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The Civil War Comes to Vermont

One hundred and fifty years ago, on October 19, 1864, a band of Confederate raiders attacked the small Vermont town of St. Albans in Franklin County. To mark the anniversary, we’re pleased to post the historic overview of the city and its architecture, together with one of the associated building entries, drawn from the award-winning Buildings of Vermont volume by Glenn Andres and Curtis Johnson and from SAH Archipedia, which features online entries here and here.

City of St. Albans

St. Albans has been justly celebrated for the beauty of its setting along Lake Champlain, for its status as a major port of entry to the United States, and as the nation’s greatest nineteenth-century rail center east of Chicago. Not surprisingly, St. Albans is also a place of notable architecture. In Norwood, his novel of 1867, Henry Ward Beecher proclaimed that “the picturesque scenery of New England reaches a climax at St. Alban’s [sic], a place in the midst of greater variety of scenic beauty than any other that I can remember in America.” St. Albans’s town stretches from St. Albans Bay on the west to hills that rise toward the Green Mountains on the east. It was first settled on the bay, affording water access north to Canada and south to the emerging communities of New York, which established early ties with Franklin County as witnessed in the millwork and joinery of Whitehall, New York–based William Sprats. These ties became most evident almost three miles to the east in what would become the City of St. Albans. Here Ira Allen, soon to be a major proprietor in the town, surveyed the stagecoach road that became U.S. 7 (Main Street) to run adjacent to the common as mandated by the town’s New Hampshire Grant charter. While the bay was the early commercial center for St. Albans, its docks and boatyards retaining importance through the era of lake steamers, the inland village at the junction of Lake Street and the north–south stagecoach road served as the political center for town and county. By 1793 the common had been cleared, and in 1799 land for a courthouse was donated by Colonel Halloway Taylor. Eventually, the common developed into a handsomely appointed park named after the colonel.

By the 1830s, while the St. Albans Steamboat Company was booming at the bay, village-area proprietor and former U.S. congressman John Smith used his Washington contacts to promote St. Albans as a railroad center. By the 1850s Smith was president of the Vermont and Canada Railroad, bringing trains from Boston to Montreal via St. Albans, and had laid the groundwork for a St. Albans–based family railroad dynasty. His successor and son, John Gregory Smith (governor of Vermont 1863-1864 and president of the Northern Pacific Railroad 1866-1872), engineered a series of mergers that produced the Central Vermont Railroad, and facilitated the transfer of administration and shops from Northfield to the western side of St. Albans village in 1860. Between 1860 and 1870 the town’s population almost doubled to 7,014 residents.

St. Albans’s strategic importance was signaled in 1864, when Confederate raiders crossed in disguise from Canada in a successful attempt to rob the city’s banks and an abortive attempt to burn its downtown core. In the 1890s John Gregory Smith’s son, Edward Curtis Smith (governor of Vermont 1898-1900), developed the main rail yard (called “Italy yard” because of its construction by Italian work crews) into the most extensive in New England. Railroad operations at their turn-of-the-twentieth-century peak provided 1,799 jobs in a community of 7,954 residents. They also drew businesses that depended on rail–from large tourist hotels to bridge fabricators and foundries. The St. Albans Foundry Company became a worldwide purveyor of horse-powered treadmills and later a pioneer of portable gasoline engines for farm power. Other industry included manufacturers of work clothes and garters, New England’s largest creamery, a packing plant, and cold storage for butter, fruit, and maple sugar.

The railroad and the growth it fostered led to the village being set off from the town, first in 1855 as a fire-prevention district, next in 1859 as an incorporated village, and in 1896 as a city. The railroad yards developed on the flats to the west of Main Street with offices, depots, and shops on Lake Street, and adjacent workers’ neighborhoods. A commercial area grew between the tracks and Main Street, and public and institutional buildings were built along the eastern edge of Taylor Park, which was formalized with a fountain (1887) donated by the Smith family. Beyond Taylor Park rose the houses of merchants, industrialists, and railroad managers on Aldis Hill.

Whereas Federal and Greek Revival houses had lined the Main Street stagecoach road, the area eastward developed during the railroad era with Gothic Revival, Italianate, Second Empire, and Queen Anne buildings. Bank, Congress, High, and Smith streets comprise one of the state’s most stylistically varied and best-preserved Victorian neighborhoods, the houses becoming increasingly grand as they climb the hill, gaining views of the lake and the distant Adirondacks. While the city’s two most extravagant houses, both built by Smiths, no longer stand, the neighborhood is dotted with the homes of their relatives and executives, a veritable catalogue of an ambitious half century of building. The commercial district by contrast is distinguished by striking homogeneity. A fire in 1895 destroyed one hundred and thirty buildings on seventy-five acres along the west side of Main Street. Rebuilt within two years, the new downtown was dense with three- to four-story masonry structures in Queen Anne, Romanesque, and Colonial Revival modes.

Subsequent fires, changing business patterns, and the diminishing importance of the railroad over the course of the twentieth century caused some attrition but also a relatively stable population, lessening the inevitable pressures for change. As a result, the built fabric of nineteenth-century St. Albans remains impressively visible.

