Built to Last Transcript

Jan 29, 2019

Back to the Built to Last episode.

[Sounds of walking on road]

Danny Sagan: And this is one of the best buildings up here. I’d say this is one of the best buildings in Vermont. It could very well be one of the best buildings in New England.

We’re tromping around Prickly Mountain with Norwich University professor Danny Sagan. He’s showing us a number of innovative houses designed and built by a group of architects outside of Warren in the 1960s and 70s.

Danny: We’re basically looking at this sort of triangular, jagged spaceship. These guys were really off the map, which is all the more remarkable that this building is still here.

What do you imagine when someone says, “Vermont house?” Maybe a home from the Greek Revival era, built between 1830 and 1860. Two stories, with wood clapboard siding painted white. A front porch and a gable roof.

Devin Colman: Just very traditional. Kind of if you ask a kid to draw a house, that classic house form is what a lot of Vermont’s villages and towns have.

This is Devin Colman. He’s the state architectural historian at the Vermont Division for Historic Preservation.

Devin: But there are also some really great examples of mid-20th century modernist architecture around the state.

Part of Devin’s job is to help communities identify historic buildings in their towns. To be considered historic, a building typically needs to be at least 50 years old. So anything built before 1969 can now qualify…as long as it’s historically significant, and retains its historic integrity.

Devin Colman: I can raise a lot of eyebrows when I come in and say, “actually, this 1963 church is possibly historic.” People are there who were on the committee that helped build it.

Devin’s learned a lot about why certain people like certain types of houses, and why they think other styles aren’t worth preserving.

Devin: If you grew up with your parents complaining about the big old drafty Victorian that they grew up, maybe that’s not as attractive to you. Or some people say, “I love those big old houses” because they’re not the ranch house. It can be any number of factors that weigh into how someone perceives a building.

He’s also worked with the Norwich Historical Society to highlight a group of mid-century modern houses with flat roofs and big glass windows.

Devin Colman: You know, when people think of Norwich, they don’t think of modernist houses. They think of the Norwich green, the little bandstand and the flagpole. That’s one aspect of Norwich. But there’s this other history.

Plenty of Vermont’s historic buildings are exactly those traditional homes, and churches, and meeting houses you associate with small New England towns. But as the state changed in the 20th century, its architecture did too. Now, experts are looking more closely at buildings that look nothing like what came before – and in some cases, look nothing like buildings anywhere else.

This is Before Your Time, presented by the Vermont Historical Society, the Vermont Humanities Council, and VTDigger. I’m your host, Lovejoy. Every episode we go inside the stacks at the Vermont Historical Society to look at an object from their permanent collection that tells us something unique about our state. Then we take a closer look at the people, the events, or the ideas that surround each artifact.

Ryan: Wow, look at how ornate that is…

Paul Carnahan: Yeah, this is a particularly nice spread of illustrations. And this is an illustration of curved stairs, and the design for the swirl at the top of a newel post.

Today we’re talking about architects and builders. But first we’re looking at a leather-bound book at the Vermont Historical Society, with their head librarian Paul Carnahan.

Paul: We’re looking at a copy of Asher Benjamin’s American Builder’s Companion or a New System of Architecture Particularly Adapted to the Present Style of Building in the United States of America.

Paul: This copy is a first edition of Asher Benjamin’s seminal work. It was published in 1806 in Boston. It has some stains along the edges, and the paper is not brittle at all, because it’s rag paper. It was printed on paper before people started using wood-pulp paper.

Asher Benjamin published seven of these builder’s guides between 1797 and 1843. They’re like elaborate DIY manuals, full of designs for different buildings and their elements.

Paul: He has a simplified profile of columns, where he’s showing how tall it is. He’s showing the ratios — he’s big on ratios. So, a craftsman would take those ratios and convert it to actual dimensions. But he’s showing the proportions that should be maintained to make it a classical column.

Asher Benjamin’s books were a sensation. Suddenly any builder could reproduce complicated details without watching another carpenter at work.

Paul: So Benjamin was widely known, widely published, really an important influence on builders in New England.

Devin: 1800s, if you’re a builder carpenter, you would work pretty locally. And oftentimes, the carpenter who would be in charge of fabricating the frame of the building, if it’s a wood frame building, would do everything from cutting down the tree to shaping it into square timbers to cutting the mortise and tenon joints.

Here’s Devin Colman again.

Devin: The assumption is that the builder knows how to put up a timber frame and how to finish, how to build a house. These pattern books are more about, okay, here’s how to detail the house so that it’ll be current and up to the latest trends in Boston, Philadelphia, New York.

