Is the Vermont We Loved Destined to be History?
By Chester H. Liebs (© 2000 Chester Liebs)
Vermont Historic Preservation Conference Keynote Address
Vergennes Opera House, Vergennes, Vermont
May 12, 2000
I am honored to have been asked to give this millennial talk, and what a pleasure it is to be presenting it in this beautiful, historic opera house. This year 2000 is an important milestone in the history of heritage conservation in Vermont. It marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Vermont Historic Preservation Act of 1975 and the Historic Preservation Program at the University of Vermont, as well as the twentieth birthday of the Preservation Trust of Vermont. So let's begin with a little oral history from an eyewitness and participant in these events.
Events Leading Up to the Vermont Historic Preservation Act of 1975
In late August 1971 I was just 26 years old and a year out of Columbia University School of Architecture's new Graduate Program in Historic Preservation. Its founder and my mentor, James Marston Fitch, one of the great influences on the preservation movement in the 20th century, passed away a couple of weeks ago at the age of 90. I had just completed a summer's work as a field historian with the Historic American Engineering Record when I saw an ad for a "Supervisor of Historic Sites" for Vermont. Having previously lived in and traveled all around the State, I could not imagine anything more worthwhile than being in a position to help protect what I considered to be one of the nation’s most inspiring cultural landscapes, so I applied. Soon I was invited to Montpelier to interview with a distinguished-looking gentleman named William B. Pinney in a little storefront office on Langdon Street.
Bill Pinney told me the primary mission of his tiny agency, the Division of Historic Sites, was to manage and professionalize state-owned historic properties. The Division had, however, just received some funds from the National Park Service (around $4000 is what sticks in my mind) to begin nominating sites for the new National Register of Historic Places and complete a state historic sites survey. If I remember correctly he expected much of this work could be completed in a year or so.
Bill, who I admire a great deal, and I spent the next four years constructively clashing. I kept prodding him that adequately surveying the State's architectural heritage, and nominating all the eligible sites to the National Register, was a multi-year project. Bill tried to reign in my too-youthful enthusiasm at times, and reminded me that we had state-owned sites to care for, but as he saw the growing need for expanding the Division's mission, nothing could stop him. I guess we made quite a good team together.
This was in the halcyon age of environmentalism, when everyone seemed to realize that Vermont was a very special place and that strong measures were needed to keep it so. Only back then the popular concept of "environment" included nature, not culture and the places where people lived.
A turning point in this thinking was in the early 1970s, when the state started mapping unique and fragile resources as an aid to Act 250. I proposed to Jan Wells, the project's planner, that the maps should include historic as well as natural resources. He said O.K. "if you supply the data." We did not have very much data yet, so I conducted an intensive field survey to locate representative sites in each county to get our foot in the door. Before long our increased involvement in Act 250 was put to the test.
One day out surveying in 1973, I discovered Vermont Highway Department contractors gouging out a valley to enlarge the main road to Brookfield, one of the last historic villages still on an unpaved byway. We had not signed off on the project and reported the discovery to then Chair of the State Environmental Board, Schuyler Jackson. Schuyler said it might be an important test case but that Bill Pinney had to officially request a hearing. Bill bravely did.
Our opponent was not the now generally cooperative Agency of Transportation, but the old Vermont Highway Department. Used to being kings of the road, and unaccustomed to such challenges, its leaders went ballistic and immediately brought Governor Thomas P. Salmon out to see the project. The tactic backfired. Tom dubbed it "the Brookfield Massacre." The name stuck and the media went wild with headlines like " DIVISION OF HISTORIC SITES BATTLES GOLIATH."
The Highway Department claimed the project was grandfathered because it was proposed years before, just not built. Nevertheless the Environmental Board ruled that the long-dormant project needed a land-use permit. The road was stopped short of the village and the Division of Historic Sites' clout among other agencies began to increase a bit.
But a heightened profile had its costs. There were new preservation projects surfacing daily, and National Register nominating, surveying and planning, environmental-impact reviewing, and Federal grants distribution to do. And more needed to be done to identify and manage the state's archeological heritage. The Division's responsibilities now far exceeded the legal mandate of our tiny agency and its small professional staff.
With some strong prodding, we received the nod from our parent agency, Development and Community Affairs, and submitted a draft of new legislation to the Legislative Council. Adapted from suggested federal guidelines for state historic preservation legislation, it called for establishing a Division for Historic Preservation as successor to the Division of Historic Sites, a State Archeologist, a Vermont Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, and review of state licensed and funded projects impacting officially-recognized historic places. The political stage was set for this initiative by launching, with help from future Environmental Board Chair Margaret Garland, Governor Salmon, and the State's growing preservation citizen's movement, the First Governor's Conference on Historic Preservation in December of 1974. With bipartisan support, the legislature went on to pass the Act, without much controversy, in the spring of 1975.
Founding of the University of Vermont Historic Preservation Program
By this time I personally was heading in a new professional direction. Not too long after beginning state service I began to be flooded with requests to give talks about Vermont's architecture and how to save it. There was such a hunger for this information that these speaking engagements began to take up many evenings and weekends. Part of the demand might have been my message. Vermonters had been told for years that only "Colonial" buildings were worth saving -- anything painted white, with green trim, built before the Civil War.
