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Crossing over, creatively

Artists are reviving White River Junction, Vt.

WHITE RIVER JUNCTION, Vt. -- For centuries, this town has been a crossroads, a place of coming together. The Connecticut and White rivers converge here, and it seems that as long as the waters flowed, travelers arrived.

They came by canoe, then by raft and steamboat. Like an evolving species, they continued on land with the advent of the railroad. It was then, in the 1840s, that White River Junction turned into a serious transportation hub. At its peak, between 1870 and 1880, scores of steam locomotives chugged into its station each day, bringing railroad cars full of freight and tired, hungry passengers.

But the railroad era faded, and when it did, highways drained the lifeblood from this town. Interstates 89 and 91 were built, looping together just far enough away to miss local businesses. For years, cut off from the highways, White River Junction lacked a reason to exist.

In the past year or so, however, things have changed. The town has transformed itself into an artists' colony, and visitors are coming back, attracted perhaps by the antique buildings and 1940s facades.

A professional theater company fixed up the old Briggs Opera House and puts on performances year-round. A costume shop opened to supply it. A cooperative printmaking studio came in, a retro clothing shop, a natural food co-op, some top-notch restaurants, and the groundbreaking Center for Cartoon Studies, a two-year program with a library endowed by the estate of the late Charles M. Schulz, creator of ''Peanuts." An interior design company now fills a showroom with swank leather sofas. Designer Isobel Jones creates luxury stoles from ostrich feathers in her studio in the old firehouse. And though the population is a mere 2,500 and the commercial district barely fills a single square block, there's a new feeling in the air, a sense of expectation.

David Holtz has opened an antiquarian bookshop, the Hundredth Monkey, in a partly vacant wooden building on Gates Street. Next door is a boutique called Lampscapes, where a former engineer, Ken Blaisdell, hand-paints each lampshade.

''We're the SoHo district," Holtz says, joking.

The town is a fascinating stroll, a mixture of old and new. Front and center is the Hotel Coolidge, a 1925 brick edifice whose clocks peer down over the town from two tall towers. Its wings ramble around the block like a train coming into a station, and though canopies no longer grace its street-level windows, you can still sense the hustle and bustle that once filled its lobby. In the building's former incarnation as the Junction House, the clientele included the actress Lillian Gish and President Coolidge, after whose father it is named. Hand-painted murals dating from 1949 cover the Vermont Room, depicting the state's transformation from wilderness to modernity. The painter exchanged his handiwork for room and board, slipping in his own likeness (and that of his girlfriend) as the two pioneers. In a separate mural, a barn dance scene off the main lobby, he incorporated likenesses of the staff members who worked there at the time. Though no longer a luxury establishment -- the Coolidge's worn carpets and faded furnishings show its age -- it remains one of New England's last surviving railroad hotels and is rich in character, something conspicuously absent from the many chain motels on the town's periphery.

The information-packed Welcome Center is just the opposite, along with the original train station housing the New England Transportation Institute and Museum. The models, dioramas, and railroad memorabilia inside illustrate the town's former glory. On weekends in foliage season, the White River Flyer makes four round trips daily from here to the Montshire Museum of Science in Norwich, about 5 miles south, bending with the river past fields, mountain vistas, and a wildlife sanctuary bursting with fall color.

For dinner there's Como Va, a classy Mediterranean eatery that personifies the town's changing identity. Chef-owner Howard Haywood, a Culinary Institute of America grad, enlists the neighboring baker and nearby farms for his culinary feats. Adjacent is the Polka Dot Restaurant, a diner that has been in the same family for almost 25 years.

The most unusual of the town's new residents is the Main Street Museum. Though no longer on Main Street, and not a museum in the usual sense, it typifies the creative iconoclasm that is turning this town into an original. A taxidermied llama guards the front window, and in the back, the glazed eyes of mounted beasts look out onto rows of glass cases enclosing everything from Elvis Presley's gallstones to the preserved carcass of a monster said to have been dragged from the depths of the Connecticut River. There is MACBA (modern art created by accident), jars of murky-looking detritus, and gifts too laughable to categorize. Walking through, it slowly dawns on you that founder David Fairbanks Ford is placing the whole notion of curating under scrutiny, with two parts satire, three parts silliness.

Walk the labyrinthine hallways of the Tip Top Building, a commercial bakery turned art center, and more surprises appear: a photography exhibit, a wall of masterful prints, and a giant wooden sculpture, all the work of individuals recently drawn to this previously overlooked town.

''The intricate life of a small city in central eastern Vermont is too interesting to be ignored," Ford says. ''Our present is continuously, and sometimes rambunctiously, transforming into our history."

Diane E. Foulds is a writer in Burlington, Vt.

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