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Vermont State House

The Vermont State House, located in Montpelier, Vermont, is the capitol and seat of Vermont General Assembly. The current Greek Revival structure is the third building on the same site to serve as the State House. It was designed in 1857 and opened in 1859.

The Vermont State House has been carefully restored beginning in the early 1980s under the direction of curator David Schütz and the Friends of the Vermont State House, a citizens' advisory committee. The overall style of the building is Neoclassical with Greek Revival details and is furnished in American Empire, Renaissance Revival, and Rococo Revival styles. Some rooms have been restored to represent latter nineteenth century styles including the Aesthetic Movement.

The Vermont State House is located on State Street on the western edge of downtown Montpelier, a block north of the Winooski River. Set against a wooded hillside (which was open pasture land at times through the building's history), the building and its distinctive gold leaf dome are easily visible while approaching Montpelier. The small size of Montpelier (the smallest city to serve as capital of a U.S. state) allows for the dome to be visible well before reaching the city limit along U.S. Route 2.

History and architecture

Exterior facade and dome

The current structure was designed by architect Thomas Silloway, (1828-1910) amplifying the design of an earlier structure (the second Vermont State House), designed by Ammi B. Young, (1798-1874) who was later the supervising architect of the U.S. Treasury. The earlier second State House was constructed on the same site between 1833–1838. Young's earlier structure was of a more chaste Greek Revival design and based upon the Temple of Theseus in Athens. Gray Barre granite is used for the two-story cruciform design with a Doric portico and a low saucer dome echoing Benjamin Henry Latrobe's earliest design for the U.S. Capitol. Young's structure was nearly totally destroyed in a fire in January 1857. Silloway was able to salvage the Doric portico, as well as portions of the granite walls. Silloway added an additional bay of windows on each side of the central portico and increased the height of the dome (copper on a wood substructure) to its current level. This may have been done to reflect the increased height of the new dome of the U.S. Capitol in Washington designed by Thomas U. Walter which was under construction at the same time. Originally the dome and roofs were painted a dark terracotta red to suggest Tuscan tile. The dome was not gilded until the early twentieth century, when many states did so as a part of the Colonial Revival movement. The dome is topped by a statue titled Agriculture though more commonly referred to as Ceres, the Roman goddess of agriculture. The original statue was carved by Vermont artist Larkin Goldsmith Mead, who carved the large bust of Lincoln in the Hall of Inscriptions on the State House's ground floor. The current statue is a replacement, and something of a piece of folk art, based on Mead's original. It was carved in 1938 by then 87-year old Dwight Dwinell, Sergeant-at-Arms (in Vermont this official position is similar in nature to the White House Chief Usher). The Doric portico, the main ceremonial entrance, houses a granite statue of Ethan Allen. Ethan Allen was a founder of Vermont and commander of the Green Mountain Boys, an early Vermont military infantry active during the Vermont Republic, (1777-1791). The statue was carved by Aristide Piccini in 1941, to replace the original marble version carved by Larkin Goldsmith Mead in 1858. The architect Stanford White (1853-1906) considered Silloway's Vermont State House to be the finest example of the Greek Revival style in the United States.

Interiors, furnishings, and decorative arts

The State House contains two primary floors accessible by a pair of circular stairways opening into the ground floor Cross Hall. An elevator is also available. The Entrance Hall is of the Greek Ionic Order and flanked by portraits of U.S. Presidents Calvin Coolidge and Chester A. Arthur, both native to Vermont. The tall double front doors were painted and then coated with a metallic powder to appear as bronze in 1859. The Entrance Hall contains a portrait of Montpelier native Admiral Dewey on the bridge of his flagship during the Battle of Manila Bay. The Vermont State House does not have a rotunda, the dome being located almost directly above the ceiling of Representatives Hall on the second floor. The principal space for civic reflection is the Hall of Inscriptions, a Doric pilastered corridor featuring eight monumental marble tablets incised with quotations about the distinct nature of Vermont's culture and heritage. The tablets quote the Vermont Constitution, Ethan Allen, Calvin Coolidge, George Aiken, Warren Austin, and Dorothy Canfield Fisher among others. Each tablet features fourteen gilded stars, representing Vermont's fourteen counties, the state's fourteen years as an independent republic, and being the fourteenth state to join the federal Union. The four corners of each tablet feature a sheath of grain, a detail found in the Great Seal of Vermont, designed by Ira Allen.