My goal was to defuse this prejudice, a legacy of the Colonial Revival, and share the findings of our state survey, that Vermont had many important sites and structures in addition to its famous "colonial" icons. From ancient burial grounds and industrial buildings to bridges, barns, and a variety of historic rural villages and urban centers, the state's actual physical heritage was far more complex and interesting than the idyllic "beckoning country" touted by tourist promotions at the time. Contrary to the stereotype of the "ayupping" Yankee Vermont was also a place built by people of many origins. This inclusive rather than exclusive view of heritage made historic preservation everyone's business. We were suddenly reaching out to a much larger constituency.
Given all this interest I decided it was time to provided more opportunities for the study of the state's built environment, so in the fall of 1972, in the Pavilion Building auditorium, with a University of Vermont Continuing Education representative sitting with a cash box to sign people up, I entered the world of historic preservation education.
Over forty volunteers and professionals, ages twenty to sixty, from as far away as New Hampshire and Washington County, New York, showed up to take "Architecture and the Environment." At the request of Wes Herwig of the Randolph Historical Society, I had the group do a project on the potential of that town's downtown, an assortment of Victorian commercial structures clustered around a railroad station. At the end of the semester the class amazed a standing-room-only crowd, attending our final presentation at the Chandler Music Hall, with their enthusiasm for the architecture of Depot Square and its economic potential. Local residents had been hearing from town officials and hired consultants that the area was ugly, old, and obsolete. The presentation even convinced these same officials to delay demolition, in order to create a few parking spots, of an old firehouse which they had declared an unsafe eyesore. (With the help of some Economic Development Administration funds from the Division a few years later, that same firehouse was converted to, and still houses, the town's offices.) I could see I was really on to something.
The next fall Fleming Museum Director Richard Janson invited me to teach on the UVM campus. Among my best students were those referred by Professor Neil Stout. Neil had recently founded a pioneering Cultural History Graduate Program at UVM, in cooperation with the Shelburne Museum and the Fleming. I put these talented graduate students to work doing practical projects for our then understaffed Division of Historic Sites. One of them, Hope Alswang, is now the Shelburne Museum's President. Carol Clark prepared an excellent National Register nomination for Barre's Italian Baptist Church, and Louise Roomet did the same for the UVM Green Historic District. Finally in 1975 (with help from Robert McNulty at the National Endowment for the Arts and Robert A. Sincerbeaux, President of the Eva Gehbard-Gourgaud Foundation and Vermont's patron saint of historic preservation, who more than any other individual is responsible for saving the heritage of the state) we inaugurated a historic preservation curriculum, leading to a masters degree, in the UVM History Department.
The Birth of the Preservation Trust of Vermont
Now for the founding of the Preservation Trust. Its history is a bit complex. The story begins with the establishment of Historic Windsor. In 1972, its dynamic and persuasive founder Georgianna Brush and her friends, with help from a scathing article by New York Times architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable, dissuaded the Vermont National Bank from demolishing an imposing, Greek Revival former hotel, the Windsor House. She went on to find many innovative uses for the building, from providing a home for a Vermont State Crafts Center and incubator studio space for Vermont Public Radio, to launching the now very successful Preservation Institute. More than just another local organization, Historic Windsor set the tone for what a preservation nonprofit could accomplish, so why not do the same at the state level?
By the late 1970s many of us, including Georgie and Kathryn Welch, head of the National Trust's regional office in Boston, were advocating just that, but the idea had a bit of a stain on it. It seems that several years before a persuasive young man came to Vermont touting this same idea, and with seeming credibility succeeded in raising some money before skipping town with little accomplished.
It took the late Edmund Kellogg to move things to the next step. An accomplished former diplomat and law professor, Ed had recently served as Chairman of the Boston-based Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities. Though the SPNEA did not own any Vermont properties, when Ed and his wife Celina moved to Pomfret, he decided it should at least form a "state council". Besides serving as the first state-wide forum for preservation, the Vermont Council of the SPNEA, with help from Bob Sincerbeaux, sponsored a newsletter which debuted in 1976, called Possibilities. We edited and published Possibilities at UVM, in those type it, edit it, type it again, bring it to the printer, proof it again and again, distribution by punch-card generated mailing label, pre-word processor days.
But it took one final ingredient to have a full-fledged statewide organization. Enter Paul Bruhn. A Vermont native, the state's future was always on his radar, and he frequently covered issues on historic preservation and community planning in the early 1970s in his publication, Chittenden Magazine. Then he led a children’s crusade to elect a young Chittenden County States Attorney, Patrick Leahy, now one of preservation's strongest supporters in Congress, to the United States Senate in 1974. Paul was appointed Patrick's chief of staff.
I first met Paul when we were both serving on a planning committee to develop Burlington’s Church Street Marketplace. Shortly after, he and Patrick held a reception upon the occasion of our UVM historic preservation class field trip to Washington, DC. The gathering provided an opportunity for staff from the National Trust, National Park Service, Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, and members of Congress, to meet face to face in the same room -- something that hadn't happened much before that. Paul and his staff worked hard for several more years, squeezing out as much federal largess as possible to support preservation in Vermont. They also sponsored an influential Main Street revitalization conference in Montpelier in 1970.