Devin: And so, that builder’s handbook, the builder could look at and say, okay, my client says he wants a curved staircase in his front hall, here’s how I can do it.

Asher Benjamin was likely a mathematical genius, so he had those skills in abundance. The Old South Church, which he designed and built in 1798, still stands in Windsor today.

Judy Hayward: I think that when you come in and you come up the stairs into the sanctuary and then you walk in here and you see cove ceilings, incredible woodwork, the quality of the pews, the beautiful raised paneling…

We’re touring the church with Judy Hayward, the Executive Director of Historic Windsor and the Preservation Education Institute. The building has white clapboards on the exterior, and is off-white and pale green inside. It has a tall ceiling, and its simple white pews have raised panels on their sides. The windows are made of stained glass, and there’s a pipe organ at the front.

Judy: So you definitely get a sense that you are in a historic interior.

When Judy was in college, she worked summers at the Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site in Cornish, New Hampshire. She was there as the site underwent a major restoration.

Judy: And that’s when old buildings took over me, took over my life.

A walking tour of Windsor lists nearly four dozen historic buildings in the town. Judy became a fan of these buildings, and of Asher Benjamin.

Judy: So when he comes to Windsor in 1798, he’s only 25. And I think that it was not so much that Windsor had heard of Asher Benjamin, but Asher Benjamin had heard of Windsor.

At that time, before there were paved roads and trains, Windsor was ideally positioned on the Connecticut River. The town was starting to grow when Asher Benjamin arrived.

Judy: There’s a mix of small businesses and there’s a strong craft class here. There are growing numbers of furniture makers. Gunsmiths were an important trade, so a pretty diverse economy for a small place. And the word must’ve been out some way that they were thinking about building a meeting house, and he applied for the job and got it.

Benjamin’s first book included a pattern for a meeting house.

Judy: That places the building in a really important place in American history, because it’s his first crack at actually doing a meeting house.

Although the spire is topped with a cupula, a clock, and ornate decorations of urns, Judy says the church was erected quickly.

Judy: They built this probably in about six months. The things that take a long time today are the plumbing, the electrical, the heating, all the things that he didn’t have to contend with.

At the dawn of the 19th century, Vermonters were feeling optimistic. They had recently joined the United States, which itself was celebrating that it was no longer an English colony.

Judy: To take on the building of something this size in Windsor, Vermont in 1798 when there are probably about 300 families in town, that’s an enormous undertaking. And I think their sense was they weren’t just building a church. They were building a house of worship, and they had their reverence for God, but they were building their town, and this was an important statement about how they perceived the future of Windsor.

After completing the church, Asher Benjamin designed three residential houses in Windsor. None of them remain. He also tried to start an architecture school in town, but he left for Boston by 1803. He published the last of his seven builder’s guides in 1843, and died in Springfield, Massachusetts two years later.

Judy: The conclusion I draw about him is that this is a kind, thoughtful, bright man who wants his own trade to thrive and believes that he can help others thrive within the same trade. He just doesn’t seem to worry about competition, which I think also speaks volumes about him as a human being.

The Old South Church has been added onto several times. The additions look a lot like Benjamin’s original design. But just a half-hour north, in Norwich, you’ll find a pocket of buildings that are clearly from another time.

Sarah Rooker (in car): So we can turn here…So this house was designed by Allan Gelbin. He designed it for himself, and he was one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin apprentices. And he built this and a couple of other houses in town.

Sarah Rooker is the director of the Norwich Historical Society.

Sarah Rooker: Before the Civil War and the turn of the century, I think that the population pattern of Norwich was quite similar to other parts of Vermont. There was definitely population decline, a loss of hill farms. But you can’t separate Norwich from Dartmouth.

Dartmouth College is located in Hanover, New Hampshire, right across the Connecticut River. In the 1930s, it started an artist-in-residence program that brought people like the painter Paul Sample to town.

Sarah: There’s a wonderful painting that Paul Sample did of the Ledyard Bridge and it shows these professors with their briefcases walking down the hill to go over the bridge going back home into Norwich.

Sarah: It began to bring in some of the most leading thinkers and artists and architects in the country for guest lectureships, and as it became known as a place for artists and architects, you start to see these houses being built here in Norwich.

Some of these architects were world-famous. Walter Curt Behrendt came to the Upper Valley from Germany in 1934, fleeing Hitler’s rise to power.

Sarah: This just leader in modern urbanism and planning…he was responsible for redeveloping much of Germany that had been destroyed in World War I. And so here he is in Norwich starting to spread his ideas.

Other architects followed, including Allan Gelbin, Frank Lloyd Wright’s apprentice. The houses these architects designed were quite different from the others in town.