The ceremonial office of the Governor of Vermont, used during legislative sessions for meetings and bill signings is located in the second floor west wing of the building. The Executive Chamber has been restored to its 1859 appearance with pediment hooded windows supported by Italianate style brackets, and gilded Rococo Revival drapery cornices. A Wilton style carpet in crimson, azure blue and gold was rewoven as part of the restoration. The Vermont Governor's working office and private apartments are located nearby at The Pavilion, built in the French Second Empire style and located just east of the Vermont Supreme Court. Portraits of Vermont governors, including Howard Dean (who is shown in an idiosyncratic pose in a canoe amid a natural setting) are displayed through the first and second floors of the building. The State House corridors act as a sort of "national portrait gallery" for the state, commemorating famous Vermonters including Edna Beard the first woman elected to the Vermont legislature in 1921; Consuelo Northrop Bailey, the first woman to argue before the Supreme Court of the United States and first woman elected to the Vermont House Speakership; Warren Robinson Austin, early ambassador to the United Nations; and Madeleine M. Kunin, Vermont's first woman governor and former U.S. Ambassador to Switzerland.

The two chambers of the Vermont General Assembly are on the second floor. While both chambers have overhead visitors' galleries accessible on a third floor mezzanine, visitors are welcome to quietly enter and sit in the main floor of the chambers. Contrary to the tradition of decorating the upper house in red and the lower house in green, established by the House of Lords and House of Commons in the United Kingdom, Vermont reserves the state colors of green and gold for its upper house, the Vermont Senate. Red and gold is used for the Vermont House of Representatives which meets in Representatives Hall. A large plaster ceiling medallion in the center of the chamber in the form of a lotus with a center rosette of acanthus leaves hold a two-tiered electrified gasolier manufactured in Philadelphia by Cornelius and Baker. Each petal of the rosette weighs approximately 500 pounds. Brilliant axminster carpets have been recreated for both chambers based on old stereoscope views and small scraps found in an attic. On either side of the rostrum in Representatives Hall, are a series of connected elliptical-backed seats designed to fill the north wall of the chamber. The seats are upholstered and tufted in crimson and are used to seat members of the Vermont Senate during joint sessions of the General Assembly. The seats also accommodate the justices of the State's high court for the Governor's State-of-the-State Address and the inauguration of governors. Citizens frequently occupy these seats when the House is in separate session, or for large public hearings.

The second floor of the west wing holds the Cedar Creek Room, a large reception room featuring a mural painted by Julian Scott in 1874. The mural nearly fills the south wall and depicts the Battle of Cedar Creek during the American Civil War. The painting highlights the contributions of Vermont troops in the battle. The room is illuminated by two stained glass skylights in the deeply coffered ceiling dating to 1859 when the room housed the State Library. At some point the skylight was broken, and he opening closed off. In 1970, during renovation work, workers discovered the broken pieces neatly stacked in the attic above the room. The pieces were reassembled, conserved, and reinstalled in the mid-1980s. One window (shown at left) depicts the obverse of the Vermont State Coat-of-Arms, which is a more painterly armorial representation of the Great Seal of Vermont (reserved solely for embossing documents), the arms are topped by the head of a buck White-tailed Deer and circled by branches of Eastern White Pine (Pinus strobus). Pine badges were worn as an expression of Vermont identity by citizens while the state was a republic, and again during the American Civil War by Vermont's military regiments. The other skylight features the rarely seen reverse of the State Coat-of-Arms: a female embodiment of the state referred to as "Vermontannia." The wall stencils in the Cedar Creek Room are the original patterns, recreated based upon old photographs, and the colors were matched by paint analysis. She is seated among sheaths of corn and wheat, representing Vermont's agricultural history. This room is restored to its 1888 appearance when the room was converted from the State Library to use as a governor's reception room. The walls, and 20-foot ceilings are polychrome painted in a complex palette of tertiary colors: burnished copper, russet, salmon, and a deep blue green with overlays of metallic stencilling. The style is largely of the Aesthetic Movement.