In 1978 Paul decided to return to Vermont and became active in the Vermont Council of the SPNEA. Not too long after it became obvious to all of us on the Council that the perfect leader had emerged for a new statewide organization. [Paul injected during the speech that the other reason for our interest in him was that "he came cheap."] Thus in 1980 the Preservation Trust of Vermont was born with offices at the Windsor House and in Burlington.
Declaring A Victory
However there is much more to the history and success of historic preservation in Vermont than the founding of the Division, the UVM Preservation Program, and the Preservation Trust. Although it would take many more hours to credit everyone who should be credited, all of you in here today have had a role in the incredible impact that preservation has had in Vermont. Thirty years ago the state was in the grips of urban renewal. Historic sections of cities such as Burlington and Winooski were being leveled, and local occupants and business displaced. In the rest of the state, many downtown areas had a "just hanging in there" look about them.
Today, from Swanton to Bennington to St. Johnsbury to Brattleboro, reusing old buildings in a respectful way has become routine -- all sorts of buildings from houses and mills to movie theaters and commercial blocks. Parks, commons, and other historic landscapes have also been conserved, and archeological resources protected and interpreted. It just seems so obvious and natural to us now. What a tremendous transformation of values and attitudes.
More preservation has taken hold in Vermont, in more ways, than anyone would have dreamed of when the three sponsoring institutions of this conference were founded. Since everyone here in this room has helped to make this happen, at this first Historic Preservation conference of the new millennium, let's take a moment to proclaim a victory together. Since I am currently teaching in Japan, let me show you the way the Japanese declare a job well done. [Everyone participated in "Teuchi", and clapped three quick claps and then one clap, three times in succession, and then one final loud clap at the end. Then the room fell silent.]
Now for the more challenging part of this talk. Remember the old cliche about painting the bridge? By the time you finish painting it it needs painting again? Preservation is continuous. We are already re-saving structures saved a couple of decades ago. Future generations will want to conserve places we might have preferred to see destroyed, just as our desire to save Victorian houses or Art Deco movie theaters shocked an earlier cohort. Each generation is given a chance to leave to the future, not just its own contributions to the present, but the gifts from a myriad past presents as well. Today the ability of our generation to pass on this collective cultural inheritance, here and in many other places around the world, is far from certain.
When he asked me to give this keynote, the usually optimistic Paul Bruhn put it this way He said "While preservation on a case-by-case basis is proceeding very well, and people can get fired up and committed to individual projects, there is a feeling that the future of Vermont is spinning out of control. People feel that little can be done about it. "
Let's take a brief look at events leading up to this situation. There was a time when historic preservation issues seemed much more clear cut. It was difficult enough to save a single building, let alone an entire state. I'm talking about the early 1960s. Back then those preservation groups that did exist were up against a one-two punch. First they faced the pervasive influence of an ironically "romantic" modernism, the philosophical underlay of Urban Renewal, that looked at existing settlements as something expert "form givers," with help from the federal treasury, could erase and reshape at will. Draconian urban clearcutting took place in cities across America, often with scant input from or regard for the people living in them. Anyone trying to save a local landmark was also up against the lingering values from the Colonial Revival that only the oldest and elitist of places were worth saving.
But a change occurred, provoked in no small part by the publication of a revolutionary book which I first read when I was in high school. In her 1961 work, Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs turned modernist city planning on its head by showing the unscientific absurdity of tampering with living cities before taking a close look at how they really worked. She offered the next generation the philosophical framework for more thoughtful stewardship of human settlement and provided dozens of good reasons for conserving useful buildings beyond patriotism and nostalgia. At the same time the emergence of a "new social history" challenged the exclusionary values of the Colonial Revival, and opened the door for the study and conservation of places reflecting the full range and breadth of the American experience.
Horrendous acts of vandalism, most notably the 1963-1965 demolition of New York's Pennsylvania Station for an undistinguished sports arena and office tower, caused great pubic outcry and helped anti-Urban Renewal forces to coalesce. Around the same time Montpelier's station, across from the Statehouse, was blown up and replaced by a tiny drive-in bank.
Something strong was needed to reverse this course. It came in the form of a book called With Heritage So Rich. Written by pioneering preservationists and scholars including Robert M. Garvey, Helen Duprey Bulloch, Carl Feiss, and Walter Muir Whitehill, the publication had the support of organizations such as the National Trust for Historic Preservation, National Park Service, and the preservation committee of the National Council of Mayors. Our own Governor Philip Hoff was on that committee. Lady Bird Johnson wrote the forward.
The study outlined the perilous rate that America was losing its architectural treasures. Half of the 12,000 buildings then listed in the Historic American Buildings Survey had already been destroyed. It ended with a set of forceful recommendations including the need for new and strong federal legislation. Congress responded by enacting the National Historic Preservation Act in 1966.
The agency administering the Act, the National Park Service, led by visionaries such as Ernest Allen Connally and William J. Murtagh, began fleshing out a National Historic Preservation Program. Some criteria for its corner-stone initiative, the National Register of Historic Places, encouraged the nomination of homes of famous people and battlefields, long the staple of American preservation. But others presciently opened the door to the nomination and conservation of a greatly expanded range of individual structures, entire districts, landscapes, corridors, and archeological sites. What was called at the time "The New Preservation" had been born.