Sarah: The bulk of Norwich’s development and settlement happened in the early 19th century. Many of the houses are Federal or Greek Revival.  They’re oriented to the street and to the village. The houses that are part of the mid-century modern district are homes that are set outside of the village. They’re not on farms, they’re very private. They are taking advantage of views.

They were also taking advantage of new materials.

Sarah: A lot of them are built on cliffs, and some of the reasons they can do that is with new technologies and the ability to have concrete and cantilevers and lally columns and all that kind of stuff. And so they’re all perched in places that no farmer would ever put his home because there’s no way to have any sort of fields or agricultural productivity around the home.

Their designs reflected many transitions that were taking place in American culture after World War II: A move away from farming. A new emphasis on the family unit over the community. A high value on privacy, and mobility.

Sarah: The houses are really designed for the car culture and that’s what makes them significant and reflective of changes that occurred in American society post World War II.

Also reflected was the slow evolution in women’s roles. Peggy Hunter and her husband, Ted, had a successful architecture firm in Hanover, across the river. Their work was sometimes featured in national magazines. A special issue of Life magazine in 1956 included a photo spread of the Hunter’s own home in Norwich.

Sarah: And the photograph in Life magazine shows the modern woman ensconced in her kitchen, but in the center of the home watching her children play. It’s an incredible illustration—along with curtains that have nuclear, very George Jetson designs on them—but also just showing this 1950s idea of the mother being at the heart of the home.

Peggy Hunter was more than a housewife. She had attended the Harvard School of Design with Ted. They studied with the German architect Walter Gropius, who emphasized using modern materials.

Sarah: So they inherited some of those ideas. And when they came back to Hanover to start building, they wanted to develop buildings that had this regional but modernist expression like Gropius. And one of the comments that they made about their design was that the flat roofs provided free insulation value. Their ideas of energy efficiency and design were ahead of the material development.

Ryan: So the idea was that the snow would stay on the roof and…

Sarah: Keep it warm.

Ryan: But there’s ice dams…

Sarah: But there’s a such thing as ice dams.

The local tradesmen knew some of the advantages of older building styles, which had sloping roofs.

Sarah: And some of the sons of the construction crews in town today still talk about those horrible flat roofs. There’s a legacy that they’re still dealing with, with leakage and ice.

The plate-glass windows of these modern houses also let in a lot of cold air. At the time they were built, energy conservation was not seen as being very important.

Sarah: And so owners, too say, “Why are you valuing these houses or putting them on the register.” And I think in some ways they are the most vulnerable houses in the community because people don’t understand them, and they’re some of the first ones that get highly renovated or pulled down.

This disconnect between the architect and the builder wasn’t new.  Starting in the early 1800s, designing and building a home became two different disciplines.

Devin Colman: Sure, you could hire a builder to design your house and built it. And they can. But this growing field of architects really promoted an alternative in saying, but, if you want the latest style, we’re architects, we know, we’re the taste makers. We know what’s popular. We know what they’re doing in New York and we can do that for you in Vermont.

Devin Colman.

Devin: And so, there’s a very distinct social hierarchy. The builders are kind of the grunts on the ground and the architects become the visionaries.

Danny Sagan: And that was very much the way that the architect behaved in the 40s and 50s and 60s. Some architects still behave that way today, which is the architect is always right. Don’t ask builders for their input. Don’t ask others for their input because it’s going to be mediocre, and they don’t understand the art of architecture.

Danny Sagan is the undergraduate program director at the Norwich University School of Architecture and Art. Danny and his wife, Alisa Dworsky, use a different approach with their design company. In addition to drawing plans, they are trained in how to build. And they make sure to ask builders and tradespeople for their input.

Many think that this approach to architecture — known as the design-build movement — started outside of Warren, Vermont, when a group of Yale-trained architects moved to Prickly Mountain in the mid-1960s.

Danny: What happened at Prickly Mountain was radical, in that architects up to that point were not encouraged to build their own projects.

Danny first saw the unique houses on Prickly Mountain while driving around Vermont with a friend from Yale’s architecture school. Since then, he’s interviewed many of the architects involved there, including David Sellers, Bill Reinecke, John Connell, Jim Sanford, Bill McClay, Ellen Strauss, and others.

Danny: They came from a place that was much more sort of loose and liberated than what we were learning how to do in school. We were learning how to make buildings that were very conceptually clear. And at first glance, the projects that we saw up on Prickly Mountain looked very improvised. There was something both interesting about that, and scary about it at the same time.

Like the houses in Norwich, the buildings on Prickly Mountain used modern materials like plywood and  plate glass. But these architects went further. Their buildings had rounded walls, whimsical porches, and an abundance of rooflines. In some ways, they anticipated the simpler, rougher houses that would be built by back-to-the-land hippies a few years later.

