Kevin's, Main St, North Bennington

     H. Clayton Simmons built this practical store and apartment block in 1903. He manufactured fire tube boilers, a heating system he invented, across the street. * 

     The economic panic in the late 1890’s – when unemployment had topped 13% - brought an end to extravagant Victorian buildings. Simmons’ Block was modern yet classical. It was symmetrical, with the traditional three parts: a base, a middle, and a top. The glass store fronts on the bottom floor are the base; the large windows above the middle. The top is emphasized by the flourish of the wide sheet metal cornice.
     The pattern came not from exterior decoration but from the elements of the building itself: the windows’ size and placement, the marble lintels and sills, the brick corners and fretting supporting the sheet metal cornice. 
     All of it is practical. The lintels support the bricks above the windows, the sills are an impervious surface. The brick corners provide stability; the brick fretting and cornice extend out to help keep the rain off the brick face. They hide the slope of the roof to the rear. The brick, marble, and sheet metal were fireproof.

     Earlier Mr. Simmons had dealt in hardware. He would have been familiar with the companies which sold embossed metal facades by mail. The parts would have been shipped to him by rail to the depot just up the street.
     Here, as well as on his own shop, he used this new technology for the cornices. Inside he installed ‘modern’ tin ceilings. The pattern, however, is Victorian: the simple center grid is surrounded by a wide band of leaves with rope edgings and flower corner blocks. It not only turns the corners but also morphs into the crown molding on the wall.

     The current dining room was once the post office. The post master’s window is still here.

     I wrote this in 2011. The post master's window may be gone now in 2017.

*     On Sept 3, 2017 I published this on face book, on Tim Wager's "Bennington History after Dirt was Invented" page. This reply came from Tim Rice. With his permission I add it here with my comment.

Ted Rice:     All steam locomotives used fire tube boilers, long before 1903. Water tube boilers weren't as common but also predated this time. They are usually used in heating systems. Flash tube boilers are more modern and safer as they only have a small amount of steam in them at a time. But Simmons certainly didn't "invent" fire tube boilers.

I answered:   Thanks Ted! The history I used: Walbridge's History of N. Bennington tells about Simmons. I know little about boilers. I suspect Simmons saw the opportunity to bring them to Bennington which made him the 'inventor ' .

Ted:    In fact, that seems to be the case: .

Me:      That's interesting and not just about inventions. WB Simmons was born in 1888, so he is too young to be the builder of Kevin's brick building unit. His father, HC Simmons, would have been the builder.


The 4 front doors of the Norton-Fenton House

Here's Bennington's Norton-Fenton House, built in 1838.
The small porches on either side of the 3 grand columns are modern additions. So are the storm doors.

I wrote about its history in an earlier post.

Recently I was asked why the house has 4 front doors.
The simple explanation is:
2 of the doors are for visitors, 2 are for the family; or perhaps for business.

The 'company' doors are grand with double Ionic columns.
The curled scrolls at the top of the columns were thought to symbolize wisdom and grace.

Today the columns are not readily visible from the street, sheltered by the porch roofs.

The secondary doors are those in the middle with no columns, only casings.

The fluted moldings have rosettes at the top, not capitals, a modern touch in 1838. The massive marble lintels make these doors sturdy and practical.

The house was built for an extended family. Judge Luman Norton and his wife lived on the left side; their daughter and her husband, Christopher Fenton, were on the right, Together they owned the pottery factories around the corner on the Walloomsac River.

The families must have wished to visit and share easily. There is, for example, a bake oven in the firebox of the Fenton house, but none on the Nortons'.  Those 2 family doors made it possible to quickly and easily go from one house to the other.

'Back' doors existed as well, for household chores.

It is possible that the 'family' doors were 'business' doors. They opened into rooms that could have been used as offices for the potteries. Before 1860, tradesmen's workrooms were often attached to their homes. Lawyers, judges, ministers, and doctors regularly had offices in their houses. Why not pottery owners too?

There is another way to consider the front doors -
The house itself is really 2 center entrance houses set side by side - with a hole where they join. Look at the windows across the 2nd floor - 5 on the left centered on a front door; 5 on the right also centered  over a front door.

Here is a picture of what the house would look like as double house - long, ordinary, undistinguished.
The red line is added to help to visualize the 2 houses.
 Changing the roof direction in the middle gives the  house a center. Then, of course, that bit of roof becomes a pediment which needs a visual support on each end. That space becomes the first thing a visitor sees. Adding the 3 columns just reinforces the effect.
The center section could have been brought forward. Instead it was recessed.  That made space for both windows and columns.