The late 1960s and early 1970s was the age of identifying and convincing. As architectural surveys across the country progressed, the range of structures seen as valuable -- mills, movie theaters, commercial buildings, even early gas stations, expanded exponentially. But many people would still caution, " You can't turn every old building into a museum!" There was an answer however. The Europeans had been doing it for centuries but Americans needed a catch phrase to market the concept, "adaptive use," finding new uses for old structures without compromising their historical integrity.
Much effort was expended at the time by the National Park Service, National Trust, local preservationists, and the staff of agencies such as the Division of Historic Sites, to promote adaptive use. Case studies of actually examples, from San Fransisco's Ghirardelli Square, to home-grown projects like the Walton Block (1879) in Montpelier, which was adapted into modern offices and apartments in 1967 while conserving the structure's Italianate facade, were offered up as proof of concept.
By the mid 1970s even more forces aligned to encourage the retaining of older structures. Fear of energy shortages made recycling arguments easier, and with the emergence of Post Modernism, architects who use to sneer at old buildings began to look at them for inspiration. Then there was the Tax Reform Act of 1976. With its passage the number of adaptive use projects soared as developers began to see a gold mine in former white elephants, like mills and downtown commercial blocks, properties they wouldn't have taken a second look at a few years before.
In the final two decades of the last century, little could stop historic preservation. There were still battles to be one and new cases to be tested, such as the successful effort, begun in 1989, to save the Burlington Savings and Loan Bank Building (1958) from an ironic scheme to replace its historic glass and aluminum front with a pseudo-Victorian facade. However, beside staving off political threats to the National Historic Preservation Program, the greatest challenge at the time was not so much convincing people to save older structures, but seeing it was done well.
This job often fell to the dedicated staff of State Historic Preservation Agencies, such as our own Division for Historic Preservation, who had the important, yet thankless task of implementing the sometimes difficult-to-interpret “Secretary of the Interior's Standards for Rehabilitation.” At the same time the quality of rehab was improved by applying pressure for building code enforcement that maintained safety but was not prejudicial to reusing older structures. There was also an increase in building-trade professionals who could repair slate, properly clean and repoint brick, and duplicate historic mill work. Here in Vermont, Historic Windsor’s Preservation Institute and the UVM Historic Preservation Program's Architectural Conservation and Education Service played no small part in this transformation.
Also new models for preservation began to mature and grow in sophistication during this time. The National Trust's Main Street Program demonstrated that it took effective business practices, as well as good design, to revitalize commercial downtowns Meanwhile urban and rural land trusts were making inner city home ownership available to low-income families and protecting valuable farmland and countryside.
At the same time other less benign forces were shaping the American landscape. Energy shortages, that seemed a natural for encouraging preservation and environmentally sustainable development vanished, at least temporarily, with the discovery of new oil reserves along with increased reliance on foreign imports. Remember back in 1974 we were supposed to be out of oil by the 1990s? Automobile dependency continued to soar and the decentralization of American settlement accelerated.
Rather than the little Levittowns of compact houses beyond the city edge, this new round of development consisted of bigger houses, condominium complexes, shopping malls, discount stores, office buildings, and parking lots, scattered more widely across the landscape than ever before. It continues to gobble up millions of acres from the Front Range of the Rockies to sacred Civil War battlefields south of Washington, DC.
This migration of settlement further away way from historic population centers has also affected the residents of existing cities. While many Main Streets and downtown areas have been rehabilitated, they often are relegated to specialty retailing like antiques shops or restaurants, forcing local residents to travel miles to find a supermarket or purchase other basic necessities. For those of us born before the 1970s, this was a very different America than the place we had grown up in.
I would like to be able to say in this address that there is one stoic state, heralded by the press as one of the most livable places in America, whose staunchly independent people, steeped in direct democracy, and with close ties to the land and village life, where this has not happened. Sadly I can’t.
And it is this that Paul Bruhn was referring to when he said we are saving buildings but losing Vermont. The Vermont we love, with all its seeming hope of doing something better, is slipping away -- and not just in Chittenden County, where the ravages of sprawl are most evident, but all over the state. Giant houses can now be seen cropping up along the mountain ridges and the centers of fields, even in the remotest areas. General stores have given away to quick stops, urban neighborhoods are deteriorating, and "Moonlight in Vermont" has been blotted out by omnidirectional mercury and sodium lighting that makes everything it illuminates look like a crime zone.
Even many of the most celebrated of Vermont icons, our picture post card rural villages, now have giant over-lit gas station canopies glowering in their centers. Traditionally it has been a great source of pride to hear such a positive reaction to the question "Where do you live" when you answer Vermont? Recently I have had several rather perceptive people look at me sadly and say "The place is really in trouble, isn’t it?”
I can't make the challenges to Vermont's environment and heritage go away just by saying a few words. However, here are some questions, observations, and suggestions for improving the situation. I am sure all of you will have many more useful contributions as my list is far from complete.
Is it Time to Take a Stronger Stand?
Since saving individual structures has become a routine occurrence preservationists have tended to take a more low-key approach. Many preservation leaders have asked me in private if it is time to make conservation of Vermont's world-heritage-quality natural and cultural inheritance a higher profile issue in the state. It is time. The quality of life and economic well-being of future generations of Vermonters requires it.
