“We have come to respect the work of the men who created these old buildings of such excellent proportions and who placed their restrained ornament with such assurance and effect.” Herbert Weaton Congdon, Old Vermont Houses, 1940
Anyone who has lived in a community for a time can testify to the changes that occur in its physical face. New buildings and infrastructure are built, sometimes replacing older ones. Other older facilities are repurposed. Despite these changes, the impact of builders and architects of the past are still widely represented. Their contributions are so significant that many of the buildings that currently exist today are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
This column examines some of those builders and architects, especially those from 1765 to the earliest years of the 20th century. The information is gathered from vintage newspapers, town and state histories as well as two recent publications mentioned below.
The area’s pioneers generally built log huts for their first homes. This was followed by well-built frame houses of one or two stories. The oldest wood-frame house in New Hampshire is in Portsmouth and dates from 1664 whereas the first frame house in Vermont was built in Bennington in 1763. Built in 1770, the Col. Johnston House in Haverhill was used as a blockhouse during the Revolution. The oldest house in Bradford in its original location is the 1777 Bliss house on Route 5.
Very few of these builders were architects and many of the builders were owners. Local histories often mention individuals as builders of homes, but do not specify the craftsmen involved. For example, beginning in 1775, Col. Thomas Johnson built four large houses near the Oxbow in Newbury. Perhaps he had the idea and money behind the projects and then hired house wrights or joiners, bricklayers and carpenters from near and far.
Housewrights were individuals who built houses from logs they harvested, then hand-hewed into timbers. Each timber was customized to fit with adjacent pieces. Each piece had to be marked so that the builder would know where they went. This technique was known as the scribe rule. When the materials were prepared, house or barn raisings called on the strength of neighbors. Carpenters were craftsmen who built the structure whereas joiners did finished woodwork such as building windows or doors. Because of the overlapping of skills, many builders were both carpenters and joiners.
Those builders copied the architecture from older sections of New England. Fairlee architect Frank Barrett told me that he noticed that houses in the area seem to copy those in the area from which the builders came. In Newbury and Haverhill the houses reflect Massachusetts roots, whereas earlier houses in Hanover were built by those from central Connecticut.
Builders may also have copied patterns from the first American architectural handbook written in 1797 by Asher Benjamin of Windsor, VT. The NH historical marker at the base of the Ridge in Orford indicates that the Wheeler House, built in 1814-1816 “was designed by a Boston architect, probably Asher Benjamin who was then an associate of Charles Bulfinch. Other Ridge houses also display Asher Benjamin influence.”
As with the fine houses there, the availability of building guides meant that some of the new homes in village centers such as Haverhill Corner included features previously found in older cities such as Portsmouth or Boston.
Many of the skilled craftsmen were also farmers or mill owners. They had no formal training other than being apprentices in the craft and may not have constructed more than one or two buildings each year.
Alonzo Fleming, a skilled carpenter and farmer, came to Newbury in 1831. Although he was entirely self-taught and was never know to make written plans, he erected a number of buildings in Newbury and surrounding towns.
About 1800, the square rule was introduced. Essentially, similar timbers were interchangeable. Saw mills were more likely to turn out uniform timbers. About the same time, machine made nails began to replace hand wrought nails.
In 1787, the Vermont General Assembly met in a newly-constructed court house opposite the Oxbow cemetery in Newbury. Built by master-workman Jeremiah Harris of Rumney, it was believed to have been the first building in the region erected using the square rule.
Initial smaller homes were enhanced as the size and fortunes of the occupants increased. From the houses on the Ridge in Orford to the finer homes on other towns’ main streets, the rear ell was often that initial modest home.
Although homes were often copies of down-country structures, the area’s buildings sometimes reflected different styles. As many as one third of the earlier homes in northeastern Vermont were plank houses. The Corliss Tavern built near the Bradford Corinth line in the early 1800s was an example. It was built with sawed timbers standing vertically side by side. It was destroyed by fire in 1983.
In the middle of the 19th century, it was not unusual to find an area farm house connected to the barn by a series of outbuildings. At a recent presentation in Orford, barn historian John Porter mentioned that the theory that this practice was to save the farmer from having to go outside when walking to the barn has been replaced by the idea that the connecting structures were used for supplementary activities such as blacksmithing. With the threat of fire, many of those connectors have been dismantled.
The Connecticut Valley porch was another architectural feature unique to the valley. This recessed upper-story enclosed porch appeared around 1840. Traveling around the area one can still see this feature on houses and public buildings. One can also see houses built of bricks or stone. Those interested in the former can see my blog entry entitled “Building With Bricks” at larrycoffin.blogspot.com.
One of the most prolific architect builders in Vermont during the latter half of the 19th century was George H. Guernsey (1839-1900). A study of his life, published by members of the Historical Society of Bethel, Vermont, describes business blocks, churches and private dwellings he designed.
Without more formal training other than that received as an apprentice to his father, a master carpenter, Guernsey’s contributions were most visible in Montpelier. There he designed six business blocks, a church, three railroad bridges for the Montpelier and Wells River Railroad and the private residence still known as Redstone.
