By William Morgan
The Polka Dot has been closed for a while and is for sale. Probably not many people are upset by the demise of this greasy spoon next to the railroad tracks in downtown White River Junction, Vermont, except for bygone students from Dartmouth in nearby Hanover, New Hampshire, who made late night runs for bad coffee and mystery-meat burgers. The railroad workers who were the diner’s steady customers long ago changed their allegiance to fast food out on the strip, while today’s Ivy Leaguers no doubt eat much healthier fare.
My wife and I stopped there recently in search of lunch — it had been 40-some years since I had been to White River. With the Polka Dot closed, we tried a new café across the street called Tuckerbox. Owned by two Istanbul natives and a Vermonter, the food in this Turkish restaurant and coffee shop was fabulous. (Carolyn had an Istanbul salad; I had a grilled cheese and sausage sandwich.)
An option beyond the Tuckerbox was the Tip Top Café, which locals told us was equally good (journalist Robert Whitcomb, a Dartmouth alumnus and former editor for the Herald Tribune in Paris, said he had “one of the best meals in my life” at the Tip Top). The restaurant is in a building that is home to painting, photography, and ceramics studios. Such activity points to an exciting if modest Renaissance, and it could not be happening to a town in greater need of a makeover. The last big event that took place here was D.W. Griffith’s filming of “Way Down East” in 1920, with Lillian Gish memorably abandoned on a ice flow in the White River. (A local museum’s claim to having Elvis Presley’s gallstones failed to make the town a pilgrimage destination.)
Lillian Gish on the ice in “Way Down East.” Note the train in the background.
As per the Junction’s name, White River’s fortunes have been linked to the railroad ever since the first tracks were laid in the 1840s. By the Civil War, five different railroads and scores of passenger trains ran through town. There are still rail yards just west of town, but the fact that White River is now the nexus of two Interstate highways is a poignant reminder of the decline of railroads in this country.
Amtrak’s Vermonter (formerly the Montrealer) rumbles through White River once a day in each direction. An open platform serves as the train stop. At least the handsome 1937 Georgian depot has been restored for commercial use.
Another handsome civic structure in the Georgian style is the former United States Post Office. When the post office moved to far less glorious quarters, the building became the home of the Center for Cartoon Studies. Offering a Master of Fine Arts degree, the two-year graduate program currently enrolls 48 students (the one who showed us around is from Los Angeles). A W.P.A. mural of Vermont farmers and quarrymen still graces the lobby.
On a snowy winter day, the three or four blocks that make up the commercial heart of White River could admittedly be mistaken for a dying railroad town, say, on the Great Plains. But we were encouraged about White River Junction’s future when we discovered the Scavenger Gallery, located just off the lobby of the Coolidge Hotel. This is the new studio of the talented and optimistic Upper Valley native Stacy Hopkins, who, after 10 years working in Florence, Italy, returned home and set up shop on South Main Street. Scavenger also is host to exhibitions by other artists, as well as wine tastings of the European vintages she imports.
Despite hard times, this Vermont town has always been blessed with a strategic location at the confluence of two rivers and classic New England scenery just over the next hill. And now it seems to have incorporated some of the good vibe of the thriving Vermont cities of Brattleboro and Burlington.
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