People & Places

300 miles of modern architecture in Vermont

House II, designed by Peter Eisenman, is in Hardwick. Photo by Donald M. Kreis

House II, designed by Peter Eisenman, is in Hardwick. Photo by Donald M. Kreis

“Trash or Painting Building? You decide. Thanks.”

So reads a makeshift sign tacked to a pile of art student debris that is gathering dust inside a dilapidated building located in a forlorn corner of the campus of Goddard College in Plainfield. And, with a bit of poetic license, this query aptly summarizes why 25 people from around New England spent an August weekend driving nearly 300 miles around the Green Mountain State to check out buildings.

Vermont is a state deeply committed to historic preservation. You can earn a degree in the subject at the University of Vermont. Undue adverse impacts on historic sites is a reason for blocking development projects under Act 250. Our taxes support a state division of historic preservation. And we seem to have a statewide consensus that we should preserve and revere those buildings around the state – structures like colonial taverns, clapboard churches, monitor barns and Greek revival courthouses – that testify to our state’s bygone days as an independent republic and would-be agrarian paradise.

But what of the buildings that began appearing in Vermont less than 100 years ago, and continue to proliferate here? Architecture experienced a worldwide spasm in the 20th century in which the old order gave way to notions of simplicity, innovation and a more resonant relationship between structure and site. At the national and global scales, architects like Le Corbusier in France, Walter Gropius and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in Germany, and Louis Kahn in the U.S., to name just a few, changed the very essence of what a new building – or, at least, a new building with any aspirations to greatness – should look like.

These trends were certainly felt in Vermont, particularly after most of Germany’s great designers fled Nazism for the United States to take up residence at Harvard and other universities. From there the so-called International Style – and other architectural notions loosely known these days as “modernism” — spread across the realm. Some of 20th century architecture’s bright lights – designers like Edward Larrabee Barnes, Eliot Noyes and Peter Eisenman – received commissions from Vermont clients. Others – including Marcel Beaudin, Ruth and William Freeman, and David Sellers – set up shop here outright.

The cool and sometimes quirky designs of these architects, and others of their caliber, hide here and there around Vermont, sometimes in plain sight. As these buildings age and adapt, questions loom: Which of these buildings are worth saving? Should they remain in use or become museum pieces? There are no easy answers for the simple reason that, although we tend to know what we like when it comes to really old buildings, we are less sure about structures that, in many instances, arrived within the lifetimes of those tasked with deciding whether to keep them.

Fortunately, the international organization “docomomo” – the name is a neologism meaning “the documentation and conservation of buildings, sites and neighborhoods of the modern movement” – has arisen to take on these questions. To the New England chapter of docomomo and its coordinator, Boston-area architect Marie Sorensen, goes the credit for organizing this year’s two-day tour of significant modern buildings in Vermont – an epic journey that began in Norwich, proceeded north to Hardwick, veered west to Burlington, proceeded thence to the Mad River Valley, and concluded in Killington – 296 miles, according to one odometer.

The Painting Building at Goddard College in Plainfield is one of three buildings Warren architect David Sellers created with students there. Photo by Donald M. Kreis

The Painting Building at Goddard College in Plainfield is one of three buildings Warren architect David Sellers created with students there. Photo by Donald M. Kreis

Working with Devin Colman, the state’s official architectural historian, Sorensen laudably devised an itinerary that veered toward rather than away from the difficult stuff.

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For example, there was House II in Hardwick, the very first building to be realized by the somewhat notorious Peter Eisenman – one of the so-called “New York Five” who came to prominence in the 1960s. These are the guys who essentially invented what is derided today as “starchitecture” and, in the case of Eisenman, the demands he imposed on those who hired him inspired one of his clients, Suzanne Frank, to write an entire book complaining about his creation, House VI.

In essence, what Eisenman did at both House II and House VI was to attempt to embody in built form the deconstructivist notions of French philosopher Jacques Derrida. Just as Derrida is a tough go for most readers, Eisenman’s Hardwick creation offers a difficult life for a homeowner despite its ravishly beautiful hillside location. In essence, Eisenman created 19 white cubes and carefully removed and altered (i.e., deconstructed) various parts of them according to a rigorous artistic logic that nods only occasionally to functionality as an actual house. The place fell into disrepair only to be bought and rehabilitated in 2000 by a Florida couple who are now eager to sell the place.