The Methodist Church of Groton was the first of two local buildings designed by Guernsey. Originally built in the 1830s, it had extensive alterations about 1864. Those alterations included turning the building northward. By 1888, the church needed to be repaired and enlarged. Guernsey was hired and the church was remodeled with an addition, a vestry and a steeple with a belfry. The plan also called for the building to be returned to its original position facing eastward. The refurbished church was re-dedicated on December 11, 1888.
The Groton history mentions that the actual renovator was William Goodwin. Goodwin had been involved in the lumber business since 1858. “Goodwin’s work covered the second half of the century. He built many houses here and in neighboring towns, some of the most ‘elegant’ houses of the eighties and nineties…” Several years prior to the Groton church project, he had built the First Presbyterian Church in South Ryegate.
The second Guernsey project was Bradford’s Woods School Building. In 1893, $15,000 had been left to Bradford by the estate of John Lund Woods. Lund, a native of Corinth, had made a fortune in the lumber business in the Midwest. The bequest was to be used to replace the old Academy building.
As he had done several times before, Guernsey used a previous project as a model for the new one. In this case, he revived the blueprints used for the South Royalton School building in 1892. However, He made two major changes. The South Royalton wooden building became brick and the tower was shifted from left front to right front. By the fall of 1893, the new building was under construction. Completed in 1894, the total cost of the project was $17, 316, with the amount over the bequest paid by the School District.
Lambert Packard (1832-1906) was another architect who had a profound impact on the architecture of the area. In 2018 historian Allen D. Hodgdon published an in-depth study of Packard’s works.
Packard’s father was a house joiner and carpenter and his sons were his apprentices. Lambert’s older brother Alonzo became a carpenter-designer and, in 1874, built the former Wells River High School.
In 1866, Lambert Packard became an employee of the Fairbanks family in St. Johnsbury. During his career he built a number of homes, churches and business buildings there, many of them at the direction and with the financial backing of his employers. Fairbanks Museum and the Athenaeum are just two of Packard’s contributions.
In 1889, Packard was hired to build a hotel in Bradford to replace the Trotter House that had burned in 1887. Built by William Bray of St. Johnsbury, the resulting Hotel Low, later the Bradford Hotel, remained a major presence until it was torn down in 1960 to make room for a new Bradford National Bank building. That bank had occupied the brick building across the street, a building that Packard designed in 1891. That three-story building housed the bank, other businesses and the Bradford Guard Armory. A distinctive architectural feature that still exists is the single-piece two-story copper turret.
In 1894, Packard was again asked to design a building for Bradford. It was a new library to be built with another bequest from John L. Woods. The Woods Library building was dedicated on July 4, 1895. As there had been some disputes over changes to his designs, Packard apparently broke with his tradition and asked for the return of his blueprints.
During the decade of the 1890s, Packard was also involved in a number of projects in Woodsville. In 1896- 1897, he designed St. Joseph’s Catholic Church on Pine Street. It was built by James Dalton of Wells River. Packard also designed the Tilton and Quincy Scott Blocks on Central Street.
There were also several more local architects. Frederick Bigelow Staples moved from Corinth to Bradford in the 1860s. A master of building design and carpentry, he was asked to design a home on Main Street for future governor Roswell and Elizabeth Farnham. The Italianate-style house he build was inspired by noted architects of the period.
In 1891, he was asked to do all of the elaborate interior work on the new bank building being designed by Packard. In ill health, he refused the task, but did agree to be a supervisor of others.
George W. Farr (1832-1908) was a Bradford native. As an architect and builder, his work remains a major part of Bradford village. In 1875, Farr was hired to build a new Congregational church. Along with Edwin Aldrich he designed and built a new structure. The local newspaper reported, “The appearance was very fine, an ornament to the village.”
In 1879, Farr was involved in the remodeling of the Methodist church across the street. He added two steeples and remodeled the existing building. In 1883, a major fire consumed a number of businesses on the west side of Bradford’s Main Street. Farr was hired to replace those burned wooden building with substantial brick structures. He built the Stevens Block in 1883 and the Union Block in 1884.
Before moving to Missouri in 1885, Farr built a number of houses in the area. One of those is the large house on North Main currently being used as a veteran’s home.Farr and a crew of 12 men were also hired to do finishing work for S. S. Houghton stock barn being built in Orford in 1877. The barn, one of the largest and most expensive stock barns in New England at the time, was designed by architect Calvin Ryder of Massachusetts. The master builder was S. S. Ordway of Lyndon, VT. The barn measured 440 ft. on the west and north side and had a 136 ft. tower. It burned in 1930.
The sources that I reviewed for this column were filled with other examples of builders of barns, houses, churches and other structures. They, like Bradford’s Edwin Aldrich, can be described as having “done much in the way of house building here.” The pains-taking workmanship they prized is a lasting testament to their skills.
The current dilemma area residents often face is how to preserve those private and public structures so that they can still be prized for years to come. Fortunately, we still have crafters who are able to repair and replicate that earlier workmanship. Often, however, necessary funds, the will to have the work done and the desire for modernity stand dangerously in the way.