Vermont has lost its leading voice for historic preservation. Paul Bruhn, the executive director of the Vermont Preservation Trust since its inception nearly 40 years ago, has died.
Bruhn may not have been a household name in Vermont, but many people believe that he had an enormous influence on the lives of Vermonters because of his impact on economic development patterns throughout the state.
In 1980, Bruhn became the first executive director of the Preservation Trust of Vermont. He held that position until his death this week at age 72.
In 2005, Bruhn told VPR's Mitch Wertlieb that an important factor in the success of the Preservation Trust was the strong support it received at the local level.
"It's very inspiring to be able to work with these local organizations and community organizations that are involved in their work. ... They're very passionate and they care deeply about saving and using historic buildings," Bruhn said.
It is with great sadness that we share the news that our beloved friend and leader Paul Bruhn has passed away. You will be so missed by so many. https://t.co/kLXESOg9rr
— PreservationTrustVT (@preservationvt) September 20, 2019
Neale Lunderville, chairman of the Preservation Trust's board of directors, said Bruhn had a deep love for Vermont and fought tirelessly to help preserve key elements of life in the state.
"You see it at every, literally every, town in the state is a project that Preservation Trust and Paul have been involved in," Lunderville said. "Whether it's a general store, or a grange hall or a town hall or a community meeting space or a historic downtown or a village center, Paul and Preservation Trust have been there making it work."
More from VPR — Bruhn Talking About The Preservation Trust Of Vermont Around Its 25th Anniversary [Sept. 22, 2005]
Lunderville said Bruhn was not anti-development by any means, but rather what he objected to was locating new development on agricultural lands outside of a downtown area.
It was on VPR's Switchboard program in the late 1990s that Bruhn made a deal with the marketing director of Walmart. At that time, Vermont was the only state in the country not to have a Walmart store and it was considering a location in the Rutland area.
Bruhn said he promised to support the store if Walmart agreed to locate it in Rutland's downtown area. Walmart quickly said yes.
According to Lunderville, this event said a lot about Bruhn's economic philosophy.
"Paul was very much for economic development," Lunderville said. "He wanted to make sure it was in the right places so that when we were putting in a new store, grocery store, department store that was in our downtown and village centers that we weren't building outside of town which would draw traffic away from the places where we already congregate."
Prior to his work with the trust, Bruhn was involved in politics. In 1974, Bruhn was the manager for Patrick Leahy's first campaign for the U.S. Senate and then became the senator's chief of staff.
Leahy recalled an incident in his first year in the Senate that he said summarizes Bruhn's realistic approach to politics. Leahy had just become the first Vermonter in Congress to vote against the Vietnam War, and he said he was fretting over the vote when Bruhn reminded Leahy that the senator had come to Washington to make a difference.
"I remember walking back into my office, and we were getting screams from a number of people: 'Why did you vote that way?'" Leahy said. "And I remember him putting his arm around me and saying: 'Yup you did the right thing — and so you get defeated, so what?'"
Leahy said Friday it's impossible to measure the impact Bruhn has had on Vermont with his work in the field of historic preservation.
"In many ways Vermont is Vermont today because of Paul Bruhn," Leahy said. "We were in a danger 40 or 50 years of ago of losing some of our greatest senses of our state, and he worked all over the state with historic preservation."
There will be a celebration of Bruhn's life at a later date.
— Sen. Patrick Leahy (@SenatorLeahy) September 20, 2019
Listen to a Vermont Edition interview above with longtime Vermont Life editor and former VPR commentator Tom Slayton about the life of Paul Bruhn and the impact his preservation work had on the landscape of Vermont.
Broadcast on Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2019 at noon; rebroadcast at 7 p.m.