The 40 minutes it takes to drive from House II to Goddard College in Plainfield was all the time there was to ponder what to do about Eisenman’s creation before the doconomo armada was confronted by an even more vexatious and fascinating problem in the realm of preserving modernism. His name is David Sellers.

Whereas Eisenman has long since left Vermont behind, Sellers is still very much with us and, indeed, can fairly be described as embodying the opposite approach to designing a building. Eisenman is on the faculty of Yale’s architecture school. Sellers trained at Yale as an architect there but famously left New Haven in the 1960s because he was sick of theory and was itching to “build something.” Land was cheap, and the skiing was great, in Warren – so Sellers headed north.

Sellers frequently uses the word “wacky” to describe his approach, which can be summarized as gathering interested people together, using whatever materials are at hand, improvising far more than planning, and seeing what emerges. Eventually this attracted the attention of Goddard College (whose approach to pedagogy, then and how, is similarly freelance) where Sellers founded a design program and, with his colleagues and students, created three buildings: the Design Center, the Painting Building, and the Sculpture Building.

The Design Center, near the heart of the campus, is today under-utilized and in marginal shape. And that’s the good news! The other two buildings are crumbling into the ground and have not been used since Goddard discontinued operating as a traditional residential college in 2002.

Full of junk, visibly suffering the effects of hosting bats, mice, human squatters and other uninvited guests, the sculpture and painting buildings demonstrate that some of Sellers’ experiments in ad hoc architecture succeeded better than others. Gluing pieces of plywood together made for excellent and enduring trusses. Plexiglas allows for curved windows but is not long-lasting. Form-on-the-fly is often quirky and friendly – these buildings are full of oddly configured spaces that can nurture the creative soul – but it is just as often downright ugly.

The argument for preserving these buildings is that they embody the most public face of the distinctive contribution Vermont has made, largely instigated by Sellers, to modern architecture. In its more disciplined form, it is known as the “design-build” movement; one can study it with Sellers and other at the Yestermorrow Design-Build School that was founded in Warren by Sellers disciple John Connell. In its purest form, design-build is the idea that architects should not simply conjure ideas for beautiful buildings – they should learn how to build them and then pitch right in. It is a far cry from Derrida!

The argument against preserving these buildings is twofold. First, by their very nature these ad-hoc and ever-changing designs cannot be hammered and lacquered into the kind of stasis one associates with historically preserved architecture. Second, Sellers has in common with Frank Lloyd Wright a proclivity for, relatively late in life, reinvigorating his brand and ramping up his output.

David Sellers shows off the dining room of The Pitcher Inn in Warren. Sellers designed a renovation of the 19th century inn after a fire in 1997. Photo by Donald M. Kreis

David Sellers shows off the dining room of The Pitcher Inn in Warren. Sellers designed a renovation of the 19th century inn after a fire in 1997. Photo by Donald M. Kreis

Thus, although the 1960s back-to-the-land vibe that first brought Sellers to prominence has long since abated, if you lust for a personal immersion in the flavor of architectural eclecticism wrought at Goddard you can go on Airbnb (www.airbnb.com) and rent a Warren vacation home designed by Sellers (along with students from Yestermorrow) known as the “Archie Bunker.” Sellers, who loves a good pun almost as much as a good building, named this creation a bunker because it is made almost entirely from concrete – its first name alluding to the fact that it has lots of structural arches amidst its chaos. The Archie Bunker, which Sellers personally introduced to the docomomo delegation on Day 2 of their tour, is as decisive a rebuke as has ever been made to the commonly held view that concrete buildings are cold and devoid of soul. Indeed, one finds here a sly allusion to almost every trope in modern architecture – from a slide-away wall (deconstructivism?) that eliminates the distinction between indoor and outdoor (you can leap right from the living room into the pool) to the fake defiance of gravity common to Miesian lovers of glass walls (in the form here of a foundation-level band of mirrors that, when the snow reaches the right height, makes the Archie Bunker appear to levitate).