FR30 Brainerd House

1853. 107 Bank St., City of St. Albans

Unlike most of Vermont’s Gothic Revival houses, which tended to fall into the Carpenter Gothic cottage category, lawyer Lawrence Brainerd Jr.’s house was a more substantial Gothic villa, reflecting the family’s success in mercantile, banking, steamboat, and railroad enterprises. The house was built on a spacious property at what was then the edge of town, beyond the head of Bank Street. It is large, two-and-a-half stories, and solid, with brick walls on granite foundations. The house is picturesque with an asymmetrical plan topped by an array of gables, cross gables, and clustered corbeled octagonal chimneys. A veranda with a round corner pavilion wraps the west and south faces of the building in Tudor arches with quatrefoil spandrels. The gables are decorated with some of the finest bargeboards in Vermont, cusp-arched with drops. These bargeboards were replicated when the house was expanded to the east later in the nineteenth century. They were duplicated at the Rugg House (c. 1890 or earlier) on the north side of VT 36, 1.7 miles east of town.

Posted in Art and Architecture, Featured, History and Political Science, Rotunda

James Salter

James-Salter James Salter, one of the last men standing from the grand postwar era of American novelists, is the first Kapnick Distinguished Writer-in-Residence at the University of Virginia. What this means for fiction fans in the Charlottesville area is three opportunities in October to see Salter speak on the craft of writing. The first lecture will be Thursday, October 9. Two more lectures will follow on the 14th and the 27th. Each event is at 6:00 p.m. in UVa’s Special Collections Auditorium. On November 11 at 5:00 p.m. Salter will give a fiction reading in Newcomb Hall. Complete details on all events may be found here.

Richard Ford once rather famously remarked, “It is an article of faith among readers of fiction that James Salter writes American sentences better than anybody writing today.” You may read an excellent profile of Salter here.

Posted in Literary and Cultural Studies, Press News

75 Years for Pope-Leighy House

The 75th anniversary of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Pope-Leighy House, one of the famed architect’s few works in Virginia, will be celebrated at Woodlawn Mansion in Alexandria on Sunday, September 28. Steven Reiss, author of the new Frank Lloyd Wright’s Pope-Leighy House, will read from the book and answer questions. Attendees will then tour the actual Pope-Leighy house, located on the same grounds as Woodlawn. Hosted by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the event’s complete details may be found here.

Posted in Art and Architecture, Press News

The Great Emancipator as Politician

The fight for emancipation was a noble and necessary pursuit. What most people don’t know, however, is that President Lincoln had to move deftly even within his own party to formulate, and finally push through, this historic legislation. Salon is featuring an excerpt from Paul Escott‘s new book, Lincoln’s Dilemma: Blair, Sumner, and the Republican Struggle over Racism and Equality in the Civil War Era, that provides an inside look at the fascinating political maneuverings. You can read it here.

Posted in History and Political Science, Press News

Rainville Events

Lynn Rainville, author of Hidden History: African American Cemeteries in Central Virginia, has upcoming talks at the Nelson County Heritage Center (September 21, details here) and at the Scottsville Historical Society and Museum (September 27, details TBA). An entire schedule of events may be found at her web site.

Posted in History and Political Science, Press News, Virginiana

Resignation Round-Up

resign In a decade often accused of being anticlimactic, Watergate was the Seventies’ uncontested contribution to milestone history. There is nothing small, ephemeral, or, heaven knows, anticlimactic about the scandal that brought down President Nixon—and, with him, a whole post-war era of politics. This was high tragedy.

On this, the fortieth anniversary of the historic resignation, there is much chatter about those days. Some commentators attempt to place Nixon’s entire administration into a broad (you might say massive) historical context; others seek to titillate by exposing Nixon’s seemingly endless moments of pettiness and paranoia. With Chasing Shadows: The Nixon Tapes, the Chennault Affair, and the Origins of Watergate, Ken Hughes, whom Bob Woodward calls “one of America’s foremost experts on secret presidential recordings,” turns to the White House tapes to offer a clear narrative about the pattern of covert activity that not only brought Nixon down but which reveals something essential about his character and why his acts still resonate so strongly.

The book’s powerful argument has been getting serious attention. The Washington Post calls it “the best account yet of Nixon’s devious interference with Lyndon Johnson’s 1968 Vietnam War negotiations, shows just how early Nixon’s dirty tricks began and just how deeply he was involved.” The Post has also published a piece by George Will that succinctly lays out Hughes’s case. Shelf Awareness, which describes Chasing Shadows as “full of fascinating scenes and candid conversations pulled verbatim from Nixon’s tapes” and “compelling as a novel,” has published a fascinating Q&A with Hughes. The Atlantic emphasizes the continually unfolding aspect if the Watergate saga: “Hughes shows that we still have much to learn by connecting the dots of Nixon’s angry venting and the shadowy world of national-security spying.” And as the New York Times noted, a recent Nixon event at which Hughes joined Carl Bernstein and Carl Woodward was so well attended, “the line stretched down the block.” A video clip from the event may be viewed here. More coverage may be found in Politico, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Yahoo News, Publishers Weekly, and Kirkus.

As the chief consultant on the recent HBO documentary Nixon by Nixon, Hughes was interviewed by both Chris Matthews and Andrea Mitchell of MSNBC and by WNYC’s John Hockenberry.

And finally, for those wanting a test drive, the book has been excerpted in Salon and at ABC News.

Chasing Shadows is available now at bookstores everywhere.

Posted in History and Political Science, Main, Rotunda

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