Americana in Vermont: art, design and history

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Thinking about Vermont makes me smile, although I am not sure if it is the place itself or the idea. It could be the openness of the landscape or the people, both of which are impressive. In the green hills, fresh air, farms, folk art, friendly folks, family-run inns, and fierce independence mix with an appealing aesthetic sense as ingredients in a successful recipe. On a recent visit to Vermont, we experience a good dose of art, design, and history within the framework of Americana.

Shelburne Museum

Quilts, folk art, and historic houses are part of the sprawling Shelburne Museum, which focuses on the Americana experience. Located in the Lake Champlain Valley of Vermont, the village of Shelburne is host to a diverse and unconventional museum. They exhibit crafts (dolls, decoys, decorative arts, games, and gizmos) and American art and architecture in historic houses (a Shaker shed, settlers’ barn, and apothecary shop) and community buildings on an expansive, campus-like property offering new perspectives on four centuries of art and material culture.

The textile gallery displays hats, in a room resembling a milliner’s shop amidst fanciful hand-painted hat boxes (often in shades of blue and yellow) from the personal collection of Electra Havemeyer Webb, a pioneering collector of folk art, who founded the museum with an avid determination to excite Americans about their past through beautiful, everyday objects. The Shelburne Museum is known for its extensive collection of 18th and 19th century traditional quilts like the lovely “Whitework Counterpane” from 1816 by an unidentified Ferris Family member in honor of a birth or the surprising quilt square made entirely of orange and yellow silk ribbons once used to bundle cigars together. And there are hand-woven wool coverlets in a limited color palette made by Vermont women.

But the current textile exhibit, “Ahead o the Curve” features colorful quilts designed and crafted by Judy B. Dales, a Vermont artist who is internationally acclaimed. Her contemporary works expand our notion of what a quilt might be. Dales-who is represented in the Permanent White House Craft Collection-uses curves, abstract designs, and a sensitive layering of textures to create pieces which are both representational (in landscape works such as “Night Sky” or “Lunar Reflections” with quilted moon motifs) and abstract designs such as “Fandango” with bold waves of color. Sensitive to the interaction of different fabrics, Dales is an artist who believes, “intuition is the driving force.”

Entering some of the historic buildings on the well-landscaped grounds of the Shelburne Museum is like stepping back in time. The Prentis House focuses on colonial revival while the apothecary is filled with bottles and cans boasting products to cure all that ails you. There is a tonic for nerves, brains, and muscles marketed as “Saturday Night, a once a week remedy,” along with celebrated liver pills, powder to beautify the complexion, another for headaches, hive syrup, and foot soap which “acts like magic on tired, tender, smarting, swollen, and sweaty feet.” There is even Dr. True’s Elixir, which is said to expel worms and “cures all children’s complaints.”

The general store is well stocked with items ranging from tea and tripe to stocking stretchers, sewing needles, snuff, and shovels. A perfect pairing is to then view an American oil painting by Arthur Burdett Frost of the “American Country Store” at one of the galleries displaying it along with other early American landscapes, still lifes, and portraits, which were gathered by Electra Havemeyer Webb. The works-many with nautical themes-narrate the story of the United States with particular attention to New England. We follow this with a visit to the lighthouse dating from 1871 and tour the impressive Ticonderoga, a side-wheel steamboat from 1906, which at one time serviced Lake Champlain.

Other houses display hand-stenciled designs on trunks, walls, and chests with geometric patterns as well as bird and floral motifs. There is furniture from the 17th and 18th centuries, some of which tells a story of its owners, with names painted on the pieces or initials carved into the wood, which was often oak, chosen for its durability and accessibility. There is an unusual marble top on one chest, which serves as a family genealogical history with dates of births and deaths. In other homes, brass, copper, and cast-iron cookware may be seen along with mechanical devices to turn the spit over the fireplace, where food was cooked. The historic residences are filled with candlesticks, incense burners, and tea sets, which are among the details bringing life to the buildings.