Admit There Are Problems
First we must begin by admitting to the problems that we see, even if they have short-term benefits. Often we don't. My favorite example is the flagrant violation of the spirit of Vermont's anti-billboard law in Chittenden County where public busses are now covered from roof to rocker panels, windows and all, with giant corporate advertising. One of these moving billboards even depicts mountains and fields, and exhorts the public to save the environment by riding the bus. For years there has been silence, despite concern in Burlington about the growing problem of graffiti showing up on public and private property, because people, including myself, did not want to cut off the revenue that displaying this publicly sanctioned graffiti provides to the operating authority. We need to break the silence on this and many other issues involving environmentally degrading public policy, admit the problem, and find a way to solve it.
Let the Environment Speak, Not Soothing Words
We have also developed an ability to screen out that which seems out of our control so long as we hear the right words. Call a new mall Maple Tree Place. Tout how some reporter has declared Vermont one of the nation's most livable places. Say the fuzzy, friendly things and it will somehow be all right, even though the state's environment is increasingly shouting foul to anyone who looks carefully. Saying something is sustainable or eco-friendly is simply not enough.
Hooking Up the Little Pieces
Today's challenges to the state's cultural and natural environment are interlocking. There are many groups working on the pieces, but it is difficult for each to see how their efforts are having an overall effect. A coordinative mechanism is missing that needs to link a wide range of organizations. Who's role should this be? The Preservation Trust? Vermont Forum on Sprawl? Something new?
Requiring Political Accountability
We have been very lenient by not publicly pointing out the contradiction when political leaders say they want to conserve Vermont’s cultural and natural environment and yet actively support such projects as circumfrential highways, sewer line extensions to the middle of nowhere, and moving of public facilities to remote locations. We should be just as quick to lend support to those who hold consistent positions and warmly embrace those who change their minds.
It is time to be far more vocal about values that are incompatible with the wise use of land and resources. It was refreshing to hear Ron Power’s recent Vermont Public Radio commentary, where he wondered what form of alien life would have driven their sport utility vehicle around a field to deliberately destroy a crop of organic carrots being grown in Burlington's Intervale for distribution to low income families? Yet if one turns on the TV they will see countless automobile commercials showing crazed men and woman crashing through forests and fields with their giant SUVs. Public interest groups opposing drunk driving have been successful in getting the brewing industry to run more responsible ads. Corporate values regarding the stewardship of natural and cultural resources can be changed as well.
What to Say at the Next Cocktail Party?
Word of mouth and peer pressure is also a powerful way to change values. Try answering the next person who brags to you about the house they are building way out in the Vermont countryside with sympathy rather than envy. Tell them how sorry you are that they could not find a suitable place in town, and for all the extra money and time they will spend commuting. Of course I realize this is a dangerous thing to suggest because it might require us talking to ourselves.
But Where Are We Going To Put All the People?
Our state government forecasts substantial increases in Vermont's population, and officials have been heard to repeat the adage, “ If someone can live out in the country in Vermont and commute to work by computer, why would they want to stay in New York City?” Such loose talk should be met with skepticism. People still crave cities if not for the cultural activities, then just to be in close proximity to other people who are actually walking around and living rather than driving in cars. Look at the success of Vermont's most urban of places, the Church Street Market Place. It is not just tourists who have made it prosper. And recently the market for in town housing in places like Burlington has skyrocketed.
The Return of Urban Renewal?
One solution, currently being touted, is to build high-density, multi-story condominiums and accept the fact that our historic town centers will have to drastically change. While this might be appropriate in certain instances, when offered up as broad panacea such proposals hearken back to the destroy and rebuild thinking of urban renewal days. There are other choices.
Bring Back Elm Street?
One of these options, supported by many of the nation's leading architects and urban designers, is to look, as did Jane Jacobs, for ideas from successful residential areas already built. The most prominent example, and one of American's great inventions of place, is what may generically be called "Elm Street." Its neighborhoods are of modest and grand houses, built on a grid, with sidewalks and streets that hook up to other neighborhoods, schools, offices, and shopping areas, and by extension, towns and cities across the nation. Our state is replete with such neighborhoods and they offer many answers for communities of the future. Much statistical data already exists on the many benefits of this type of development by proponents of what is now called "The New Urbanism." Children who live on Elm Street can walk to school rather then spending mind-dulling hours on a bus. Parents can be home from work more quickly to spend time with their families instead of spending time behind the wheel of a car. On Elm Street the affluent connect with people of modest means. Since most residents are owners they have a real stake in the future of the area. Higher density provides for an economy of municipal services, public transportation, and use of energy etc.
Where Should New Neighborhoods Be Built?
Instead of high-rise urbanization that will destroy the character of historic city and town centers, as an alternative to residential sprawl the state would do well to encourage the construction of new Elm Streets, and the continued revitalization of those that already exist. This will require extension of existing neighborhoods where there is room for such growth. We should also not be afraid to build, not just talk about building, some entirely new towns along the same lines, in places where they will do the least ecological damage. There are also quite a few of our most pristine, quintessentially Vermont rural hamlets, that should receive hardly any additional growth at all.
Over the past twenty-five years the state has substantially upgraded its tourism information services. The most notable example is the new welcome center in Montpelier. Located in the heart of town, in a real historic structure, its friendly staff can do everything from calling up obscure village maps on the computer to handing out local architectural walking tours. At the same time there has been spectacular increase in the quality of the staff, collections' care, exhibits, and outreach of the state's museums, from major venues like the Vermont Historic Society Museum and the Shelburne, to the smallest local historical society exhibit houses.
