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THE HOUSE THAT PERSEVERED

The article original appeared in Vermont Life, Spring 1981

By RALPH NADING HILL

Photographs by CAROLYN BATES


Vermont empire builder, Timothy Follett

OF THE THOUSANDS of buildings spared from the wrecking ball by a nation tardily awakened to its heritage, few in New England can compare with the columned and porticoed Follett House, which has stood witness over the Burlington waterfront like a surrogate Aegean temple for 14 decades. What makes this building distinctive, other than its design by one of New England's prominent architects and the riches-to-rags drama of its first owner, is the drama of its hairbreadth rescue.

The story begins with a Vermont empire builder, Timothy Follett, who was born in 1798, the son of a Bennington silversmith. At 13, he was a freshman at the University of Vermont, and he was a graduate at 17, a member of the Chittenden County bar at 21, state's attorney at 26, and four years later judge of the county court.

During this swift ascent his attention was drawn to DeWitt Clinton's Champlain Canal, connecting the Hudson River with the lake. Gazing over its farspreading but hitherto landlocked waters, now miraculously navigable to the Atlantic, he plotted a change of course. Resigning his judgeship, he formed a partnership with Henry Mayo, a schooner and steamboat captain, to acquire an interest in Burlington's center of commerce, the South Wharf or Salt Dock. At its entrance, in 1835, Mayo and Follett built a store (still standing) of large grey stone blocks to trade the cargo of the boats from which they were collecting landing fees. As if this were not enough, Follett joined others in the operation of a Winooski River lumber mill to supply the schooners and canal boats in the Hudson River trade. He served three years in the legislature and also somehow managed a time-consuming trusteeship to settle the affairs of a prestigious Montreal firm.

Vermont Real Estate - Follet HouseThe time eventually came to spend some of the money he had been making and in 1841 he built his handsome brick house with its six Ionic pillars and second floor recessed balcony. From it, he could look down over the snowball tiger lilies on his lawn to the animated scene, a product much of his own making. Enlivened by the Folletts' glittering parties, the house became Burlington's showplace.

In 1844 the Judge's firm designed an all-purpose sloop-rigged canal boat for the lake, the Hudson, and - with a mast that could be unstepped to pass under low bridges - the canal. By avoiding transshipment of cargo their new Merchant's Line saved three or four days between Vermont and New York.

Under any normal index of success these should have been Follett's salad days. But his vision was fixed upon another horizon where he saw a cloud a good deal larger than a man's hand. With the iron horse already threatening water-borne transport, the time had come to go into the railroad business. The Rutland and Burlington, the judge planned, would run from his dock south and east to connect with Boston, thus yielding him the fruits both of land transport to the east and the waterborne commerce to the south that he already enjoyed. Building a railroad, of course, took more capital than the Judge had, but he was prepared. He chartered a bank and, as its president, established its office a few steps away from his dock and prospective rail terminal. Unfortunately for Follett, a rival wholesale firm chartered another railroad, the Vermont Central, also aiming toward Boston but taking a more northerly route, and the two companies engaged in marathon of track-laying to reach Burlington first.

The contest ended on December 18, 1849 when two Rutland and Burlington trains, one from the Connecticut River and one from Burlington, met at Mount Holly. After extravagant oratory and the drinking of toasts, the Judge drove in a silver spike. Then the ceremony moved to Burlington where he poured a bottle of Boston salt water into Lake Champlain.

Follet House burned exteriorWas it possible that there could be no weak link in a chain of such unremitting success? There was. Any east-west railroad serving Boston traffic had to connect with trains from the Great Lakes, and a bridge across the northern end of Lake Champlain, at Rouses Point, was the only easy way around the Adirondacks. The Vermont Central out-maneuvered the Judge for the bridge. While he was able to transfer his rail freight to steamboats running from his Burlington dock to Rouses Point, he could not do it during the Winter when the lake was frozen. Ultimately, the Vermont Central carried the day with its northern bridge. The result was that the Judge lost the presidency of the Rutland and Burlington, his money, his health, and finally his mind. His days ended in a local sanitarium in 1857.

Vermont Real Estate - Follet HouseWhile his railroad did survive and he was always acknowledged as its founder, his house became his principal claim to posterity. That, of course, would not have been so had he not chosen as significant an architect as he did - Ammi B. Young. Born the same year as the Judge in Lebanon, New Hampshire, he followed his father's profession as a carpenter-designer - and a profession it was, at least in the hands of an artisan who had an eye for beauty in the embellishment of largely borrowed designs.

Young started work at 14 and at 22, in 1830, he moved to Burlington. One of his early successes, a departure from the classical mode he obviously liked, was the Episcopal Church which was done in chaste, country Gothic. While still very young, he designed the three imposing buildings that flank Dartmouth Hall in Hanover. In Burlington, along with the Follett mansion, he built a house for the president of the University of Vermont that continues to adorn the southwest corner of the campus. The capstone of his efforts was the Statehouse in Montpelier, constructed of large blocks of monumental granite dragged from the Barre quarries over the ice of the Winooski to Montpelier. Set on a wide lawn against a steep hill it remains a favorite among those who have passed judgment on the merits of classical design in statehouses.

