Artistically considered, there is no Vermont Frank Lloyd Wright. Our landmarks are derivative of national designs or part of a wonderful regional vernacular that mixes New England and New York with a touch of Canada. So rather than designs, the great ideas in our architecture are social ideas, and in the century just past one of the great ideas to have shaped Vermont’s identity is so common that it shows up as the storyline in popular books and movies and is even parodied. It’s the idea of buying an old farm house in Vermont and fixing it up. Actually it’s a pretty odd idea, if you stop to think about it. Old house remodeling has been cited in some studies as a leading cause of divorce!
The idea really goes back to when the state began advertising abandoned hill farms for resettlement in the 1890s. Although a number of Finnish immigrants responded, it quickly became apparent that only someone from the Arctic Circle would view these properties as desirable for farming, so the marketing effort quickly refocused on enticing city-folks to consider a summer home in the mountains of Vermont. The state bureau of publicity began publishing directories of farms for sale annually in 1893.
And these efforts worked; people began buying a summer home or moving to Vermont to live in an old farmhouse and fix it up. As massive European immigration led to the celebration in our arts and architecture of the heritage of Colonial America, the historic preservation movement began, which added considerable cache to the idea of fixing up an old “Colonial.” But at its heart it was and is a Romantic idea, related to escape from the madding crowd and finding inspiration in nature, the countryside, and rustic ways. Herbert Congdon in his book Old Vermont Houses explained some of the appeal, “Tired of the fussy vagaries of late nineteenth-century architecture and the sophisticated bareness of the early twentieth… the quiet serenity of the Vermont farmhouse appeals to the eye by virtue of its simplicity and to the pocketbook by virtue of its inexpensiveness.”
Dorothy Thompson, Sinclair Lewis, Robert Frost all did the old Vermont farmhouse thing. Communities as diverse as Dorset, Craftsbury and Woodstock, among many others, became centers of this type of second-home and then more permanent immigration. Development of the ski industry just added another recreational season to the reasons for doing it. Even today, if you haven’t done it yourself, you’ve met these folks “bringing back” an old farmhouse and perhaps been able to feel their excitement as they repair clapboard, fix sills, and therein find great joy. And I have to admit there’s an old barn collapsing onto my 1870 house.
So here’s to a century of Romantics who live out a dream by moving to Vermont and fixing up an old farmhouse. The state’s architectural heritage, its cultural diversity and commerce, as well as its tax rolls, have benefited tremendously.
This is C.B. Johnson exploring the historic Vermont landscape.
C.B. Johnson is a photographer and cultural resource consultant in Calais, Vermont.