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Slayton: Vermont Buildings

People tell stories – and so do buildings. All you have to do is go to other places in this country where proliferating highways, shopping malls and strip development have leached away the local flavor to realize how important our historic buildings, villages, and downtowns really are – how much they contribute to Vermont’s unique sense of place, and how much they tell us.

A new book from the Society of Architectural Historians entitled Buildings of Vermont, not only reminds us of the vitality of our architectural heritage, but also details the fascinating stories behind many of our state’s key buildings. Written by Middlebury College Prof Glen Andres and Curtis Johnson, with photographs by Johnson, this book masquerades as a reference book, but makes fascinating reading. Digging into it, you quickly realize that the important buildings and villages of Vermont are wellsprings of historic tales: Every building has its story.

Consider, for example, the story of the Latchis Hotel and Theater in downtown Brattleboro. Demetrius Latchis, a Greek immigrant, came to Brattleboro in 1901 and established a small business selling fruit. Latchis was a good businessman, and over the years, parlayed his success into a chain of 15 hotels and theaters. His son, Peter, replaced one of those theaters in Brattleboro with the Latchis Building, an imposing edifice with elaborate geometric ornamentation. It’s described in the book as “one of Vemont’s most notable examples of Art Deco (architecture) as well as one of the state’s finest historic movie theaters.”

Demetrius Latchis’ story and his sophisticated urban-style building my seem atypical for rural Vermont, but they’re not. One of the quiet sub-themes of this book is that Vermont’s architecture consistently goes beyond the pastoral stereotypes so often associated with our state. I’d say that holds true for Vermont itself - we’re always more complex and therefore more interesting than our image.

That’s not to say, however, that Buildings of Vermont doesn’t include rural buildings. From classic farmhouses and barns to distinctive summer camps, they’re here, and each seems to come with its own good story.

So are dozens of others, buildings of all sorts - Rutland’s vest-pocket art deco skyscraper, the Service Building, makes an appearance, and so does the grand, cupola-topped Sibley Barn in East Montpelier. There’s the stone-framed elegance of the Torrey House in Georgia, and the sweet simplicity of the little one-room District No. 8 Schoolhouse in Pawlet. In Shelburne, the grand expanse of Shelburne Farms is detailed – and so is the tiny, whimsical Dutch Mill Motel on Route 7.

One of my favorite citations in Buildings of Vermont is the super-modernistic House II in Hardwick. It’s a famous landmark of architectural modernism, but the book’s authors note that it was “significantly over-budget, impractical for the Vermont climate, and proved impossible as a family home…”

And so this delightful book offers us not only good stories, but bits of honest, sharp-edged wisdom as well!

Tom Slayton is a longtime journalist, editor and author who lives in Montpelier.
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