to spend $30,000 on a new house of worship. J.R. Randall of Rutland drew up the plans for the Gothic-styled church crafted of Vermont granite that looks much now as it did then, save for the removal of the spire from the three-stage tower for safety reasons.
Washington County Courthouse
65 State Street
This house of justice was constructed in the classical Greek Revival style in 1832 with red bricks and white Doric columns. In 1879 the original tower burned and it was replaced for some reason with a beefy French Second Empire clock tower that was then in vogue but is stylistically jarring nonetheless.
41-45 State Street at northeast corner of Elm Street
The builders of this commercial block would have to look twice to see what they created today. When the Capital Savings Bank moved in a mansard roof cap was perched on top the three stories and in the 1920s the bank orchestrated a new ground floor wrapped in stone.
17 State Street
In the middle of the 1800s cast iron enjoyed a brief flurry of popularity as a building material. it was easy to mold into decorative facades, cheap to produce and quick to assemble. Most iron front buildings are gone from the American scene but Montpelier boasts this one, cast in an Italianate style in 1879. The cornice is of stamped sheet metal. The commercial block carries the name of Samuel Walton, who was a bookbinder here.
2 State Street at southwest corner of Main Street
Most of the commercial buildings in Montpelier in the first half of the 19th century looked like this but 200 years later it is the only one still standing. Highlights of the Federal-style building including papapets rising above the roofline on the gabled ends and 12-over-12 double hung windows. The corner building from 1826 was an early recipient of historic preservation in Montpelier, picking up a freshening facelift back in the 1970s.
TURN RIGHT ON MAIN STREET.
67-77 Main Street
George Guernsey created this Victorian red brick commercial block in for George L. Blanchard 1885 as a showcase for his opera house. In small town 19th century America an “opera house” was a catch-all phrase for a stage where townsfolk could go to enjoy all sorts of entertainment from lectures to plays to graduation ceremonies. The 800-seat hall shuttered in 1910 but the landmark still dominates the center of Montpelier a century later.
39 Main Street
The Montpelier government first assembled in a converted church on State Street called Capital Hall in 1857. The end of the 19th century found various buildings doing duty as “city hall.” In 1907 voters authorized $125,000 for the construction of a proper city hall and architect George G. Adams of Lawrence, Massachusetts won the commission. His Italian Renaissance composition is highlighted by a central clock tower and was executed in yellow brick with granite accents. The final tab was $170,000 and dedication took place on May 26, 1911.
32-64 Main Street
James G. French was born in Peru, New York in 1824 and came to Montpelier as a young man where he built up a successful clothing business. In 1861 he was appointed as postmaster by Abraham Lincoln and served eight years. After that he poured his energies into real estate development. This block was his largest venture, necessitate in 1875 after two calamitous downtown fires ravaged the town’s wooden building stock. James French died unexpectedly three years later on August 8 , 1878.
TURN AROUND AND WALK NORTH ON MAIN STREET, BACK TOWARDS STATE STREET.
90-98 Main Street between State and Langdon streets at northwest corner of State Street
James R. Langdon was the president of the Montpelier Savings Bank and a prime mover in shaping the town streetscape in the late 1800s. Langdon died in 1895 and the executors of his estate embarked on this project in 1900 for the the Montpelier Savings Bank and the Union Mutual Fire Insurance Company for his daughters Lizzie and Lucy. An electrical fire scorched the insides during construction but the brawny brick and granite withstood the conflagration. Scarcely a foot of facade is undecorated on the showy corner structure with granite quoins wrapping around all the upper story openings.
115 Main Street
Reverend Chester Wright organized the First Congregational Society in Montpelier in 1808 with 17 members. By 1868 they were able to fund a $70,000 meetinghouse.
Kellogg Hubbard Library
135 Main Street at northeast corner of School Street
In November of 1889 Martin M. Kellogg, who could trace his family’s roots back to the beginning of the Massachusetts Colony, died in New York City. On January 29, 1890 his wife Fanny passed away as well at the age of 70. The couple was childless and agreed to leave their $300,000 fortune to their hometown of Montpelier for public works, especially a public library. Meanwhile John E. Hubbard, the Kelloggs’ nephew and a bachelor living with his parents in Montpelier, challenged the will and got it invalidated. The wrath of the town was unleashed and Montpelier town officials sued Hubbard, forcing him into an agreement to spend $30,000 of his inheritance to build the library. That was enough for Amos P. Cutting of Worcester, Massachusetts to design and build a handsome granite free lending library in the Italian Renaissance-style in 1895. Despite his scheming and short shifting of funds Hubbard slapped his name on the building in equal portion to the Kelloggs; he didn’t even provide money to buy books. John Hubbard died in 1899 but “the town’s largest taxpayer” lived his final years fending off attacks on his character. The opening of his will accomplished what he could not in his lifetime in the court of public opinion - Hubbard left most of his $300,000 fortune to the town. In addition to a $125,000 endowment of the library there were 100 acres of hillside for a namesake park behind the State House.
Unitarian Church of Montpelier
134 Main Street at northwest corner of School Street
Constructed in 1865, this is the oldest of the the churches serving a congregation in Montpelier. Quoins wrap around the classic New England-style church.
TURN LEFT ON SCHOOL STREET AND CROSS ELM STREET TO PICK UP COURT STREET AND RETURN TO THE TOUR STARTING POINT AT THE STATE HOUSE.