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Design New England

Around New England: An Architectural Journey Through Vermont

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When I was beginning my own career in architectural history, Nikolaus Pevsner asked me why I did not write an American version of the Buildings of England. Sir Nikolaus was referring to his brainchild, the hugely successful Buildings of England published by Penguin. Between 1946 and 1974 the indefatigable Pevsner roamed England, and had written 32 volumes before he turned the project over to protégées. (These were infinitely accessible guidebooks, paperbacks that could handily fit in a pocket.)

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“After all, Morgan,” the greatest scholar of English architecture admonished me, “there are only 40 states, and there is not a parish church every couple of miles. You could do it in a summer or two.” Eurocentric myopia aside, architecturally rich Vermont alone has over 40,000 structures on the National Register of Historic Places. Glenn M. Andres, an architectural historian at Middlebury College, and photographer and historian, Curtis B. Johnson, spent more than two decades researching and writing The Buildings of Vermont. Even so, selection was very painful, Andres notes. “We had to leave a lot on the cutting room floor.”

The Buildings of Vermont (University of Virginia Press, $85) is the recent-most volume in an on-going series inspired by Pevsner and sponsored by the Society of Architectural Historians. The hope is that The Buildings of the United States will eventually encompass the entire nation. But the work involved in writing about an entire state’s built patrimony is a massive undertaking. The score of completed books consist of the less populous states, such as Alaska, Nevada, and West Virginia, plus titles on parts of larger states. (New England is also represented by Rhode Island and Metropolitan Boston.)

Since a chief aim of this Herculean effort was to “look beyond the stereotypes to explain the remarkable range, quality, humanity, and persistence of a built landscape” in the Green Mountain State, Andres was “pained” by his editors’ choice of the barn-in the-meadow cover. For, if this hefty 500-page tome accomplishes anything, it is to show that there is a rich architectural heritage that is more than red barns, white churches, and Norman Rockwell villages.

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The result is a fascinating exploration of a state that we may have thought we knew, but one whose architectural history was until now less documented than the other New England states. While Vermont has many fans (National Geographic ranks Granada, Kyoto, and Vermont in a sixth-place tie for the most compelling tourist sites in the world), The Buildings of Vermont makes it possible to understand how the man-made aspects of this landlocked agricultural state contribute to its status as a natural treasure.

Despite that heavy freight, Andres and Curtis’ book is a delight. While one wishes for more photographs, the authors take the reader on a journey through Vermont — up one side of the Green Mountains and down the other. Beyond the building descriptions, there are countless fascinating nuggets about population, economics, and the current state of insensitive development. Caledonia County, for example, was named for its early Scottish settlers, the last log drive on the Connecticut River was in 1924, and that by 1978, 80 percent of the state’s population lived within a few miles of an interstate. And natives and tourists alike will be surprised at discovering how much more Victorian architecture there is in Vermont than we might have expected.

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Great design is always at your fingertips! Read Design New England's May/June 2014 issue online!