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Preservation Burlington Homes Tour returns after three-year hiatus

 People gather outside a large white building with columns
Joia Putnoi
Vermont Public
Tour-goers enjoy refreshments on the lawn of the historic Follett House, which now houses Pomerleau Real Estate, on June 10.

For the past 20 years, Preservation Burlington has run their annual homes tour. It is their largest event, and it attracts history lovers from all over the state, as well as Canada. It also doubles as a fundraiser.

The group’s tagline reads “keeping history relevant," and the homes tour offers an unparalleled opportunity to peak into some of the city's oldest homes. The pandemic put the tour on pause for a few years, but this year was a return to tradition.

Matt Viens is chairperson of the Preservation Burlington Homes Tour Committee, which organizes this one-day event.

He welcomes crowds of people through the side entrance of one of Burlington’s most well-known architectural landmarks: 69 College St.

The Follett House, which now houses Pomerleau Real Estate, has a rich history that dates back seven generations.

If you don’t know it by name, you’ve probably seen it. It’s the one that looks like an ancient Greek temple overlooking Lake Champlain.

The home belonged to Timothy Follett — a prominent name in the shipping business in mid-1800s Burlington. He hired Ammi Young, the same architect who designed the Vermont Statehouse, to design his estate. One hundred forty years later, the front of the residence continues to boast six massive ionic columns.

In 1845, Follett became the first president of the Burlington & Rutland Railroad. When the line failed, he lost all his assets, including the house.

“He had to sell the home to the owner of the competing railroad company. What we see today is the result of a lot of work by the Pomerleau family, who purchased the home in 1979. It was actually the evening before they closed on the building, it was damaged through an arson fire," Viens says.

 Black and white photo shows burn damage to the historic home after arson fire
Ralph Orth, UVM Silver Special Collections
Vermont Public
The Follett House pictured in the summer of 1979, displays damage from the arson fire on upper levels of building

After concluding his history brief, Viens ushers the visitors up the green-velvet staircase — which he says was reproduced to look the way it once did.

Once one group is off exploring, a new batch of visitors replace them, and he starts his spiel over.

“So this year, we sold out our tour, 600 tickets, which we've never, probably never, had that high of a ticket sale before," Viens says.

We chatted again later by phone about why that might be.

“I think some of the newer generations are now starting to pay more attention to the architecture of their parents or their grandparents. So I think there's just a greater interest in in, you know, connection to the past," Viens says.

Up the hill, Devin Colman is inviting people into the backyard of 498 South Willard Street.

Colman is on the board of directors at Preservation Burlington.

He describes the influx of ticket sales as “pent-up demand” after COVID.

“Everyone was just really excited to get back out, be together and explore some of these great houses," Colman says.

“I think what's really neat is how the owner has really personalized it with their own artwork and paintings. It's just so unique, so distinctive, and she's really made it her own. So it's both the historic architecture plus how the present occupant is using the space that's so interesting, I think."
Devin Colman, Preservation Burlington

And according to Colman, the reason Burlington has such a collection of historic homes is because in the 1800s the Queen City’s waterfront was a massive economic engine — driven largely by the lumber industry.

“A lot of the big mansions in Burlington were built in the 1880s, 1890s, 1900 — this one built in the Colonial Revival style, which was popular at the time and has some great woodwork because the builder was the owner of one of the waterfront millwork shops," Colman says.

 Large blue home sits surrounded by greenery
Joia Putnoi
Vermont Public
Built in 1900, 498 South Willard Street was built in Colonial Revival style

A lot has changed since then — including Burlington’s historic homes.

And the tours also give people a window into the intersection of old and new.

“I think what's really neat is how the owner has really personalized it with their own artwork and paintings. It's just so unique, so distinctive, and she's really made it her own. So it's both the historic architecture plus how the present occupant is using the space that's so interesting, I think,” Colman says.

Basil Stetson and clothing designer April Cornell bought the South Willard Street home in 1992.

“It was a little more sober-looking," was Cornell's response when asked how the home looked before she bought it.

Cornell’s creativity can be felt through both the interior and exterior of the home.

It’s colorful and warm, and the walls display dozens of pastel drawings — her own, as well as her 5-year-old granddaughter's, who she has allotted one wall to.

In the past decade, Cornell has turned the backyard into a pollinator garden with up to 50 plants, including black-eyed Susans, milkweed, and bee balm — not to mention an impressive treehouse that overlooks the yard.

At the entrance to her home, two huge oil cans sit on either side of the home’s original wooden doors.

“I love repurposed stuff like old oil cans. You know, just giving life to something [that] no longer has a purpose and repurposing it," Cornell says.

While Cornell says she has deep respect for the original property, she has enjoyed getting to shape it into her own vision.

 Woman sits in small, colorful art studio surrounded by art supplies
Joia Putnoi
Vermont Public
April Cornell poses for a photo in her home art studio, which used to be an unheated porch

“Me, coming from Montreal, where you have a tiny little plot, and then having all this space in the middle of the city, I think it's pretty mind-blowing. I feel very fortunate to have this," Cornell says.

And she says it’s cool that this year she can share it with others, too.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.

Joia Putnoi worked as a Newsroom Intern from 2022 - 2023.
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