Slayton: Architectural Identity

May 6, 2019

The recent fire that damaged Notre Dame triggered an outpouring of French anguish over the near-destruction of a building they considered a part of France’s soul. That got me thinking about our buildings here in Vermont. And which buildings, if any, are so important they sum up our experience as a state and stand for what we consider ourselves to be?

The Vermont State House is one, without a doubt. It’s comparatively small — like the State of Vermont itself. Its setting, its refined 19th Century architecture, its golden dome, topped by the statue of Agriculture - all say important things about our state and its people.

It’s a measure of Vermont’s love for this building that over the last 20 years, the State House has been carefully restored to its Nineteenth century antebellum grandeur. To lose it would be a blow to just about every thinking Vermonter. It is a state treasure.

Fact is, there are similar treasures in just about every village and city in Vermont. They may not have the statewide significance of the State House, but they are crucial elements of their locality and history.

And that’s something that makes Vermont unusual, if not unique.

Vermont still has villages. Coherent villages and downtowns, often defined buy irreplaceable historic buildings.

What would the tiny village of Strafford be like without the Strafford Town House and the Justin Morrill home just down the street? Rutland’s downtown is defined by its mini-skyscraper, the Service Building, and the other imposing buildings lined up along Merchants Row. St.Johnsbury has the incredible architectural legacy of the Fairbanks family — its Athenaeum, the nearby Fairbanks Museum, two important Congregational Church buildings, and an unmatched collection of 19th century private homes.

Wherever you go in this state, there are buildings that tell stories about Vermont and its lively past. They help define that past, and by doing so help us understand who we are today.

They’re not as grand as Notre Dame — few buildings anywhere are — but they are a part of the soul of our state, and they express our character and experience as deeply as the Green Mountains or Lake Champlain.