The Vermont College of Fine Arts’ current plans to sell most of its hillside campus is but the latest chapter in a 155-year saga of growth and contraction. For the first 90 years the campus struggled to find its footing, built a pair of iconic buildings during the Great Depression, flourished in the late 1950s and 1960s, and then started a period of diminution in the 1970s.
Vermont College began its life in Montpelier in 1868 as the Vermont Conference Methodist Seminary and Female College, a long name for a small institution operating on the plateau of the hill east of the village. Two years later it dropped “Conference” from its name and in 1888 simplified it even more to Vermont Methodist Seminary. Still struggling to find its identity, six years later it dropped the word “Methodist” and changed its name to Montpelier Seminary. Under this name it operated as a high school until 1940, similar to other private academies and seminaries that dotted the state.
The seminary created a campus on the grounds of the old Civil War-era Sloan Hospital. Many of the hospital’s buildings were sold and relocated nearby. Some of the remaining structures were combined and raised up one story to become a large, wooden dormitory on the east side of Seminary Avenue, now known as College Street. Main Hall, as it was known, had a powerful presence: it was three stories high, stretching 140 feet along the street with two wings extending 104 feet from the front. A dining room and kitchen block extended back from the center of the block, giving the building the shape of a giant “E.”
Within four years of moving to Montpelier, the seminary built an architectural focal point for the campus, College Hall. The massive, four-story building with mansard roof and twin towers is an outstanding example of the French Second Empire style and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Depression and Two New Buildings
Despite owning a landmark visible from the city below and the hills around, Montpelier Seminary struggled financially through the end of the nineteenth and into the twentieth century. However, the school’s administrators cleverly leveraged the low construction costs of the Depression into a small building program that established the Colonial Revival style on campus, an architectural trend that continued through the 1960s.
The first was Alumni Hall, a gymnasium designed by Boston architect R. Clipston Sturgis at the end of his distinguished career. The red brick building with white trim, portico with six doric columns, tall arched windows, and a narrow cupola on top evoked the buildings of the Colonial era in a style that was especially popular in the United States from the 1910s through the 1940s.
Alumni Hall, dedicated in January 1932, featured “one of the finest basketball playing courts to be found in this section of the state,” according to the Montpelier Evening Argus. The bleachers could accommodate 500 fans, and a stage at the far end of the building was included for theatrical productions with seating for 800 people on the floor and in a deep balcony. The basement housed a bowling alley, two recreation rooms with fireplaces, two kitchenettes, locker rooms, and dressing rooms.
No sooner had Alumni Hall been completed, than another opportunity arose. The widow of Frank E.H. Gary, a Worcester farm boy who graduated from the seminary in 1871 and became a lecturer at Boston University Law School, bequeathed the seminary $60,000 to build and support a library on campus.
The library was constructed of red brick and white trim by the same contractor who built the gym, C. M. Dwinell of Orleans, Vermont, probably following the plans of Sturgis Associates of Boston. The library featured a front portico supported by six columns, windows with circular tops, and a cupola on top, just like the gym.
According to the Montpelier Evening Argus, “The interior of the building will be finished in whitewood and Mexican mahogany, giving a distinctly colonial impression in a contrast between the red mahogany and the white. The vestibule will contain a marble tile floor… . The building when constructed will be practically fire-proof.” A fireplace and a circular-topped memorial window graced the two-story reading room. Construction began in the second week of May and the library was ready for use on Nov. 1, 1934, all for a cost of $22,800 ($509,000 in today’s dollars).
The seminary struggled through the rest of the Depression. In 1936, with high school enrollment declining, the institution reorganized itself as Vermont Junior College, offering a two-year associate degree program. The school rebounded in 1941 and was able to erect a brick residence hall for 60 women to the north of the library in the now established “Georgian Colonial” style of the campus. The building was named Glover-Hadley Hall in memory of two beloved teachers.
The new red brick dormitory was accented with white marble pilasters and window trim. It had “a pillared reception hall with a colonial fireplace and landscape or ‘picture windows’” looking out on the hillside to the east. Designed by Sturgis Associates of Boston and constructed by the seminary’s favorite contractor, Dwinell Construction of Orleans, it was set back from the street as part of a plan for two additional buildings creating “a curved sweep of lawn from the gymnasium at one end to the Gary library at the other end of college row.”
1940s and 1950s Growth
With enrollment increasing, the junior college renovated the interior of North Hall, an old Civil War-era hospital building next to the gym (now a parking lot), and bought nearby properties, especially on the west side of the green. In the three years between 1945 and 1947 it purchased two houses along West Street creating the dormitories called Howland Hall and Dillingham Hall, and used an outbuilding between them as a nursery school.
The junior college also expanded along the southern end of campus along Kemp Avenue and College Street. It purchased neighboring residences on Kemp Avenue, turning them into dormitories named South and East halls. It also purchased a house on College Street across from Kemp Avenue for a dormitory, named it West Hall, and later used it for staff housing, before tearing it down for a parking lot in the 1960s. Concurrent with the purchase of these five residential buildings, in 1953 the school limited its student body to women to simplify the allocation of dormitory space and respond to enrollment patterns.
In 1957, the time was right to demolish the old main dormitory building, which had served the institution since 1868 and “cluttered” the general appearance of the growing Colonial Revival campus. The junior college secured a $729,000 federal loan and Noble Hall was constructed in 1957, followed quickly by Bishop-Hatch Hall to the north the next year. The designs of both buildings by Sturgis Associates followed the well-trod path of the red brick with white trim. This time the buildings were built by a Pennsylvania contractor.
