The Village Tour: South Pleasant Street and Cross Street

View of South Pleasant Street in 1903, two years before construction of the Memorial Baptist Church began on the site of 97 South Pleasant Street (pictured at the far left). Source

South Pleasant Street

At first perhaps the most important street in town, Pleasant Street retained a prestigious residential character throughout the 19th century. This fact is witnessed by the range of styles present in the high-quality buildings built for merchants and professionals along the street between Painter House and Cross Street.

4 71 South Pleasant Street Built in 1803 on a lot purchased by the brilliant young lawyer Loyal Case, an ardent reformer and opponent of slavery. It was Victorianized with Italianate brackets and mansard tower probably in the early 1880s. It is now run as an inn.

5 Memorial Baptist Church Built in 1905–1906 to the designs of Burlington architect W.R.B. Wilcox, this handsome building with its Romanesque-derived towers succeeded the smaller church (now the Grace Baptist Church) on Merchants Row, built for the congregation by Smith and Allen of Middlebury in  1882. The new $75,000 church was constructed with textured rusticated marble blocks from the Brandon quarries of the Brandon Italian Marble Company. It was the gift of Col. Silas Ilsley, founder of one of the earliest and largest tinware industries in America (later subsumed into the American Can Company). A summer resident who shared with Joseph Battell a passion for Morgan horses, he retired to Middlebury in 1901, moving into specially renovated apartments in the Addison House and becoming a prominent businessman (president of the National Bank) and philanthropist. He gave the church as a memorial to his father, a prominent Baptist minister in New York and New England. The marble-lined vestibule contains two large bronze tablets identifying the donor and the reason for the memorial gift. An Arts and Crafts care for materials and craftsmanship pervades the building — evident in the trusswork with carved bosses, quartered oak woodwork of the pews and paneling, fine bronze hardware, elaborate lighting fixtures, heavily carved pulpit furniture, and art glass windows (by H.J. Harwood of Ogdensburg, N.Y.). The pipe organ was constructed by the Esty Company of Brattleboro. In 1912 a portico with matching materials and style was added to the building’s north side by Burlington architect Frank Lyman Austin, who also designed a bank building for Ilsley. The actual construction was accomplished under the close supervision of Rev. George R. Stair, described in the Middlebury Register as an “extremely practical preacher who is a builder of structures as well as a molder of men.” The paper further opined that it was doubtful if there was another costlier Baptist church in New England outside of Boston and Providence.

The original Baptist Church in 1882. Source
Memorial Baptist Church and 111 South Pleasant Street. Source

6 111 South Pleasant Street Built in 1801 for Josiah Fuller across the street from his creek-side tannery and on the site of a house built by William Sloan in 1788. Beginning in 1818 it served as the home of Middlebury College presidents Bates and Labaree. A handsomely solid structure, it is notable for the Doric frieze below its eaves and the elegant Federal Style fireplaces in its north parlors. Oft-remodeled, it has received from its numerous owners a Greek Revival doorway and a gabled slate roof (placed over the original hipped wood shingle roof that still exists in the attic), a Doric-style portico (1970) modeled after that of the county jail at 33 Court Street, and two back wings. The wing at the rear was added in 1991 and was designed to replicate the style of the original house.

111 South Pleasant Street in 1975. Source

7 135 South Pleasant Street Built in the 1860s for James Negus (on the site of the 1795 house of Oliver Brewster), this house is generally known as that of Governor John E. Weeks, whose family occupied it in the first half of the twentieth century. Its belvedere,1 mansards,2 polychrome slate roofs, and elaborate brackets are exemplary of the local interpretation of the French Second Empire (or “General Grant”) style, which became popular in the years following the Civil War. The etched cranberry-colored glass around the door is another feature typical of Middlebury’s finer homes in the third quarter of the nineteenth century.