Danny: You and I are standing up here in the snow. And you can imagine, you get your gold-plated architectural education as a young person in the early ’60s, and then you go up to Vermont and you buy wool pants and a plaid wool jacket and you build this thing, and it just must have been both insane and exhilarating, because this was a real risk.

The Yale architects were drawn to the Mad River Valley earlier in the 60s because of the nearby ski resorts.

Danny: There was a moment in social history when the ski areas in Vermont were very groovy. This was before Aspen, and Vale, and Telluride were built. If you want a feel for it, you should see the ski scenes in the original Pink Panther movie with David Niven skiing down the mountain. That sort of groovy, kind of London 60s kind of vibe.

Danny: And they thought, oh my God. We will build these groovy, sexy houses and these jet-setters will buy them.

They also took advantage of a freedom in Vermont, unique among other Northeastern states.

Danny: There were no building codes, and there was no enforcement of building codes. So they could do what they wanted and nobody would give them a hard time.

Although the architects built a few ski houses, their initial jet-setter plans didn’t come to fruition. But the architects did design and erect many structures in the Mad River Valley…while having a lot of fun.

Danny: They were committed to having a good time. They like to tell stories about how they built this one house, and every time they would hear the client drive up the driveway, they would stop what they were doing and start playing a card game to make it seem like they were purposely blowing off the work. Whereas, in reality, they were working furiously to finish the job. But they wanted to give the impression that they were just playing cards and goofing around.

As the 60s turned into the 70s, the loose and creative atmosphere attracted people from other architecture schools, including the University of Pennsylvania.

Danny: They experimented with making one of the first off grid, or almost off grid, multi-family, which eventually became a co-housing thing, which is called Dimetrodon.

The Dimetrodon is a towering, multi-roofed structure that looks both futuristic, and solidly from the 1970s. A bit like an album cover by the band Yes.

Danny: The Dimetrodon was really amazing in that they kind of invented co-housing without knowing it was co-housing…The young people who grew up in Dimetrodon just think it was the most amazing place to grow up. Because they had like, 20 siblings…You know, there was something absolutely delightful about the sense of community that place produced.

The Dimetrodon is still being lived in today.

Danny: You and I are standing in front of what was a radical experiment for the time. It still looks like a radical place to live. This is not a multifamily unit built on a cul-de-sac. This thing is out to lunch. But it’s inhabited. It’s still continually inhabited. This thing has been continually inhabited for 50 years.

Many of the architects are still building today, well into their seventies and eighties. The ideas that were started at Prickly Mountain had a national impact. John Connell founded the Yestermorrow Design/Build School in Waitsfield, which has helped fuel the growth of the design-build movement.

But the group had a local impact too.

[sounds of the parade]

Danny: I think one of the great outgrowths of Prickly Mountain is the Warren Fourth of July parade floats, which are build the weekend before the fair. They have a big dinner and everybody comes up with a concept, and then they furiously realize the concept to make this crazy float. It’s always very imaginative. Again, that’s very celebratory, very communal.

Asher Benjamin moved to Boston after building the Old South Church in Windsor. Peggy and Ted Hunter ended up leaving Norwich to find more clients in North Carolina. But for the most part, the Prickly Mountain folks have stuck around the Mad River Valley.

Danny: People became members of the state house, and members of the select board, and members of the planning board. That really, it changed the town.

Perhaps their approach on a mountain outside Warren – with no zoning – hearkens back to the spirit in Windsor after the Revolutionary War. When the town came together to build a meeting house that still stands today.

Danny: There have been moments in American history where optimism was a driving force behind design…I think that there was a sense of optimism at Prickly Mountain that one can feel somewhat nostalgic about at this point. Because architects, as a general community, can be very dour, and very disappointed. That’s what really struck me, is that so many of the people who practice at Prickly Mountain are not disappointed about their careers as architects. They may not be designing airports and skyscrapers, but they’re still excited.

Before Your Time is presented by the Vermont Humanities Council, the Vermont Historical Society, and VTDigger. This episode was produced by Ryan Newswanger and Mike Dougherty. Thanks to our guests: Danny Sagan, Devin Colman, Judy Hayward, and Sarah Rooker. Thanks also to Vermont Public Radio and King Arthur Flour, for letting us use their studio in Norwich. Sounds from the Warren Fourth of July Parade came from Mad River Community Access.

Before Your Time comes out every month. Search for it and subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts. And if you like what you hear, tell a friend to check it out. You can find photos and artifacts related to this month’s episode on our website, before your time dot org.