But not all of the structures were home and shops. The round red barn dating from 1901 (the first American round barn was built by Shakers in 1826) is one of only a dozen left in the state of Vermont. This one was built to improve agricultural efficiency with three floors for convenient animal feeding, but now houses horse-drawn wagons, carriages, and sleighs including the traverse equipped with runners, for 8-12 people riding down a snowy slope. The museum also has a double-lane covered bridge (to protect from severe weather) along with a footpath. This icon of Americana originally functioned in Cambridge, Vermont in 1845 and like many of the original, historic buildings, was re-located onto the museum property, where at one time it served as the museum entrance.

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A visit to the Shelburne Museum is not just about a bygone era or a place to learn about history through art as well as the care of antique firearms that are no longer in use, saw mills, early type setting and the printing press, or cake boards carved with the image of George Washington, and weathervanes in the form of animals. Some of the folk art is more contemporary in nature, such as the temporary exhibits. They provide a good reason to return to the museum with inventive displays such as “Walter Wick: Games, Gizmos, and Toys in the Attic,” appropriate for both children and adults. It is filled with photographs, models and mazes. Many works are interactive, urging the viewer to find a new way to see these pieces with optical tricks, mirrors, illusions, and I- spy hidden objects.

In the signage for “Snowflake,” Wick writes: “It is said no two snowflakes are alike. This is interesting until considered. When viewed close-up, no two of anything are alike: no two apples, no two leaves, no two grains of sand, etc. Even the same snowflake is different from one moment until the next …” Much as founder Electra Havermeyer Webb intended, Wick is also interested in stretching our visual vocabulary, asking us to explore everyday objects (from a bubble which is 500 times thinner than a human hair and encompasses the color spectrum to the unlikely cork meticulously balanced on the egg and the wine bottle) with new eyes, journeying to an enchanted land without leaving America.

SHELBURNE FARMS

Shelburne Farms and Inn (a National Historic Landmark on a 1400-acre working farm with a craft school) offers a variety of activities involving culture, crafts, history, and environmental sustainability with the aim of cultivating a conservation ethic. Shelburne Farms feels like a village with symbiotic relationships. And it invites visitors of all ages to discover the interconnectedness of agriculture, animals, and the natural world on their campus. Only a short drive from the museum, It is certainly worth a visit.

Their Farm Barn from the 1800s originally housed wagons, work horses, sleighs and more when it was a private country estate and working farm, which was eventually threatened by development. Now it functions as an educational center with a variety of community programs: “Forest to Furniture” teaches about tree eco-systems and crafting furniture, “Sun to Cheese” is a day-long tour with emphasis on solar energy, and “Pasture to Palate” spotlights the cheese-making process and cave cellars. This non-profit educational organization (since 1984) also works with teachers on-site in a sustainable school project focused on environmental literacy for children. And their philosophy is incorporated into a core curriculum, published in their own books.

The farm is open year-round for daily with about 150,000 people visiting annually. They walk trails (through 400 acres of woods), track animals in winter, participate in maple sugaring activities such as “sugar on snow,” and cheese-making in their working dairy farm, which produces 7 varieties of Vermont cheddar cheese on site. (The raw, farmstead cheese is made in a certified humane dairy.) Shelburne Farms is also a place to learn about the state tree of Vermont, the sugar maple. Most Vermont furniture of the 1700s was made with sugar maples, which also are called upon for bowls and flooring, as well as contributing to the lovely fall foliage in the form of bright red leaves, and the quintessential Vermont product, maple syrup.

If that doesn’t whet your appetite, there is an organic, market garden encompassing about 150 different types of crops, many of which are hybrids. Farmer Josh Carter is a fan of hybrids like white boar kale, and a bright light, Swiss chard, which he maintains is three times as productive as heirlooms. “Hybrids hold up in the field better; you are guaranteed what you are going to get,” he says.

Carter is also proud of the 20 varieties of berries grown on the farm, which he enjoys pointing out to the kids at camp. The orange sea berries are great for sorbets, but there are also blue honey berries, black raspberries, gooseberries, and juneberries. I am pleased to taste the juicy strawberries, raspberries, radishes, and ramps mixed with fresh greens in my dinner at the Inn, where seasonal menus may change daily in the summer and weekly during other seasons. The farmer and chef collaborate to create delicious meals where “farm-to-table” is a short route across the property for a gourmet dining experience.

