Known as Vermont's “Queen City,” Burlington is located strategically where the Winooski River empties into Lake Champlain, sharing access to the river's powerful final falls and commanding a splendid bay. The city has the state's largest and most consistent grid plan, one that expanded from a 1798 core across a relatively level plain overlooking the lake. Burlington's plan was also influenced by topography, as in most Vermont communities. The plain's western edge descended southward from the bluff of the battery to water access at King and Maple streets. To the northwest it extended onto a narrow peninsula between the lake and the Winooski River, and to the east and south it was bounded by a ravine, beyond which a hill rose eastward. Three streets crossed this ravine on wooden bridges. Pearl Street was the link from the waterfront to the mills at the Winooski falls, while Main Street was the stagecoach road east (now U.S. 2). At the top of the hill, these streets defined the ends of a common set aside by Ira Allen in 1791 as the site for the University of Vermont (UVM). St. Paul Street crossed the ravine as a stagecoach link to communities to the south. At the intersection of Main and St. Paul streets, one block of the grid was reserved as a square (now City Hall Square) for the log Chittenden County Courthouse (1795).
The town's early population (332 in 1790) was distributed less in the core than in the districts that supported it. At the Winooski falls, Ira Allen built saw-and gristmills, forges, a furnace, and a house, of which hardly a trace remains today. Near the lakefront wharves are some of Burlington's earliest buildings, among them the brick house of shipowner Gideon King (1797; 35 King Street), the stylish and much-restored brick home of Dr. John Pomeroy (1798; 164 Battery Street), and the Federal brick core of the Harrington House (1799; 272 Church Street).
As it ascends to the university green, Pearl Street presents a striking picture of Burlington's evolution. Here, first-generation merchants built their houses and shops on fifty-acre lots on the main road from waterfront to mills, for example at 308 Pearl Street (1816) and 342 Pearl Street (c. 1800). The shops are long gone, but the houses are spaced one or two per block along both sides of the street. Most of the buildings are brick; Burlington was one of the first communities in Vermont where masonry dominated fine construction. Through 1830 these houses shared an urbane vocabulary of leaded, semielliptical fanlights, sidelights, and often gable parapets. Most are so consistent in character as to suggest a common master builder, most likely Russell Skinner. Heirs of the builders subdivided their lots for residential construction and named new streets for their families (Buell Street) or their gardens (Orchard Terrace). The district gradually filled in with Greek Revival, Italianate, and then Queen Anne and Colonial Revival houses, an evolution of addition rather than replacement that has left the federal land and building pattern legible today.
Besides commissioning local craftsmen, ambitious federal-era patrons also established a pattern of importing major designs and designers. They based the “College Edifice” at UVM (1806; burned in 1824) on Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, and solicited competing designs by Boston's Peter Banner and Charles Bulfinch for the Unitarian Church (CH11). By the late 1820s, with lake shipping taking off as a result of the opening of the canals and a population of 3,000 residents, the thriving city attracted significant resident tastemakers. Ammi B. Young built the Gothic Revival St. Paul's church in 1832 (burned), Greek Revival houses, and commercial blocks. Episcopal bishop John Henry Hopkins published his Essay on Gothic Architecture,the first American book on the style, here in 1836.
By the 1830s commerce had begun a sequential migration from Pearl Street to the busy waterfront, courthouse square, and then to Church Street. Its progress is readable in a sequence of styles, beginning with the Stone Store (CH36). Farther inland came major Greek Revival buildings like Young's Follett House (CH33). Then, around Court Square local professionals A. B. and Clellan Fisher, Roby Brothers, and W. R. B. Willcox built commercial buildings in Italianate, Romanesque Revival, and Queen Anne styles. Later, Main and Church streets would add Beaux-Arts and Art Deco to the mix.
The mixed residential and commercial neighborhood known as the Old North End developed in an area adjacent to the battery. By 1830 a new neighborhood had been platted that ran up to North Street after the Champlain Glassworks established a factory north of the battery common and built a row of small brick houses on George Street. Between 1840 and 1865 (the city was incorporated in 1865), this district near lakefront mills filled with French Canadian and Irish workers who comprised more than a quarter of the city's 7,716 residents. Subsequent immigrants doubled Burlington's size in less than a decade and tripled it by the end of the nineteenth century. In these residential neighborhoods, buildings such as the French church of St. Joseph (CH4); Burlington's oldest synagogue, Ahavath Garem (CH15); and a German cultural club, Goethe Lodge (1906) at 20 Crowley Street, reflect the rich ethnic mix of this small city.
