Slayton: UVM’s Billings Library

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If you think of buildings as
having personalities, the University of Vermont’s Billings Library would
be quiet, gnomic, reserved and slightly mysterious. Its ornate
brownstone form hunkers down modestly between other more extroverted
brick buildings on UVM’s College Row, facing west, across the long UVM

Right next to Billings is Ira Allen Chapel, with its
bright white columnar front and tall, cheery, brick-and-white colonial
revival tower, which helpfully offers clock faces showing the time of
day. Billings’ much smaller towers are ornate and darkly Romantic,
almost odd. The slightly taller north tower sports elongated, arched
windows opening into a belfry, and wears a pointed, shingled hat. Its
tiny south tower seems a squat medieval lump, radiating mystery. The
building extends outward from its front arched and gabled pavilion, a
tapestry of complicated windows and dark stonework.

It looks the
way you’d think a college library should look. It was designed by one
of the leading American architects of the Victorian era, Henry Hobson
Richardson and is a prime example of the style that came to be known as
Richardsonian Romanesque.

At its dedication in 1885, Prof. N.G.
Clark described the building as "an oration in stone," and that seems
about right. It is one of the most important buildings in Vermont, both
historically and architecturally.

The building has long been a
favorite haunt of UVM students. Its interior is as complex and elaborate
– and as pleasantly dusky – as its stony exterior, and offers various
niches for quiet study or uninterrupted dozing.

Billings has a long history of not quite fitting in. First as a library
and then as a student center, the building was deemed inadequate. In
1961, UVM’s libraries were moved to the much larger Bailey-Howe library
building, a marble-fronted modernist cube that offers plenty of space
but little soul. That building fits in perfectly with the rest of UVM’s
East Campus, which has become a hodgepodge of undistinguished
lumpen-modernist buildings with no sense of coherency or design.

for Billings, there is hope. UVM’s new administration has decided to
return the building to something close to its original use: a quiet
retreat for research and study.

The University’s superb Special
Collections division will move into the building, as will the Center for
Research on Vermont, and the Leonard and Carolyn Miller Center for
Holocaust Studies. (Because of the pioneering work in holocaust studies
by the late Prof. Raul Hilberg, UVM is a leader in this field of

This is all very good news, perhaps especially for
Vermont studies. Both Special Collections and The Center for Research
on Vermont have long needed more adequate quarters.

And now, in this very special – if slightly mysterious – old building, they have it at last.

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