The nation's smallest state capital, the compact city of Montpelier is a place shaped by topography, government, insurance, and industry, in that order of importance. Its founders envisioned a town center in what is now East Montpelier, but river-oriented transportation routes and waterpower drew settlement to a floodplain at the confluence of the Winooski River and its North Branch tributary. Its principal arteries, Main and State streets, parallel the riverbanks and are stitched into the road network by ten bridges, almost all of which had to be replaced following the great flood of 1927 that left downtown under twelve feet of water.
In 1805 the ambitious town of 1,200 people won designation as the permanent seat for the state's previously itinerant legislature, partly through recognition of its relative accessibility to both flanks of the Green Mountains. It also became the county seat in 1811. State Street, running west from Main Street to the state house common, opened in 1807 and bears marks of its federal-era heritage with a surviving commercial block and several fine brick houses (long since put to commercial uses). However, with the exception of the Greek Revival state house and courthouse, much of the rest of Montpelier's construction postdates fires in 1875.
Plagued by fire and flood, the city was also shaped by an insurance industry that helped citizens deal with their losses and came to dominate the private sector of the capital's economy. The Vermont Mutual Fire Insurance Company was founded in 1828, followed in 1848 by the National Life Insurance Company. The offices built by these firms (many now converted to state use) are among the most notable buildings on State Street. Insurance fed the town's late-nineteenth-century prosperity and, after the arrival of the railroad in 1849, so did industry, including sawmills, foundry, machinery manufacturing, and granite finishing. All of this is reflected in the substantial residential neighborhoods that follow the river valleys and climb the precipitous hills, the five major churches built between 1865 and 1873, the extensive picturesque parklands (gifts of John E. Hubbard) above the city, and the landmark civic buildings on Main Street. The village of Montpelier, which separated from East Montpelier in 1848, became a city in 1895, annexing adjacent land across the Winooski in Berlin. In 1911 it built a monumental city hall on Hay-market Square, a former farmers' market area.
Slowing population growth and then a pattern of suburban development in surrounding towns relieved pressure on Montpelier in the twentieth century. Apart from some monumental state projects in the capital complex and new National Life headquarters overlooking downtown, the community has experienced more adaptive use than new development. Even the state has pursued a pattern of preserving and occupying vacated residential and commercial structures for office use. With the participation of the Vermont Division for Historic Preservation, appropriate adaptation and color schemes for state-owned structures have established models for a historically conscious private sector. Thus, while the functions of neighborhoods may have changed, their physical character has remained much the same, preserving the predominant character of a small late-nineteenth-century city with noteworthy Greek Revival, Italianate, Second Empire, Queen Anne, and Beaux-Arts buildings.
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