"Why tear a barn down when it can fall down?"
For years, this New England adage has been good for a laugh. Increasingly, though, it is taking on an unhappier meaning. Barns are falling, all right, between 500 and 1,000 of them each year -- and that's only in Vermont.
Then there are the Grange halls, lighthouses, cathedrals, mills, bridges, dams, and railroad stations. Right under our noses, relics from a century of American history are closer to disappearing despite the tireless battles of innumerable preservation societies.
Some battles they win. When they lose, it's usually a familiar story. A public building gets so run down that it's cheaper to raze it and start over. An owner is too cash-strapped to make repairs, yet refuses to yield control, and everyone loses. Perhaps the most pernicious is the profit story: developers bent on clearing away historical structures to make room for McMansions. Projects to move historical structures usually end with their demolition.
The following landmarks are on borrowed time. They may vanish tomorrow or a year from now, so plan now for a last look.
ConnecticutYale Boathouse, New Haven. A two-story brick jewel with Flemish gables that sits right in the water. Crews used it as a clubhouse, enjoying its large fireplace and fine views. With the new Interstate 95 bridge under construction, the boathouse is doomed. The state considered moving it, but deemed it too costly. To see it, go southeast on Forbes Avenue parallel to I-95 and over the bridge. Stop and stare at 74 Forbes Ave.
Heirloom homes, New Haven. Yale University's lesser-known assets include three historic homes the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation fears will be lost through neglect. One is the 1830 Greek Revival at 88 Prospect St. Nearby at 70 Sachem St. is the Daniel Cady Eaton house, a handsome Victorian Gothic built circa 1865 for the Yale botanist. The 1840 red brick Georgian house of Theodore Dwight Woolsey, a Yale president, is to be admired at 250 Church St.
Marcel Breuer house, New Canaan. The clean, spare lines of this 1951 glass and stone abode exemplify the modern aesthetic of its owner and architect, Marcel Breuer, who studied at the Bauhaus School in Germany and designed houses with Walter Gropius. He and a group of like-minded architects taught at Harvard in the 1930s and settled in New Canaan. Recently bought by a contractor, its fate is undecided. Drive past it at 628 West Road.
MaineAbyssinian Meeting House, Portland. The third-oldest African-American meetinghouse in the country. (Dating to 1806, Boston's African Meeting House is the oldest; the African Meeting House on Nantucket was built in 1820.) Built about 1826, the church was active in the abolition movement, and weathered Portland's 1866 fire. Church members were devastated in 1898 when 19 of them went down with the steamship Portland in a storm near Boston. The church closed in 1917 and was converted to apartments. Vacant since 1991, locals are fighting to save it. See it at 73-75 Newbury St.
Village of Sheepscot. This exquisite village northeast of Wiscasset still looks much as it did in the 18th century. Hardly a shop in sight, just rows of pristine Federal houses and farm dwellings at the confluence of two rivers. Its main thoroughfare, King's Highway, is the oldest highway in the state. Like in the quaint fishing villages of Harpswell and Bass Harbor, however, the clock is ticking. Village residents have staved off development, but the tide may turn.
Sea Urchins, Bar Harbor. A rare example of the sumptuous summer homes that were typical in Bar Harbor until a 1947 fire ravaged the town. The mansion's nearness to the water and onshore breezes kept the flames at bay, but neglect is doing it in. The cottage was already in disrepair when the College of the Atlantic acquired it a couple of years ago. From Route 3, turn right onto campus at the "Turrets" sign and continue straight to the cottage, an off-white stucco structure.
MassachusettsThe Great Meadow, Hadley. This series of planting fields along the Connecticut River, farmed since Hadley's founding in 1661, may be one of New England's last surviving examples of medieval farming. Narrow strips were allotted to landowners whose house lots were in town. Leave the car in the small parking lot at the southern end of West Street and take the dirt path west along the river. From a rise, you can see the Berkshires' Mount Holyoke Range and striated swaths of green not unlike the English countryside. Take in the unobstructed views while you can; development is imminent.