The drawing shows how elegant it is.
The main doors with their ornate columns, side lights, and transoms soften the austerity and power of those columns, and bring the viewers' eyes back from the pediment to the ground.

Then the business doors were added...  And with them the visual dilemma - where to look? which doors are the important?  the ones in the center, under the pediment? those with the columns?
Today I look and wonder what solution I would come up with if I had been the designer; the Nortons and Fentons, my clients.

I am very fond of this house. It is unique, not copied from someone else's idea of what a house should be. I am glad to see it useful 180 years after it was built, and especially glad that many different  people get to enjoy it.

William Bull's buildings: the Bennington Poor Farm

In 2011, Joe Hall and I wrote an article for The Walloomsack Review, the journal of the Bennington Museum, about William Bull. Joe had done the research: I was asked to write about the architecture.  I have described the architecture with more nuance here.

William C. Bull had a good job.
He owned a successful box manufacturing company on East Main St. in Bennington.

Still in 1891, at the age of 31, he began to design buildings - houses, churches, the Bennington train station - that still delight us today.

Bull left us no diaries or letters, few records - only his buildings. They tell us he enjoyed designing, playing with form and surface. He had a sense of place (how the building would fit the land) and massing (how the parts would fit together to appeal to us). He made memorable spaces for people to use and live in. 

He built in a time when people walked, or traveled by horse and wagon, by trolley, and by early cars that didn’t go very fast. At that pace there was plenty of time to look around. So his buildings engage you.

One of the last and simplest buildings  Bull designed, in 1914, was the Town Poor Farm on Willow Road.
It is placed to be seen from a distance. In the early 1900's 
 Willow Road connected East Road to Northside Drive and Rte 7a.  A traveler coming into town would see this building on the ridge across the valley, graceful and quiet on the land - simple but not poor or miserly.

Replacing a building which had burned down, it was built of concrete, a relatively new construction system. Today the concrete walls are sheathed in vinyl siding.

The building is very long. Here Bull played with the massing - divided the structure into parts - to create a dignified whole: a beginning (the entrance), a middle (the wings), and an end (the 2 chimney walls on either end).
He placed a 
traditional farm house  shape in the center with a large center entrance, a porch with triple columns, balanced windows each side. He placed that farm house a few feet in front of the wings and turned the roof so that the house was set off before  the north and south wings. 

This helped make the scale of the farm more personal, less intimidating, human.

 The windows in both wings are large and well proportioned - not skimpy or mean.
Large windows were also necessary to provide day lighting before we had reliable electricity.

The high end walls act as visual book ends, holding the rows of windows in place, anchoring the whole building to the land.  They give the building 'weight', importance.
The end walls also simplified the slate roof details - slate was the standard roofing of the time -  and enclosed the chimneys. 

There are no frills here. The character is from the size and scale of the parts: the wall and roof height, the window proportions, the shapes of the parts put together.
The Town was graced with a building which did not look down upon its poor.

Today this is  the home of BROC, housing its offices and apartments. 

It is best seen from Rte 7 just north of the intersection with 67A and Kocher Drive.  

The poor house c.1880 (with thanks to Tim Wager).

The Vermont Steak House was a cigar manufactory?

The Vermont Steak House was once a place where cigars were made.
So says the 1896 Sanborn Insurance map. 

Here's how I found out.
Last fall the Bennington Banner’s front page photo showed the beginning renovation of the Steak House, lately known as Peppermills, by John Redding of the Safford Mill Inn and Cafe.*

 The column said that the structure was built in the 1930’s.
I knew the building was older than that, that its framing was ‘post and beam', a system used 200 years ago. I decided to do some detective work.

I checked the maps in the Bennington Museum Library.  
Beginning with the 1835 Hinsdill map, the building is on every map we have of the town.

This is part of the 1867 Beers Atlas map.The house is in the middle with the owner's name (which we can't read) jutting up. M C Morgan's house - the Safford Inn - is just to the right, across the Walloomsac River.

Here is partial view of the 1877 birds eye view  map which hangs in the entry of the Bennington Free Library.