A house in Warren known as the “Archie Bunker” was designed and built by David Sellers and his students from Yestermorrow Design-Build School. Photo by Donald M. Kreis

A house in Warren known as the “Archie Bunker” was designed and built by David Sellers and his students from Yestermorrow Design-Build School. Photo by Donald M. Kreis

And if the Archie Bunker is too edgy for you – if it alludes too palpably to its scruffy antecedents in Plainfield and elsewhere – you can rent a room at the Pitcher Inn in downtown Warren. In 1997, after a fire, Sellers created a sly variation on his eclecticism within the shell of a classic 19th century building; its salient features are so subtle that a casual observer could walk Main Street and detect no signs of the architect’s madness. Sellers made mischief, for example, by meeting the requirement that each room have a TV by hiding one behind a portrait of George Washington and another inside a lectern from which the screen levitates upon the push of a secret button.

Having been shown around the Pitcher Inn and the Archie Bunker by Sellers himself, one is left with the hypothesis that projects like these can fully reflect and preserve his grand contribution to the history of architecture. If so, the Goddard relics could plausibly be removed, eliminating a safety hazard (and what some could reasonably be described as eyesores) at Goddard College.

Indeed, one could safely remove both the Eisenman House II and all of Sellers’ oeuvre from the docomomo itinerary – this deleting everything that remotely smacks of Howard Roark-esque extroversion in architecture – and one would be left with a refined and understated body of historically significant modern architecture that might be deemed a more logical outgrowth of Vermont culture as it has progressed over the decades and centuries.

Allan Gelbin, once an apprentice at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin, quietly brought elements of Wright’s organic horizontality to the byways of Norwich.

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Owing in part to a persistent arson scourge of the early 1970s, the two most denominationally important churches in Burlington – the Episcopal and Catholic cathedrals – are each a dignified but bold departure from traditional sacred buildings. The former, designed by local architects William Henderson and Tom Cullins, is outwardly focused and well reflects Henderson’s experience working with the celebrated I.M. Pei. The latter, created by the celebrated New York architect Edward Larrabee Barnes, looks inward and is a study in serenity. It is almost entirely surrounded by a small Cartesian forest that is the only local example of landscape design by Dan Kiley of Charlotte, regarded as the most noteworthy American landscape architect of the late 20th century.

One of the few homes Kiley designed was also on the docomomo tour, as was its neighbor on DeForest Heights in Burlington – the home that architects Ruth and William Freeman built for themselves in 1941 as a way of introducing Vermont to the modernist aesthetic they felt called to promote in the Green Mountain State. Their Burlington firm, Freeman French Freeman, still thrives (giving its president, Jesse Beck, the wherewithal to move his family into aforementioned and previously dilapidated Kiley house that his wife Kevin said she once deemed the most spooky and decrepit thing in Burlington).

However stalwart that proved Kevin Beck to be, the award for rectitude on the docomomo Vermont tour goes to Fred Noyes, an architect from Boston. Friendly and earnest, Noyes and his old red Subaru chugged along for two long days patiently awaiting the opportunity to introduce his fellow modern design enthusiasts to the two final stops on the tour – a pair of houses designed by Noyes’ father, the late Eliot Noyes (1910-1977), in Killington. A disciple of Marcel Breuer (another celebrated refugee from Nazi Germany who landed at Harvard), Eliot Noyes was an industrial designer as well as an architect. He gave the IBM Selectric typewriter its look and is thus considered an early exponent of the notion so ably pursued decades later by Steve Jobs that the products people use to create words should be beautiful as well as functional.

The Ohly Residence in Killington was designed by architect Eliot Noyes. Photo by Donald M. Kreis

The Ohly Residence in Killington was designed by architect Eliot Noyes. Photo by Donald M. Kreis

The two Noyes houses in Killington – both the modest ski house created for (and still owned by) the Noyes family and the larger, more elegant Ohly Residence nearby – offer a compelling and understated alternative to both the cerebral egomania of Eisenman and the affable extroversion of Sellers. Modernism at its best places simplicity in the service of the movingly beautiful. The Ohly Residence, in particular, is so timeless it looks like the best of the cutting-edge residential design one sees in today’s architectural magazines.

These are Vermont’s emerging landmarks. Are they trash? Or are they worthy buildings, worthy of our continued attention? Figuring out whether and how to preserve them, and working to cultivate the public’s appreciation of them, is a critical task. Avoiding that work risks giving the world the false impression that civilization in Green Mountain State has not evolved since a Vermonter last occupied the White House in 1929.


Don Kreis

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