THE INN AT SHELBURNE FARMS

When dining at the inn, whatever you order tastes like it just came from the farm (and it most likely did). The seasonal menu reflects this with flavorful beets inventively incorporated into a gnocchi dish or the lamb, beef, and pork, which comes directly from the farm and may be served with a potato puree and medley of garden vegetables. The concept driving the Inn at Shelburne Farms, is the immersive experience with the hope the farm to table connection will lead guests to a new and long-lasting relationship with agriculture.

Beyond the delicious dining, we soak in the design elements and stately architecture of the grand inn. The Inn at Shelburne Farms-open to guests from mid-May through mid-October- is an eclectic, late-Victorian, with enough rooms to get lost in. Today they are more interested in adaptive re-use rather than preservation. A formal house and gardens tea tour is a chance to put the mansion in historical perspective. It concludes with an afternoon tea where strawberry sandwiches and other sweets are accompanied by expansive vistas on the shores of Lake Champlain, a feast for the eyes.

The house opened as an inn in 1987 with the intent of supplementing the income of the farm. The original owner, Lila Vanderbilt Webb was an avid gardener, who spent forty years re-designing her gardens, with a reflecting pool, pergola, lakeside terraces, lily ponds, and colorful perennials. Her husband, Dr. William Seward Webb had a vision to transform the scattered farms on about 3,800 acres into a unified country estate with the assistance of architect Robert Henderson Robertson and Frederick Law Olmsted, the father of American landscape architecture (best known for his design of New York’s Central Park).

Today some guests enjoy outdoor terrace dining for breakfast with panoramic views of the lake and after-dinner strolls among the cedars on a tree-lined, cliff path along the shore. Staying at this formal inn is an opportunity to experience life of yesteryear with antique books (many from the Webb’s collection are leather-bound sets with gold tooling), a historic globe, tiffany stained glass, and art work ranging from family portraits and nautical photographs to bronze animal sculptures. There is a mahogany desk, walnut settee, and oak chairs contributing to a taste of Americana from an aristocratic perspective with 75% of original family furnishings adding to an ambience of layered elegance.

WILLARD STREET INN

A lovely bed and breakfast embodying history is the inviting Willard Street Inn, a stately, but smaller Victorian on the National Register of Historic Places. The house, located in Burlington Vermont, was originally a private residence built in 1881 for the Woodhouse family. Charles Williamson Woodhouse-who served as the President of the Merchant Bank, City Treasurer, and as a Vermont State Senator-lived with his wife, Emma Easton Day Woodhouse in this home boasting Queen Anne and Colonial Georgian Revival architecture with views of Lake Champlain and the Adirondacks from their tower.

Today the inn maintains some of the original features including fleur-de-lis plaster wall decorations (originally from the Babylonians, this French symbol represents perfection, light, and life), 11-foot high wooden coffered ceilings, and a grand staircase. The Willard Street Inn has 14 lovingly decorated guest rooms. We stay in one with floral rose wallpaper, botanical prints, and a four poster mahogany bed adorned with carved pineapples, a sign of New England hospitality, (although some credit this welcome symbol to Columbus, who brought the prized fruit back from the Caribbean to Spain; offering it as a hostess gift followed). The brick fireplace in our room has an “egg and dart” motif. This alternating pattern of an oval shape with a pointed form is a classical ornamental design (for the ancient Greeks, it symbolized life and death).

The Willard Street Inn is full of life and hospitality is at the core. Currently run by the Davis family (since 2005), their business embodies care from the entire family, who work as a team, renovating and restoring the charming house while giving attention to their guests. This encompasses every aspect ranging from garden plantings dotted with kinetic sculptures, air-conditioning installation, and wi-fi upgrades, to gathering information about the best restaurants in the area. Genuinely pleased to answer any question you might ask, they have amassed an excellent collection of information about activities, places, and points of interest to explore in the area along with a good selection of magazines, books, brochures, and Vermont guides.