Stevens Estate, North Andover. Built in 1886 by textile magnate Moses Stevens, the estate is a study in mahogany paneling, stained glass windows, and marble fireplaces, the epitome of Victorian grandeur. Donated to Boston University, the property has undergone a steady decline. The town saved it from demolition in 1995, but without big repairs, it won't last too much longer. At 723 Osgood St., www.stevensestate.com.
New HampshireOld Meadows Bridge, Shelburne. This vintage bridge with its filigree grillwork is the last pin-connected metal truss bridge in the state and one of very few in New England. Built in 1897, it represents the finest in 19th-century bridge design. A year ago, two of its four spans were taken down for safety. Unless the town's 379 citizens can collect $320,000 to match a $1.28 million pledge, this engineering marvel will vanish.
Daniel Webster Farm, Franklin. Lawyer and statesman Daniel Webster was raised on this bucolic farm on the Merrimack River and kept it until his death in 1852. In the 1870s, the 140-acre site became a home for Civil War orphans. Webster's "mansion" was enlarged, and five brick buildings were added, including an infirmary, dining hall, and school. The Sisters of the Holy Cross bought the farm in 1960; they placed it on the market in 2000.
A developer plans to put up a 150-unit retirement community. The company says it will restore the historic buildings, but locals are unconvinced. If you go north on Route 3, the site is half a mile south of Punch Brook Road.
Rhode IslandOcean House Hotel, Westerly. Probably the grandest of the oceanfront hotels between New York and Boston, this sprawling Greek Revival came within a hair of the wrecking ball. The town rallied to save it, though, approving a zoning change in October that effectively prevented the hotel's loss. Restoration should follow, but it may never again be as authentic. From Interstate 95, take exit 1, Route 78 south, past the airport, then follow Watch Hill Road to 2 Bluff Road. www.theoceanhouse.org.
Cranston Street Armory, Providence. Built in 1907, this Medieval Gothic-style armory is probably the nation's most stunning. An important town landmark, it has hosted shows, track meets, even gubernatorial inaugural balls. It became vacant in 1997, and has not recovered. www.savethearmory.org.
VermontWalloomsac Inn, Bennington. Built about 1764, the Walloomsac is probably Vermont's oldest inn. Opposite the exquisite Old First Church on the corner of Route 9 and Monument Avenue, it served as a stagecoach stop and hosted James Madison and Thomas Jefferson. Despite numerous efforts, preservationists have never managed to strike a deal with the owners to save the three-story structure, and its gabled grandeur fades with each passing year.
Hyde Manor, Sudbury. A mineral spring resort dating from 1865, this four-story white Italianate hotel was a vision of pastoral splendor until the Great Depression put an end to the spa epoch. Now a private residence, it is beyond repair, yet still an intriguing sight as you drive north on Route 30. Watch for it on the right about half a mile south of Sudbury.
Circular and oversized barns. In 1963, Vermont had two dozen circular barns. Now it has 10. One is safely housed in the Shelburne Museum, but the rest are disappearing. The yellow 18-sided one on Route 7 in Ferrisburgh opposite Rokeby Museum is too far gone to save but still fascinating to behold. Similarly irreplaceable are two colossal monitor-style barns on Route 2 between Richmond and Jonesville. One is being restored.
Wilson's Castle. A jewel in the wilderness, this 32-room brick mansion sparkles with imported tiles, bronze ornaments, and lavish antiques. A physician erected it in 1867 for his English bride, but when she left him, it was quickly sold. It opened as a museum in 1962, but the years have taken their toll; it could close any day for good. Open late May through mid-October. Between Proctor and Center Rutland on West Proctor Road. www.wilsoncastle.com.
Diane Foulds is a freelance writer in Vermont. Contact her at email@example.com.