Follet House burned exteriorMoving to the national capitol as architect for the United States Treasury in 1852, Young supervised the design and construction of no less than 50 buildings throughout the country, chiefly post offices and customs houses. Retiring in 1862, he died in Washington in 1874.

In 1853, shortly after Timothy Follett's world tumbled around him, the fashionable reputation of his house continued under the ownership of H. R. Campbell. Twelve years later it was purchased by Dr. B. S. Nichols, the operator of a local iron works and ardent Congregationalist, who enjoyed turning his house over to the church for religious meetings and socials. Its three decades as a private residence ended in 1892 when W. J. Van Patten deeded it to the religious community for use as a kindergarten and center for young people under the aegis of Margaret Adams, a local missionary.

Vermont Real Estate - Follet HouseIts unrivaled view of the lake and Adirondacks having long been eclipsed by a tall lumber mill and the Central Vermont Railroad station, and its centrality lost to the gradual migration of the city up the hill, the Follett House became, in 1905, the Neighborhood House, with rooms for young working women. During and after the first World War, it served as the headquarters of the Patriotic League, a women's organization; then as a center for servicemen, a Red Cross headquarters for transient French war brides, and hospitality house with a public cafeteria run by the YWCA. In 1927 it was acquired by the I nights of Columbus, then by the offices of Catholic charities, and 20 years later by the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

With the supports to its pillars giving way and its eaves blackened and rotting during the 1960s and 70s it stood, like the survivor of an air raid, on the edge of a large area flattened for urban renewal. During this period most of the worrying about its future was done by the Burlington Historic Sites Committee, appointed by the mayor as a small semiofficial task force with considerable influence but no money. The committee set out to accomplish what it could to generate interest in historic preservation.

Follet House burned exteriorThe conviction that anything new is obviously better has died hard in this country. Were it not for the wellspring of interest in Burlington (and elsewhere) for the architectural heritage of a nation now old enough to have one, economics would have undoubtedly continued to be the sole arbiter of what was torn down and what was built. After numerous disheartening reverses, the Historic Sites Committee managed to save and rehabilitate the Ethan Allen Hose Company station on City Hall Park. It also made a list of the city's other historic buildings and areas. Incorporated in the planning statutes this register became the basis for a later inventory, compiled by the state and federal government, of buildings with special historical and architectural qualities. The Follett House was on this list but no one knew if, how, or when it would be saved. The Veterans of Foreign Wars were willing to part with it only if they were provided with a new downtown headquarters.

As part of the celebration of the nation's and its own Bicentennial, Vermont ran a steam train which turned out to lose three-quarters of a million dollars, but which was so original among the country's various commemorative efforts that the federal government appropriated over twice that amount for historic preservation along the right of way of the, Vermont Railway (formerly Judge Follett's Rutland and Burlington). Unfortunately the Follett House could not qualify because it was a block or so removed from the tracks. Meanwhile the Chamber of Commerce, a group of lawyers, and the bank Judge Follett had founded, pondered purchasing the house, only to find too many complications.

Follet House burned exteriorFinally in 1978 Ernest Pomerleau, vice president of a large local real estate agency, decided with his father that the Follett House, properly restored at whatever sacrifice, would become the headquarters of the Pomerleau Agency. After months of conferences, petitions, hearings, and clearances with the VFW, city agencies, the state ' Historic Preservation Division, and the federal government, he wrote an agreement in which the city would provide the land on which the Burlington Veterans Club (no connection with the VFW) had stood before it burned; the Pomerleaus would build there a new headquarters for the VFW, the VFW would swap the new club for the Follett House; the Historic Preservation Division would allocate a percentage of its yearly federal appropriation for the restoration of the exterior of the building, and the Pomerleaus, with certain tax credits, would undertake a meticulous refurbishing of the interior.

Follet House burned exteriorOn the night of May 30, 1979, just hours before the contract with the VFW was to have been signed, city fire alarms wailed. Melodramatic as it may seem, the Follett House was burning. By the time the fire trucks arrived, smoke filled the top story and flames were curling through the roof and down one of the columns. Unless it was Ernest Pomerleau, at the verge of having won his long struggle, the saddest person among the spectators was William Pinney, state director of the Historic Preservation Division, which was about to award the building $75,000 in restoration funds.

Follet House burned exteriorAt length the fire was put out. Although damage to the roof and top floor was severe, Pomerleau decided to persevere, for the building could still be restored, albeit at a higher price. The new club for the veterans was therefore built.

The dedication - the more triumphant for the overcoming of so many obstacles - took place last Spring, marking 139 years in the annals of the Follett House.

It still dominates the much larger new buildings in the adjacent urban renewal area, perhaps because it is a finer expression of its period than they are of theirs. More than that, it is the only reminder to its neighborhood that its present has an eventful past.

Ralph Nading Hill, a senior editor of VERMONT LIFE and a lifelong resident of Burlington, is the author of many books about the north country including "Lake Champlain: Key to Liberty."