8 161 South Pleasant Street Built in 1822 by Peter Starr (on the site of the 1792 house of Festus Hill), this large frame home boasted a fanlighted Federal Style doorway and a fine series of fireplaces (since removed). It was remodeled (probably in the 1880s) with a new and steeper roofline and Victorian brackets and bay window. To the southeast of the house is a charming board-and-batten3 Gothic Revival4 carriage house. The Starr family were instrumental in the construction of two prominent buildings on the college campus — Starr Hall (1861) and Egbert Starr Library (1900).

9 4 Cross Street Originally located at 77 Main Street, just south of Ilsley library, this frame house, known as Osborne House, was built in 1816 by Daniel Henshaw, partner and then successor in Stillman Foot’s milling business. From 1820 to 1827 it was the meeting place of the Episcopal Society. The property of Middlebury College since 1921, it was moved to its
present location in 2014 and subsequently sold as part of the real estate transfers that made way for the construction of the town offices and the development of the park at College and Main Streets.

Osborne House at 77 Main Street in 1925. Source

10 2 Cross Street 1808 home of David Page, business partner of Lavius Fillmore and developer of the 1811 cotton mill on Main Street (the largest factory in the Vermont of its day).

11 14 Cross Street A large frame house erected on one of the more prominent sites in town in 1800-01 for Joshua Henshaw, the businessman/landlord of the Vermont State Bank. Accounting for a shortfall in 1809 of some $14,000, the directors put forth the story that there was a robbery that looked like an inside job, using a duplicated key. Conveniently, Henshaw, who was in financial difficulty, rapidly left town for Canada, never to return. Subsequently, a key to the bank (now in the Sheldon Museum) was found concealed in the attic of his house. Later in the century the house earned a less notorious reputation as the Congregational parsonage. It was remodeled with a central pavilion (originally capped by a mansard tower), elaborate window frames, and enlivened roofline by Smith and Allen in 1882.

West side of South Pleasant Street

A two-story house with Federal detailing built in 1808 for Dr. Edward Tudor and subsequently owned by Harvey Bell, a lawyer, one of the first members of the Vermont State Senate, and long-time secretary of the Corporation of Middlebury College was removed in 2009 to permit the construction of the Cross Street Bridge. Other houses on the west side of South Pleasant Street were built by tradesmen and are more modest. Though not as elegant as some of their neighbors to the east, they do preserve some of the fine details from the era in which they were built and suggest that the desire for quality was not restricted to those of large means: e.g., the handsome classical doorway (probably 1830s or early 1840s) of 6 South Pleasant Street, and the sensitive window placement and beautiful attic light on the north end of the substantially proportioned 14 South Pleasant Street (1806).

12 81 South Pleasant Street This house presents a definite change in taste. It was built in 1884 by Middlebury’s influential Victorian architect, Clinton Smith, as his own home. Born in 1846, Smith began his building career as a carpenter in partnership with his father. In the 1870s he formed a building firm with William Allen, and they began a series of remodeling and construction projects in the area. In the early 1880s they purchased a mill in Frog Hollow to turn out the elaborate window frames, moldings, and brackets that marked Smith’s frame style, dominated the Victorian scene in much of west-central Vermont, and can be found up and down South Pleasant Street. At the same time Smith designed and Allen built a series of prominent masonry structures in the heart of town reflecting the latest tastes in such centers as New York and Boston.

Smith’s own house incorporates these latter tastes in its complex but controlled massing, its combination of materials (brick, wood, slate, stucco), its craftsmanly delight in brick detailing, and its Stick Style porches with their turned woodwork. Built at the time that Smith was working on the neighboring Town Hall, the house gave rise to the story that contemporaries grumbled about the architect’s using all of the best town bricks for his own project.

This Middlebury architect was prominent not only locally, but also built structures from Montpelier and Waterbury to Wallingford and Rutland. His firm continued activity until the turn of the 20th century, though he himself moved to Washington, D.C. in 1891, where he served until his death in 1905 as chief of construction and repair for the War Department. He is commemorated by a noteworthy monument in Middlebury’s Foote Street burial ground.