Industry developed along the waterfront, where it had access to lake transportation and (after 1849) to railroads. North of Maple Street the lumber industry dominated, processing and shipping logs that were floated in from forests in Vermont, the Adirondacks, and Quebec. In the 1880s, Burlington became the principal lumber port in the nation, with lumberyards employing 1,000 people. By the early twentieth century, the manufacturing and warehouse district spread southward along Pine Street, spawning new residential neighborhoods.
The principal churches of the city clustered around its commercial core. The number of these churches built in the 1860s gives evidence of the prosperity brought by the lumber industry. Lumber magnate Lawrence Barnes almost single-handedly funded the Italianate Baptist Church (81 St. Paul Street) designed by Boston architect John Stevens in 1865.
As commerce boomed, middle-and upper-class enclaves rose on the hill to the east, their development facilitated by a municipal water system with a mansard-roofed pumping station (1867) on Main Street that lifted water from the lake to a reservoir atop the rise. Beginning in the 1870s, the ravine was filled in and leveled, and the street grid extended for house construction. Noteworthy examples include the richly detailed Queen Anne frame houses on N. Willard, upper Maple, and S. Union streets. The Grasse Mount estate (CH22) was subdivided for the mansions of railroad, lumber, banking, and patent-drug barons. Main, S. Willard, Summit, and Prospect streets filled with grand houses in a full range of late-nineteenth-century styles. Some were imported designs like those of Gilbert B. Croff (1877; CH23) and Peabody and Stearns (1886; 384 Main Street), but most were the work of style-conscious local architects. Almost all exploited the vistas of Lake Champlain and the Adirondacks, which novelist and travel writer William Dean Howells, who sojourned in Burlington in 1891, reputedly declared were more beautiful than the Bay of Naples.
At the top of the hill the university became an important architectural tastemaker. With the patronage of the state's great families, monumental buildings by H. H. Richardson, Wilson Brothers, and McKim, Mead and White transformed the green. These in turn inspired talented local architects (Clellan W. Fisher, W. R. B. Willcox, Z. T. and Frank L. Austin, Lewis Sheldon Newton) to produce buildings of similarly high quality and style.
Burlington entered the twentieth century with a flourish of City Beautiful civic construction, including schools, Carnegie-endowed library, city hall, fire station, federal courthouse, and a railroad station. But its lake traffic, lumber, and textile industries were beginning to decline. By 1929 the city had lost 40 percent of its manufacturing base, and by 1940 workers earned almost 30 percent less than the national average. Among the few bright spots were the expanding university, development in Essex with Fort Ethan Allen (active 1892 through World War II), and the airport.
Wartime industries launched an economic recovery that continued in the 1950s with the arrival of corporate giants General Electric and IBM (in Essex) and in 1970 with completion of I-89. With the exception of the New North End and an International Style bank downtown, much of the growth stimulated by these developments was suburban, especially eastward along the U.S. 2 corridor and southward along U.S. 7. Auto-oriented commerce followed the suburban migration, threatening Burlington's downtown.
Efforts at downtown renewal received tragic urgency when multiple downtown landmarks were lost to fire (most by serial arson), and the city demolished nine blocks between Church Street and the waterfront as part of an urban renewal scheme. But these losses opened the way in the 1970s for the construction of a semi-underground mall (underwritten by Montreal developers and designed by the office of Mies van der Rohe in collaboration with local architects Freeman, French, Freeman) that helped increase the critical commercial density of Church Street. At the same time, the street was closed to vehicular traffic, lined with canopies, and turned into one of the nation's most successful and long-lived pedestrian malls, drawing regional shoppers, the university crowd, businesspeople, and office workers.
The establishment in 1975 of one of the nation's first historic preservation graduate programs at the University of Vermont did much to influence the direction of Burlington's late-twentieth-century urban planning efforts. It raised an awareness of the city's losses and increased appreciation for its remaining fabric. The city now has strong design review and preservation measures to assure that its historic character is not lost. Downtown boasts some notable adaptive use and restoration projects, including the recycling of a Romanesque Revival firehouse and the revival of an Art Deco theater. The waterfront has been reclaimed for residential and recreational use. The University of Vermont and Champlain College have taken over and preserved many of the mansions on the hill. In spite of its relatively small size, Burlington displays the character of a richly endowed and diverse American city. In spite of its centuries of growth and change, it preserves and presents its long history in a remarkably readable fashion.
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