While the state information centers serve major tourist gateways, it is Vermont's museums, and I might add its public libraries, that hold the most potential for serving as local information and education centers in the majority of Vermont communities that go largely uninterpreted to visitors. The alliance that is beginning to develop between the state's official tourism entities, and its museums, is a step in the right direction.
Telling the Story of Vermont
Over the years, the state's museums, universities, historical societies, with support from agencies such as the Vermont Arts Council and the Council on the Humanities, have produced dozens of studies, exhibits, books, and walking tours, many of which are in now in storage or out of print. Much of this high-quality, non-commercial information on Vermont should be supported, remain in print, and be distributed. A coalition of state agencies, NPOs, publishers, museums and booksellers (both independent and global such as Borders and Barnes and Noble) should be assembled to discuss ways of keeping and distributing important materials about the state.
As for standards for interpretation, Vermont now has its first national park, the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Park. Vermont organizations can now seek the assistance and advice from the locally-based professional staff of the National Park Service, an agency with extensive experience interpreting places.
Availability of Information on the State's Historic Places
One of my recommendations was going to be to urge the Division for Historic Preservation, which has amassed an invaluable archive of historical research on buildings and places across the state, to put this material on compact discs or other digital media, to make it readily available to the public. However State Historic Preservation Officer Emily Wadhams has fortunately stolen my thunder. She told me this morning the project is already underway. The Division should also make it the highest priority to complete and publish the remaining county Historic Sites and Structures Surveys, at least up to the high standards set by its award-winning volumes on Rutland and Addison counties. These studies are invaluable for understanding, interpreting, and protecting the physical heritage of the state.
Car-Free Transportation Loops and Heritage Corridors
Probably the most prescient project of its time was architect Robert Burley’s vision of a United States Bicentennial train loop in Vermont. Tourists would park their cars, board the train pulled by a live steam locomotive, and be transported to traditional town centers along the loop. They could also get off at one of the loop's many downtown stations, where they could explore, dine, and stay over without the need for a car. He also envisioned a new Lake Champlain steamboat, a modern reincarnation of the Ticonderoga. The boat scheme never made it but the train loop actually operated during the summer of 1976. It then was nixed by a timid legislature, just as the word that it was the "in" thing to do was spreading around the country.
Today the opportunity has returned in slightly different form, with the prospect of Amtrak eventually restoring rail service along the west side of the State. If implemented, and with Amtrak routes on both sides of the Champlain Valley and three historic ferry boats plying Lake Champlain between Burlington and Port Kent, NY, tourists will be able to take a variety of automobileless rail/boat loops, and stay over in many of the region's historic towns and cities.
Broad interpretative structures such as the Champlain Valley Heritage Corridor can also further promote the development of cultural tourism about the state. But are there a sufficient number of restaurants, B and B's, inns, and other necessary accommodations ready to serve visitors traveling the corridor and the rail/boat loops? Much coordination will be necessary between hundreds of business, agencies, and nonprofits in two states and Quebec, to make sure Vermont does not blow this opportunity for a second time. It is my understanding that the Vermont Arts Council has taken on this important task of coordination.
Bike Paths and More Bike Paths
Using transportation as a way of building eco-friendly tourism is already happening on a large scale with the development of dedicated bicycle paths. Burlington’s and Stowe's have been resoundingly successful. The state's longest path, from St. Albans to Richford, has spurred the opening of a new historical museum in an unused firehouse in the latter community, a tangible sign of the hope the new trail is bringing to one of the more economically depressed places in the state. And this is only the beginning. An idea that should receive the highest priority of the governments of Vermont and Quebec is completion of a bike path, generally along the old Rutland Railroad right of way, from Burlington, across Grand Isle and the prairies of Quebec, to Montreal. This would bring thousands of bike tourists to economically nourish the region, while creating a great, bi-national recreation corridor for the areas’ residents. Such an undertaking would truly give the region distinction and would have a myriad of positive spin offs. It should have a high priority for funding from the state. I personally hope to live long enough to ride my bike along it.
K-12 Heritage Education
Now on to the important topic of education. There are many praiseworthy local efforts to have school children learn to identify and appreciate historical buildings in their communities. But understanding and learning from places is more than a vehicle for local architectural awareness. It is a basic literacy, mastery of which can result in substantial learning gains in a variety of subjects. It can also contribute to rearing a generation of environmentally savvy future adults. For number of years the UVM Historic Preservation Program, with help from the Preservation Trust, held a very successful summer institute called "Teaching with Architecture," attended by dozens of teachers across the state. As far as I know this program is not currently being offered.
Especially in Vermont, where future prosperity is dependent on the survival of its fragile natural and built environment, heritage education needs to continue to become a mainstream classroom activity. Perhaps the Vermont Council on the Humanities, which has been so successful in helping adults learn to read, in cooperation with the State Department of Education, could continue in the footsteps of "Teaching with Architecture" to meet this literacy challenge. We are teaching our children to navigate cyberspace. Shouldn't they be fluent in understanding human space as well?