The house that is shown in the 1877 map is still here. It is clearly drawn -  as is seen here in the middle of an expanded piece of that map.
The Walloomsac River swings under Main Street, past the Safford Inn on the right, and on past to flow under Safford Street. On the left side of the river, across from the Inn is what we have called the Vermont Steak House: 2 stories, a peaked roof with the gable facing the street, a back wing, and what seems to be a porch on the street and right side, and a chimney. 

The 1896 Sanborn Insurance map labels the house a
“Cigar Manufactory”. 

The 1893 Register for Bennington has this ad:
"R. Ovies, Manufacturer of Fine Cigars" 
 Ramon Ovies and his son, Raymond J.Ovies are listed as residents here.

 Making cigars in Bennington? Why?
I did some research. I found out that many bustling towns like Bennington had places where cigars were put together either for a regional company or for local use. 
Teenage girls - who were supposed to have nimble fingers and would work for little pay - usually assembled the cigars. They were often immigrants who could be hired even if they didn't speak English. 

The 1906 Sanborn map labels the house a Butcher Shop. R.J. Ovies now runs the store; his father is simply a resident. Note the Ovies' listings 
in the Register.
By 1921, the one story front entrance has been added to the Grocery. 
On the 1930’s maps it has become a restaurant.  

John Redding and I took a good look at the frame. It is the traditional post and beam construction  we expected in a 200 yr. old house. The ridge pole is the old style: 5 sided. The pegs are long, the sheathing boards wide. The rafters and joists show the marks of an ‘up and down’ sash saw, the kind of saw used before 1830, one that would have been at Safford’s saw mill which  was located right across Main Street on the Walloomsac River.
We also saw original clapboard, molding and roofing, in the style popular about 1825. All been left there, just covered up when the second floor of the back wing was built around it. The lines of the original rear shed were easy to see. The chimney location matched the chimney on the house shown in the 1877 map.

This house really was built almost 200 years ago. It has had a fascinating career as it has adapted to the needs of one era after another.   

John Redding and his wife, Lisa Harrington-Redding, have good plans for their new restaurant here, the Miller's Toll Dinner Club and Lounge. I look forward to enjoying what they will offer. 
I am also happy that the Safford Mills is preparing the house for its next century.  

* all pictures can be expanded for easier viewing by clicking on them 

Chimneys as Decoration: The Campbell House

                                                                                                           September 7, 2015
What’s a chimney? 
The place that takes smoke up and outside when you light a fire inside a house. 

When that fire was in a fireplace the chimney needed to be right above the fire to carry away the smoke. The fireplace was inside the house; the chimney was too. Both radiated heat into the house. The chimney was mostly invisible until it exited the house above the roof.
The chimney shown, c. 1710, has 5 flues serving 5 fireplaces. 

By 1860 we had invented stoves, stove pipes and furnaces.
The pipes took the smoke to the chimney - wherever it was. The chimney could be outside the house, visible. It became not just useful but decorative.
These stoves (left)  are from the 1895 Montgomery Ward catalog. One burns wood, the other coal. Both are definitely decorative! The furnace (right), from the Sears Roebuck 1910 catalog, is just as clearly utilitarian, belonging in the basement . 

The Campbell House Chimney 

William Bull, Bennington’s Victorian architect, designed this house for William Campbell at 207 W. Main Street, Bennington, in 1894.  Bull knew the house would be seen from many different angles. The house sits at the intersection of  two prominent streets, Main and Dewey. Campbell's factory was located across Main Street along side the river - approximately where the parking lot for St. Francis de Sales Church is today.  Bull created wonderful aspects and details to be enjoyed by the Campbells, by visitors and those just passing by.

The house has several chimneys. The one most visible from Main and Dewey Street is on the right above.

It begins as stone, rough ashlar with accented  corners, set against the first floor wall. At the 2nd floor it angles and then morphs into brick, tucked behind a 2nd floor overhang. As it rises through the eaves the brick is embellished with arches, ribs and corbels. Definitely decorative!

It is also very high –precariously so. An iron rod fastened to the roof is required to hold the chimney securely: decidedly boring. But look: an iron confection  in the center of rod’s span! The utilitarian tie rod becomes an airy delight: just a little string up there tied in a bow. 


Catalogue No. 37, Montgomery Ward & Co. Spring and Summer 1895, Dover Publications, NY, 1969, unabridged facsimile with introduction; images from Page 421.
Sears, Roebuck Home Builder's Catalog, The Complete illustrated 1910 Edition, Dover Publications, Inc. NY, 1990; image from page 98.