Most of the furnishings in the building date to the 1859 reconstruction of the State House, including the 30 black walnut chairs in the Vermont Senate chamber, still used for the same purpose today. Several American Empire style sofas, a set of klismos style chairs, carved black walnut Renaissance Revival style chairs for the Senate President and House Speaker, and suites of Rococo Revival settées and chairs also date to the completion of Silloway's reconstruction. The majority of the lighting fixtures in the building are original, restored and electrified ormolu gas chandeliers and wall sconces manufactured in Philadelphia by Cornelius and Baker in the 1850s. The large two tiered, twenty-six light chandelier in Representatives Hall features sculptures of mythological figures including a copy of Vermont sculptor Hiram Powers' The Greek Slave which became an Abolitionist icon. Only the large portrait of George Washington, painted c. 1837 by George Gassner after Gilbert Stuart, which hangs above the speaker's chair in Representatives Hall, survived the fire of 1857.

Use of the Vermont State House

Vermont's reputation for transparent, open government is reflected in the State House's nickname "the People's House." The State House is a hardworking living museum where lawmakers and citizens easily intersect. It is open to visitors with remarkably few restrictions whether the legislature is in session, or not. While the primary use of the Vermont State House is as the seat of the legislative branch of Vermont government, it has from its beginnings also functioned as an informal cultural center. The large Representatives Hall is used for evening concerts titled "Farmers Nights" in the winter months. During warmer weather, the public lawn on the south side is used for concerts by the Vermont Symphony Orchestra, municipal bands from around the state, marching regimental bagpipe tattoos, modern dance concerts, as well as provide space for local residents to sit, eat, and play sports. Quilts, ceramics, photography and paintings by citizens periodically hang in the building's corridors, committee and caucus rooms, and dining room. In recent years each February 14 the columns of the portico and lawn are mysteriously bedecked with red hearts by the Valentine Bandit. In addition, the public lawn and steps of the portico serve as a well-used platform for peaceful demonstrations, press conferences by various official and non-official groups, and for formally welcoming official visitors to the State of Vermont.

References

Further reading

  • Allen, Ira (1969). The natural and political history of the State of Vermont, one of the United States of America. Charles E. Tuttle Company.
  • Conti, Flavio. The Focus on Democracy. HBJ Press, division of Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc.: 1977.
  • Doyle, William T. The Vermont Political Tradition and Those Who Helped Make It. Doyle: 1987.
  • Federal Writers' Project. Vermont: A Guide to the Green Mountain State. Houghton Mifflin Company: 1937.
  • Goodsell, Charles T. The American Statehouse: Interpreting Democracy's Temples. University Press of Kansas: 2001.
  • Kennedy, Roger G. Greek Revival America. Stewart Tabori & Chang: 1989.
  • Morrissey, Charles T. "The Vermont Statehouse in Montpelier: Symbol of the Green Mountain State." The Magazine Antiques. October 1984: 891-899.
  • Merrill, Perry H. Montpelier: The Capital City's History: 1780-1976. self published: 1976.
  • Nye, Mary Greene. Vermont's State House. The State of Vermont Department of Conservation and Development, Publicity Service: 1931.
  • Peck, Amelia. American Revival Styles, 1840-1876. The Metropolitan Museum of Art: 2003.
  • Robbins, Daniel. The Vermont State House: A History and Guide. The Vermont State House Preservation Committee: 1980.
  • Scott, Pamela. Temple of Liberty. Oxford University Press, Library of Congress: 1995.
  • Sudjic, Deyan, and Helen Jones. Architecture and Democracy. Laurence King Publishing: 2001.
  • Thrane, Susan W. and Tom Patterson. State Houses: America's 50 State Capitol Buildings. The Boston Mills Press: 2005.
  • Van de Water, Frederic Franklyn (1974). The Reluctant Republic: Vermont 1724–1791. The Countryman Press.
  • Zieber, Eugene, Heraldry in America: The Civic Armorial Bearings of American States. Greenwich House: 1974.

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