Creation of an Environment College
Much has happened in the past quarter century at the university level, but there is still more to be done. In addition to its well-established Historic Preservation and Environmental Studies Programs, UVM has many faculty in areas ranging from public policy, natural resources planning, and archeology to business administration, who have much to contribute to conserving the state's heritage. In the mid 1990s, with help from the Kellogg Foundation, UVM launched a project called Environmental Programs in Communities (EPIC). EPIC put key UVM faculty to work helping Vermont communities build economies that would benefit from, not deplete, the state's built and natural inheritance. EPIC was so successful that then-UVM President Thomas P. Salmon floated the idea of creating an "Environment College." He thought it could give the school's considerable but scattered resources in this area the focus and administrative support they have been lacking.
The new college could not only help local communities, but would educate a new generation of leaders, versed in both economic development and environmental stewardship, who could bridge the gap between competing fields of expertise while keeping the big picture in mind. Since UVM has recently decided that the environment is an area it can best excel in, it is time this idea was revived. The Environment College should also reach beyond UVM to affiliate with appropriate programs at other institutions, from Norwich University and Vermont Law School, to Middlebury, the Vermont State Colleges, and the Preservation Institute. This initiative would put Vermont truly at the forefront of environmental education and sustainable economic development, and would have an extremely positive impact on the state.
With some notable exceptions, from its new public and commercial structures to its sprawling housing and condominium developments, Vermont's new buildings do not always exhibit a particularly high standard of design. In fact the spread of cookie-cutter building designs, similar to that found in many other places, is rapidly blurring Vermont's distinctive regional identity.
There have been a number of efforts to improve design quality and awareness in the state, such as the Vermont Design Institute and its excellent newsletter VDQ (Vermont Design Quarterly). Also the state now has its first fully-accredited architecture school at Norwich University. Its faculty and students are conducting design studies and projects in communities across the state. I would urge the Preservation Trust, the Vermont Chapter of the American Institute of Architects, the Vermont Design Institute, and other appropriate organizations to convene a conference of architecture students and design faculty, architects, landscape architects, urban designers, contractors, developers, preservationists, and government regulators, to discuss how to increase the quality of design in the state. Vermont's design community should also be encouraged to donate records and drawings of past projects to the architectural archive at UVM Special Collections, or other appropriate repositories, to provide future generations with information on the state's twentieth and twenty-first century architectural history.
Conserving Vermont Traditions
Recently a lot of effort has gone into creating "instant traditions," from the production of "Vermont" beer and "Vermont" salsa to other new and tasty "Vermont" specialty foods. There are also now a spate of new events, from food festivals to marathons that, except for the fact they are held in Vermont, are similar to events offered in other states. Many of these activities are praiseworthy and successful. Sadly though, at the same time, a number of deeply rooted, long standing and economically important Vermont traditions are now threatened, and little is being done about it.
Let's take the case of real, delicious, thick and tasty, locally grown and produced Vermont apple cider. We have been enjoying this product for years, with little ill effect, yet based on fears of an occasional person around the country getting sick from cider, the federal government began talk of mandating cider pasteurization, a process that, at least to my taste buds, diminishes its special flavor. While some large producers have been able to buy the expensive equipment necessary for pasteurization, most small producers have not. Many supermarkets and groceries have stopped selling non-pasteurized cider, and the survival of dozens of small cider makers is now uncertain.
This might not seem like an issue of concern to preservationists, but it should be. It not only involves the survival of an important Vermont tradition, but If one takes the long view, the survival of the farms that keep Vermont Vermont. I understand that in England there was once a similar threat to Stilton cheese and the government intervened to save this important, traditional product. Why is the State of Vermont asleep at the switch? Perhaps because this seems like a small issue when seen in isolation. It is not when viewed in a larger context.
Upping the Value of the Vermont Brand
How much is the Vermont brand worth and what price should be exacted for its use? The value of the Vermont brand, while already considerable, can be made an even more effective boon not only to those businesses granted the right to use it, but to the environment of the state. We should be challenging business to do things a special way here in order to be able to use the Vermont brand or seal of approval, and then publicize the fact that they have done it that way so that it becomes a marketing and public relations plus.
We should challenge enlightened businesses like IBM to join in a partnership to find a new solution to twenty-first century regional transportation as an alternative to old-fashioned circumfrential highways. We should work with building supply retail giants, like Home Depot, to develop special "Vermont" components that could be used to create distinctive new buildings, at a reasonable cost, in our state. We should encourage major oil companies to work with our design community to develop prototypes that would fit better into our historic areas. Then we should publicize the heck out of these partnerships for helping to save Vermont and for doing things a new way. But to make the Vermont seal of approval something of real value, we need to be really confident in what we have and why it is worth keeping. We need to really believe it to be taken seriously, and I'm not sure we always do.
The Media and Vermont's Heritage
One of the most powerful forces for safeguarding the state's special environmental inheritance is the media. Thirty years ago there were a number of pioneering journalists who regularly filed intelligent, detailed, and literate stories on the challenges to the state's heritage. Tom Slayton and Norman Runion come to mind, but there were quite a few others as well. Today this tradition continues. Some of the excellent coverage, not too long ago, of the National Trust naming Vermont "One of the Nation's Ten Most Endangered Places," is a good case in point. However for every really excellent story or feature, there are many reports of the "old building to get face lift" variety, that present conservation in a shallow context, and often fail to see the larger story. Also with the media increasingly controlled by conglomerates who see news more as entertainment to be dispensed quickly and simply, stories involving reasonably complex and interlocking issues are often set aside. The Preservation Trust or some other appropriate entity would do well to hold a symposium on the media and Vermont's heritage to explore ways to expand the seriousness and comprehensiveness of coverage.