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Breakfast is served in the light-filled solarium with a floor made from Vermont Verde antique green and white marble. The warm ambiance incorporates wicker furniture, an upright piano, and a giant, potted fiery orange hibiscus. There is a changing menu of items including poached eggs with hollandaise, peach cobbler pancakes or homemade waffles. Breakfast includes house-baked scones or muffins, and a fresh fruit cup. This leads us to discuss the architecture of the orange slice cradling a trio of blueberries. We view the English style gardens dotted with fanciful birdhouses, revel in the flowers (elegant irises in hues of purples and yellows), veggies, and herbs (fragrant mint), which are all put to good use for culinary or decorative purposes at the more than ample breakfasts. This B & B is also a certified Green Hotel and a member of the Vermont Fresh Network.

The sign in the breakfast room sums it up: “Love, laughter, and friends always welcome here.” If you are looking for hospitality in a convenient Burlington location, the Willard Street Inn is highly recommended. It is a good home base to explore nearby sites such as the Shelburne Farm and Shelburne Museum as well as the vibrant city of Burlington filled with hidden treasures such as the little known Fleming Museum.

THE FLEMING MUSEUM

The lively arts scene in Burlington has merged with some historical buildings of note. The Ethan Allen Firehouse, built in 1889 was the tallest building in the city and served as the police station, offices for the senator and the University of Vermont, before becoming Burlington City Arts. Now the gallery is in the renovated space, but it still has the original fire bell. My attention is captured by the off-the-beaten-path, Fleming Museum in Burlington. Many overlook this hidden gem, located near the University of Vermont Medical Center.

An intimate museum in a glass and brick building, the Fleming Museum of Art in the University of Vermont has 200,000 objects in its permanent collection, augmented by temporary shows. We view some traditional paintings by Vermont artists: realistic winter landscapes, bodies of water and mountains along with other aspects of the natural world. There are paintings of farms, cows, churches, and boats, as well as some which focus on social and economic issues, such as the industrial depictions of Vermont’s granite quarries.

Other 20th century New England artists are exhibited on the balcony with paintings of a more abstract nature, such as the work of Pat Adams, who approaches landscape in a non-representational way in her piece, “Be/Hold,” incorporating sand with paint for a tactile expression of nature. Francis Hewitt (1936-1992), who created “More A’s Forever” was interested in perceptual psychology and the mental steps of how humans process the visual world. These art works are part of the series, Contemporary Voices from Vermont.

In contrast, material culture is seen with pieces from the Abenaki Native Americans. Exhibited works include Iroquoian style pots dug up in Colchester Vermont from the 1400s and 1500s, a collection of stone tools and ancient arrowheads, as well as covered woven baskets by the Abenaki made from ash and sweetgrass. Some of the baskets were made by Jeanne Brink, who is interested in her Abenaki, family tradition. She explains, “For my grandmother’s generation, basket-making was a craft. Today, we see it more as an art …” There are also a variety of anthropological artifacts and decorative arts from foreign lands in the museum: Egyptian pottery made of faience, Jasper jars created in England, a British Columbian shaman soul catcher and raven rattle, and a comb from Uganda.

But Americana is the theme of our trip and when leaving the museum I revisit “The Barn Ball” by University of Vermont alumnus, Lars-Erik Fisk. It is a spherical sculpture with the elements of a traditional New England red clapboard barn (with white windows above a fieldstone base) captured in a the shape of an orb. It greets visitors in the lobby as they enter and exit the museum. It feels friendly, like Vermont.

At the Fleming Museum, I am pleased to be reminded that Americana-things associated with the culture and history of America-can by re-defined in the 21st century, taking the form of a spherically sculpted red barn, an Abenaki covered basket made from sweetgrass, pop artist Andy Warhol’s take on a cow, and a Vermont painter interested in how we process the visual world.

CONTACT INFO

VISIT:

Shelburne Museum–https://shelburnemuseum.org

Shelburne Farms–www.shelburnefarms.org

Fleming Museum of Art–www.flemingmuseum.org

STAY:

The Inn at Shelburne Farms–www.shelburnefarms.org/staydine

Willard Street Inn–www.willardstreetinn.com

Iris Brooks, a regular contributor to the World & I, is a cultural explorer, writer and photographer with over 500 arts and travel articles published in a variety of magazines. Learn more about her work and newest projects along with photo and video collaborator, Jon H. Davis on the NORTHERN LIGHTS STUDIO web site, www.NLScreativemedia.com.

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