13 Old Town Hall Built in 1883 by Clinton Smith on the site of Epaphrus Miller’s fine 1811 brick house and tavern, which was removed so that the Town Hall could stand as a focal feature for those entering the town from the north on Pleasant Street. Here one meets the vocabulary of Smith’s house used for a public structure. Described in contemporary accounts as being in a “modern” style, it is a vigorous building, with powerful asymmetric massing and a bold use of contrasting stone and brick. The brickwork itself is a mason’s delight, creating flush patterns and sculptured textures to pick out and enliven various portions of the facade. The marble details not only emphasize certain elements of the building, but also serve to tie together the various masses. There were originally four cherry doors at the entrance, and the gaslit interior had a stage with an ash and cherry proscenium and a scenic curtain of the Gulf of Venice done after a painting by the English artist Stanfield. Further underlining the importance which the town attributed to this building was the historic cornerstone, containing records and memorabilia, set into the foundations by Henry Sheldon on June 15, 1883.

The ground floor housed the town offices. The auditorium housed public events from town meetings and political rallies to theatricals, concerts, touring vaudeville companies, balls, and exhibitions. In 1922 it was outfitted as a movie theater. In 1958 the town sold the building and Epaphrus Miller’s house in 1860s moved its offices to the old high school on Main Street. New owner Sam Emilo used it for a furniture store and then the Belmont Restaurant (with dance floor). In 1968 the building was acquired by the Knights of Columbus. Over the years the curved balcony and stage were removed, windows were bricked up, the interior received a dropped ceiling and pine paneling, and in 1961 the town’s 1887 Meneely bell was sold for scrap. The last was saved by a community “Buck for the Bell” campaign organized by local builder Theron Wolcott and college professor Arthur Healy and placed in the gardens of the Sheldon Museum.

Epaphrus Miller’s house, ca. 1860s. Source
Old Town Hall by Clinton Smith in 1883. Source

In 2000, under the leadership and vision of theatrical writer and director Douglas Anderson, the Town Hall Theater Corporation was formed to acquire and restore the building. With support of local businesses, the college, state and federal grants, and over one thousand volunteers and donors, in 2008 the theater completed a five-million-dollar restoration and renovation executed by the local Breadloaf Corporation. The bell was triumphantly returned to its tower, accompanied by the ringing of church bells throughout the town. With its Volkert Main Stage (named for long-time drama professor and founder of the Middlebury Community Players, Erie Volkert), Jackson Gallery, and Byers Studio, the theater hosts amateur and local professional theater companies, opera, film festivals, concerts, proms, adult and children’s drama classes, antique markets, and art shows, regaining its central role in the cultural life of the town.

14 Civil War Monument Presented to the town in 1905 by Col. Silas A. Ilsley, this granite monument stands at the head of Merchants Row over one of the old Middlebury fire protection cisterns (rendered obsolete when a village water system was installed in 1902). It was executed in Barre by the Jones Brothers Granite Company that produced ready-made monuments of one-to-multiple figures that can be found in towns across Vermont. Since its dedication, attended by a crowd of some 6000, it has served as the focus of the community’s commemorations of all from the town who have served in the country’s military. It is said that this gift from a relative newcomer to the town spurred Col. Joseph Battell to present a counter-monument, an elaborate cast-iron public fountain (removed in 1938 and replaced with a similar one in 1976) in the corner of the Green known as Triangle Park at the other end of Merchants Row.

The Civil War Monument. Source
  1. a small look-out tower on the roof of a house, inspired by Italian villas
  2. a double-sloped roof, the lower portion being longer and steeper than the upper. It is named for the French architect Francois Mansart and was a major device of the Second Empire style
  3. a wall surface composed of boards set vertically with the cracks between covered by narrow wood strips (or battens)
  4. a style of architecture inspired by the buildings of the later middle ages, typically characterized by steeply-pitched roofs, pointed arches, asymmetrical massing, towers, and applied tracery-derived decoration. It was particularly popular in the United States from the late 1830s through the Civil War for its picturesque qualities and its moral (ecclesiastical) associations
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