Brick in the Valley, June 4, 2015

The Barnett House, c.1840, sits looking over the river valley on Caretaker’s Road, in Walloomsac, NY.

Graceful, upright, red brick, white entrance with sidelights, marble lintels and water table: Neo-Classical.
It is one of many brick houses built here beginning in the 1820’s. The Academy in Old Bennington, 1821, was probably the first, followed by others on Monument Avenue, in North Bennington, and Shaftsbury. By the 1840’s handsome brick houses graced at least 9 farms in Hoosick and Walloomsac.

The quarries on Mt. Anthony and West Mountain could have supplied the marble. Where did the brick come from?
After the Civil War there were brick yards on Rollin Road in Shaftsbury, on Clay Hill in Hoosick Falls, and Coleville Road in Bennington. Before 1860?  I can find no record. 
During research at the Hoosick Township Historical Society, Charles Filkins, Phil Leonard and I considered transportation. Brick was manufactured in the Hudson Valley. How might it have come here in such quantity?

Turnpikes were straight roads laid out beginning in the1820’s to ship goods to market expeditiously. Ones that still bear the name are the Mud Turnpike in Boyntonville, the Tamhannock Turnpike in Pittstown, Turnpike Road in Cambridge. In Bennington, West Road in Bennington,VT, which stopped at Pleasant Valley Road was extended to Mapletown in Hoosick, NY.

A farmer taking his produce to Troy for the market would have returned with an empty wagon. Even a small load of brick would have made the trip more profitable. Many trips would have meant many bricks.  Plausible, but are we right? Maybe.

The name ‘turnpike’ comes from the pole - a ‘pike’ - that barred a private road. When the toll was paid the pike was turned; the traveler could proceed.

6/7/2015        What is a 'water table'?
It is the board or stone at the bottom of the wall just above the foundation. Often foundations were irregular, being built out of stone. The water table stuck out, insuring that water running down the face of the house was jettisoned away from the foundation.
At the Barnett House the foundation  - above the ground - is made from beautiful cut stone, laid up with care. It is not irregular. Still the mortar would have been lime and sand, not cement - protection was still useful.

This house, c. 1825, has a brick foundation and a stone water table. Here the window sills are stone, but the lintels over the windows are arched brick, not stone as in the Barnett House. I think the technology for cutting the wide marble lintels did not yet exist.

On the brick facade 'ghost lines' can be seen above the entrance where  a porch was once added and then removed.

The Luther Graves House

125 Washington Ave., Bennington, VT

Photograph courtesy of the Bennington Historical Society
Published April 25, 2015

     Behind the Elks Club on Washington Avenue is a white brick building with red trim and a Mansard roof. In 1867 it was the carriage house for Luther and Sarah Graves’ mansion which sat where the Elks Club is today.

      Luther Graves, a salesman, and Henry Root, a tin-maker, joined forces in 1831 to manufacture and peddle tin ware: buttons, spoons, cups, plates, pans, stove pipes. A few years later they set up a factory in Bennington. The town had no tin-maker; there would be no competition. As the company grew Graves could no longer peddle; he ran the office. By 1860 the company had 100 peddlers working out of 4 branch offices. Graves and Root were wealthy men. Graves then turned, in 1863, to establishing The First National Bank of Bennington. Root became the bank’s vice-president.

      In 1867 Luther and Sarah Graves built this 3 story brick mansion, a statement to their success. At first glance at the photograph it seems much like the Park-McCullough House built 3 years earlier. Both have belvederes, sloping Mansard roofs, arched windows, wrap around porches with slender Italianate columns. However, this house feels more solid. It is built of massive brick not lighter wood. The window hoods and arched pediments at the roof line are weighty.  The 2 story double chimneys stand like soldiers. The house was sited so that those passing by looked up at the house and knew its strength: a good house for a banker.

     The Graves family built 2 bank buildings on Main Street and 4 houses in Bennington, all architecturally interesting. This house was torn down in the 1960’s.

       Joe Hall tells more of the history of the house on WBTN’s Bygone Bennington No. 46. It can be found on-line.  

Added notes, 4/26/15:

Here is the drawing of the Park-McCullough House by the architects

 and a photograph for comparison.

The drawing is in the collection of the Park-McCullough House. I think the photograph is too. but I have no attribution.