Spirit of old buildings

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(Host) If landscape is the fabric of Vermont, you might consider the many old buildings in our towns and villages to be elegant, antique buttons holding the fabric together. Commentator Tom Slayton has as appreciation of our historic built environment.

(Slayton) The Pavilion Building in Montpelier used to be the Pavilion Hotel, a big brick ark where legislators stayed. Late one night, back in the 1960s, when I arrived home from the Army, I got off the bus, and went inside the hotel to find a pay phone. I had no car. So I called my father who met me in the marble-floored lobby of the Pavilion, gave me a hug, and drove me home.

That was 40 years ago. My father is now gone and the Pavilion hotel has been reconstituted as a state office building. But I happened to walk into the lobby last week, and remembered exactly what it felt like to come home to Montpelier, my home and my family, after being away too long.

Old buildings will do that to you. If you’ve lived with them for any length of time, they’re part of your personal history, as well as part of the larger history of your town and state.

Vermont has more than its share of wonderful buildings – grand buildings like the Vermont State House; graceful, eloquent buildings like Richmond’s Old Round Church; fascinating state historic sites like the Justin Morrill Homestead in Strafford; and thousands of humbler buildings – business blocks, country stores and historic homes scattered throughout the hills and villages of this little state.

Those buildings are one reason that the National Geographic Traveler Magazine just named Vermont the highest scoring place in the U.S. in terms of its historic integrity and the quality of visitors’ experience here. Vermont has a good record in maintaining the beauty and integrity of its built landscape – something that’s just as important as maintaining our natural landscape. Our historic buildings are important because they are a visual record of our history as a state and a people. They’re beautiful, fascinating, a delight to look at. And they tell us a lot about our state’s past.

But Vermont’s old buildings are also important for another, more intimate reason: they’re part of our lives. The Pavilion Hotel was one such building for me, as is the Statehouse, where I spent several years of my working life, and Montpelier’s City Hall, where I vote and pay my taxes.

More prosaically, when a historic diner closes and local people have to go to a fast-food restaurant out on the highway, the quality of their lives changes. By the same token, when a historic building is restored and put back to active use, everyone gains a little something. Some communities, like Vergennes and Bellows falls, have rebuilt their self-esteem by restoring their public buildings.

That’s one reason why the state’s vigorous Department of Historic Preservation and the private-sector Preservation Trust of Vermont are so important. They’re helping to keep the fabric of Vermont community life alive and well. They deserve our thanks.

Tom SLayton is editor of Vermont Life magazine.

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