The "Big Bang?"
While I was preparing this talk, dozens of ideas kept flooding my brain, enough to make this already too long keynote last several days. Several of the organizers of this conference urged me to come up with the "big bang," some suggestion that, if taken up, would immediately propel the future of Vermont's heritage to the forefront of public debate. I don’t have the answer for this one "big bang" but I have tried to suggest a number of smaller steps that could add up to something substantial. I would now like to mention several effective, catalytic educational mediums, that can help Vermonters see the big picture, and regain confidence that every individual can have a role in shaping the future.
The first is the medium of the exchange. Exchanges can happen at many levels. For years I took my UVM graduate students on field trips to communities both in Vermont and the rest of the country. This provided not only an education for the students, but a chance for local groups to present their community to a group of informed visitors, and for us to reflect our impressions back to them.
Community exchanges have been taken to a highly evolved level by organizations such as the Glynwood Center and its International Countryside Exchange, held in partnership with agencies in the United Kingdom and other countries. In this exchange interdisciplinary, international teams of mid-career individuals, working in areas from preservation and environmental conservation to planning, business, law, and economic development, are sent to endangered communities here and abroad. Local organizing committees arrange for the teams to participate in several intensive days of meetings and site visits, to see the challenges faced in their particular area. Each team then reports back its findings and suggestions to its host community.
If you are skeptical that this is not one of the most powerful ways to give people the confidence and motivation to tackle the future, ask around in Grand Isle County about the Countryside Exchange that took place there last fall. There are many possible models for community exchanges and we need to make increasing use of them.
The second highly effective medium is the environmental simulation-- creating accurate images of actual places and then changing them to visually illustrate a variety of questions such as: "What might the village look like if the zoning was changed from ten to forty units an acre? What might happen if Main Street was widened to accommodate traffic from a new shopping mall?" I had my UVM students first experimenting with simulations back in 1974, and in 1986-87, as part of a project called 'The Vermont Visual Laboratory," we created an environmental simulation of what a field at the edge of Williston Village might look like if it was covered with condominiums. Some community residents who saw the simulation were disbelieving that the village could ever be changed that drastically, given their current zoning, but today the field looks much as we predicted. In fact the similarity is rather frightening.
While our UVM simulations were created by building lifelike, changeable models of places, and then photographing them, today in the age of computers, The Orton Institute, of the Orton Family Foundation is currently testing some very advanced simulation software. They hope that, if used effectively, it will turn local residents into informed "citizen planners" with a much better grasp of the causes and effects of physical change in their communities. This program holds great promise, and I wish it much success.
Stopping the Windshield Movie and Stepping Out Into the Set
Probably the most effective medium for developing citizen awareness and the political will to keep Vermont Vermont, simply involves getting people out of their cars and just plain walking and looking. Recently I took a walk around my neighborhood and I saw things I had never noticed before, from attractive flower gardens to a poorly maintained and graffiti covered bus shelter. Unfortunately, many of us, including our policy makers, rarely notice these details for we whiz by them in our motor cars.
This might seem like a wacky suggestion, but I think the Preservation Trust should organize a giant legislative "Third-Century Walk" around Vermont. It would be so well publicized that no politician or local leader would want not to be to be seen on it. Let everyone on the walk experience the decay of many of our historic inner-city neighborhoods, or have the joy of trying to walk from Wal-Mart to Hannaford's Supermarket in the sprawling box-store development in Williston, instead of riding in a car. I think that would create quite a "big bang" and bring the plight of the state's future truly to center stage.
The Save the Golden Goose Endowment
Perhaps after participating in the walk the legislature would enact something that has been suggested for years, a dedicated Vermont Heritage Conservation Trust Fund, to be funded by revenues derived from a dedicated percentage of the state rooms and meals tax, to help conserve that which brings the tourists, new businesses, and new residents here in the first place. Maybe we should call it "The Save the Golden Goose Endowment."
Again it has been a great honor for me to be asked to give this millennial keynote. May we all have continued success in protecting and intelligently shaping the future of our beautiful state.
About Chester H. Liebs
An early Historic Preservation graduate from Columbia University School of Architecture, and a protege of pioneering American preservationist James Marston Fitch, beginning in 1971, as Vermont Supervisor of Historic Sites, Chester Liebs helped shape what is today’s Division for Historic Preservation. In 1975 he founded the University of Vermont Historic Preservation Program, which he directed for two decades. Author and lecturer, UVM Professor Emeritus, National Trust Advisor Emeritus, and a co- founder of the Preservation Trust of Vermont, Liebs has served on the boards of numerous state and national organizations from the Vermont Historical Society and Council for the Humanities to the United States Committee of the International Council on Monuments and Sites, and the Glynwood Center. He has also served as Fulbright fellow in Japan, McLellan Distinguished Chair in History at SUNY Plattsburgh, Adjunct Professor of Architecture at Norwich University, and Vermont Public Radio commentator, He is currently Visiting Professor in the Conservation Graduate Program at Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music.