Noble Hall was named for Dr. Ralph E. Noble, a former Vermont Commissioner of Education and sitting president of the junior college. It contained a large lounge and reception hall with a fireplace, dining hall, infirmary, apartments for the dean of students and head resident, offices and conference rooms, and a dormitory for 37 students. Bishop-Hatch Hall, named for two former seminary principals, was designed to house 92 students. Noble Hall stood at the center of “College Row,” connected by covered walkways to Bishop-Hatch and Glover-Hadley and book-ended at the far ends by the gym and the library, all facing the green and College Hall.
In 1958 the school dropped the word “Junior” from its title, but proudly remained a two-year college for women. The same year the school also purchased the house on the corner of College Street and Kemp Avenue and turned it into the president’s house. The decade closed with the purchase of 5 West Street, so that the college owned all of the properties on the west side of the green.
The completion of College Row did not satisfy the college’s appetite for space. The college expanded in all directions in the 1960s. In 1960 the college purchased the impressive home at 100 State Street, formerly owned by granite man Hugh M. Jones, and named it Jones Hall. In 1963 the college completed its holdings on Kemp Avenue by purchasing 6 Kemp for faculty housing. Three years later the college set its sights north of the campus and purchased two large residences across College Street from each other, naming them Harvey and Harris halls.
1960s Building Boom
In the 1960s the college continued to grow. It built three new buildings as part of the Second Century Development Program. The fund-raising effort used the slogan “Granite in Education,” even though none of the buildings were built of granite. All of the new buildings were red brick buildings with white trim, simplified versions of the buildings on College Row.
The first building to be built was Dewey Hall, named for Dr. Julius E. Dewey, a member of the famous Montpelier family and local physician who had bequeathed the college $60,000. The building, on the corner of West and Ridge streets, was designed in the established red brick and white trim vocabulary by the Burlington architectural firm Freeman, French, and Freeman. The large dormitory opened in 1962, financed with a federal loan, as was common in that era.
As soon as workers with the construction firm H.P. Cummings finished Dewey Hall, they went around the corner on Ridge Street and began building the Stone Science Building, also designed by Freeman, French, and Freeman and named for Professor Charles H. Stone, a donor to the college. This three-story classroom building, described as “one of the most modern classroom structures in the country,” opened in January 1963. Two years later the school created a “New College Row’’ behind College Hall with the completion of Schulmaier Hall, an administration and classroom building named for Adlai Talmage Schulmaier, Dean of the College from 1938 to 1951. In 1966 the school built a sizable addition onto its 32-year-old library.
Bright Future and Merger
The future looked bright for Vermont College when Dr. Noble retired and Dr. William Irvine took over as president of the institution in 1967. That year the enrollment reached 550 students and Dr. Irvine told supporters that the college could reach 750 students soon. Architects started working on plans for another dormitory and a fine arts center, but those buildings never made it off the drawing boards. The national higher education bubble of the 1960s burst. Instead of growing, enrollment at Vermont College, a two-year institution competing in a world of four-year colleges and new community colleges, fell by 30% from its peak in 1967 until 1972.
To rescue their institution, the Vermont College board of trustees decided to merge with Norwich University, the private military college 11 miles away in Northfield, which was also suffering declining enrollment. Norwich, a predominantly male institution, was interested in preserving Vermont College, a mostly female school, in part for “social relief for each other from the monotony of school work.” Norwich took over in 1972 and the campus became known as Vermont College of Norwich University, ending the school’s 104-year run as an independent educational institution in Montpelier.
Trimming the Campus
Norwich took advantage of the merger to generate income by selling off some of the residential buildings that had been acquired over the past 25 years. In the 1970s the University sold five residential properties: Jones Hall on East State Street, Harvey Hall on College Street, East Hall and South Hall on Kemp Avenue, and an unnamed building at 99–101 East State Street.
The real estate of the Vermont College campus remained stable in the 1980s until 1994 when Norwich moved all of its residential students to Northfield and dedicated the Montpelier campus to adult-learning programs. In 1995 and 1996 the university sold its remaining two houses on Kemp Avenue.
Another change in ownership brought even more reductions to the campus. In 2001 Norwich University sold the Vermont College campus and some of its programs to Union Institute and University of Cincinnati, Ohio. Again, a new owner saw opportunities to support itself through the sale of real estate. In two years, 2004 and 2005, UIU sold eight properties on East State, College, West, and Ridge streets.
By the time the Vermont College of Fine Arts bought the campus in 2008, it had been trimmed of all of its residential buildings except one, the former president’s house at 29 College Street on the corner of Kemp Avenue. The VCFA embraced that building, removed its carriage house, and in 2016 built a modern structure designed by Ennead Architects of New York City and Shanghai next to it. The glass and white aluminum building, named the Crowley Center, was functionally linked to the buildings on either side of it to provide guest rooms and other accommodations for the college’s visiting faculty and alumni. Three years later, in 2019, the college split off 29 College Street from the campus and sold the building to return it to residential status.
The campus that in the late 1960s consisted of 27 buildings stretching along College Street and down neighboring streets has shrunk to 11 buildings nestled around College Hall and the green. The top of East State Street is still recognizable as a small college campus with its generous lawn and impressive Second Empire building surrounded by red brick buildings with white trim, but what does the future hold?