A Look at Historic Manchester Village
By Anita Rafael
Photography by Timothy Peters
Historic Main Street in Manchester Village is the perfect after-dinner stroll when summer’s sunset is late in the evening or on those bright, foliage-glorious mornings in autumn. The entire district was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1980 because of its significance as an early 19th century New England resort, anchored by a fine hotel that “catered to the highest classes of society.”
The terrain along this part of Main Street slopes moderately; the pace is easy and the sidewalks are paved, although uneven in places. Allow about 30 minutes; the loop is less than 3/4 mile. On the map Main Street is Route VT 7A.
Begin at the Soldiers Monument in front of the First Congregational Church, just north of the corner of Main Street and Union Street. This address is 3598 Main Street.
The figure atop the Soldiers Monument represents a Colonial era officer, but the Monument was meant to honor all veterans from Manchester. Dedicated in 1905, the base and figure were carved at Fullerton’s Marble and Granite Works in Manchester Depot, but, according to the Manchester Historical Society’s curator, Shawn Harrington, “We have no proof positive for who stands atop the pedestal.” Did someone in town pose for the carver? Or is it the likeness of the carver himself ? Stop to read the wayside marker about the Revolutionary War (the large green sign on the sidewalk behind the monument).
Right off the bat, everyone who walks along this street delights in the marble sidewalks, made up of slabs and irregular bits from the quarries in nearby Dorset. By 1890, four miles in Manchester were paved in marble, and using this material made perfect sense. Why go to the bother and expense of buying and laying costly bricks or pouring concrete sidewalks when the most abundant material around happens to be the most elegant and attractive? Look around at the slopes to the west–the Taconic Mountain Range is rich with high quality marble and quarries were a major industry for this area throughout the 19th century. Levi Orvis, a storekeeper on the street, is credited with being the first to pave the area outside his establishment with marble in the early 1840s and his son Franklin expanded on his work.
The pair of buildings that anchor the north end of this block are the First Congregational Church from 1871 and the Bennington County Courthouse from 1822. On the sign for the church it says that the congregation “gathered” in 1784 and we know that an earlier brick built church stood on this lot. This one, a rural interpretation of Gothic Revival, was built, in part, with funds from Franklin Orvis, the owner of the Equinox House, as it was then called, the hotel directly across the street. His donation was contingent upon the condition that this entirely new building would be built slightly to the north, so that the guests sitting on the veranda at the hotel could enjoy unobstructed views of the scenic Green Mountains to the east. The Federal-style courthouse is painted brick. Rather plain, it has classical elements, and is embellished by a large cupola topped with a golden dome. The courthouse is situated here because Manchester is a “shire town” in Bennington County, or in other words, it is a county seat. To this day, it is known as the Northshire, and the town of Bennington is the Southshire.
“The Street,” says Bill Badger, a Manchester architect and preservationist. “It was just called the street.” He’s talking about a short section, barely two-tenths of a mile long, that runs north-south (it’s also Route 7A) from the Equinox Hotel to the top of the lane that leads to the Ekwanok Golf Course. Badger tells great stories about the houses in this neighborhood because during his prolific career he has restored, studied, drawn plans for, or been invited into many of the properties along the street. Nearly 40 years ago, Badger had a hand in the preparation of the nomination to list this area in the National Register of Historic Places as part of the Equinox House Historic District.
“This is the oldest part of Manchester,” he says, “and ‘the Street’ was widely known even as early as the 1850s when the town began to welcome what were known then as the summer people.” In fact, “the Street”—with its tall trees, tightly-clustered buildings representing a mix of residential, commercial, civic and religious–was considered to be the main attraction of the Village and townspeople forthrightly promoted it as such.
Continue walking southwards, on the left-hand side of the street towards the row of shops.
The lovely row of Equinox Village Shops has long been known as Equinox Junior, a name that stuck from a century and a half ago when it was the annex of the hotel across the street. Although at a glance the store fronts appear to be a single structure, at one time these were individual buildings that served a variety of purposes during different eras. To name a few, there were boarding rooms, a drug store, a post office, a doctor’s office specializing in “electrochemical and medicated baths,” and in earlier times, a tavern, and even a jail. Some of the oldest sections may date back to the late 1700s, while most of what is visible now is from remodeling done in the 1900s.
The next few lots on this side of Main Street are residences that vary greatly in size and style, having one common denominator among them: major additions to the rear, deep into the narrow house-lots. Look closely and you can see that houses such as the gable-end “cottage” at No. 3532 are longer than they are wide, suggesting that the interiors are a warren of connecting rooms and hallways front to back. St. John’s Episcopal Chapel, with its plain projecting portico, truncated tower, and four finals, gives a nod to Gothic-revival with a pair of stained glass windows in a pointed arch shape.
At 3456 Main Street notice how the shingling pattern changes at the third level, a common element of the Shingle Style. The large house at 3452 Main Street, like almost all the others that you see, has very few decorative elements yet dates to an era when embellishments, sometimes called “fretwork,” were common and popular. It’s hard to place houses into individual categories as to style because they have all been heavily altered, changing their historic character.
Yet, on house after house, a trained eye will spot isolated elements that suggest a little of everything–Federal, Greek revival, Colonial Revival, and any one of the many styles historians call “Victorian.” Look for sidelights on doorways, fan windows below the gables, wide porticos, narrow pilasters on the corners of the facades, bits of bargeboard trim, and try to overlook some of the later alterations, such as porches, columns, and railings that seem to be just a little mismatched for the size and scale of the houses, and windows that are too large to have been original. Most have a generous setback from the street, which is not typical of many old New England towns.
Continue along the street until the marble sidewalk ends and stop here.
The residence called Bunrannoch, also known as Sunshine Cottage, at 3340 Main Street is a good example of how houses grow whether or not it makes sense architecturally speaking–this one was originally three separate parts, the earliest section from the1840s. It was massed into one residence in the 1920s. In the distance, past the next residence on the left, there is a lane that leads to the Ekwanok Country Club, a golf course which opened in 1899 (access by members only). During the resort’s heyday, The New York Times regularly kept abreast of the tournaments played there and it still ranks as one of the “best places to play” in Vermont according to Golf Digest.
Watch for traffic and cross the street. Turn northwards back towards the start and continue walking on the marble sidewalk.
Old photographs and vintage postcards show that pedestrians on the street seem to have always enjoyed strolling in the shade of large deciduous trees. Dr. William Gould, a Yale grad who practiced in Manchester in the 1770s and ‘80s, planted the first elm trees on Main Street. Those succumbed to the dreaded Dutch Elm disease, while the maple trees thrived. Some are now a century old. The landscaping that is seen from the street nowadays along Main Street is likely not at all typical of what was there in past centuries. There may have been more elaborate formal plantings between the porches and the sidewalks, with professional gardeners hired to tend to them during the resort’s high season. Some of the properties on the street had beautiful ornamental gardens behind the houses, situated for the privacy and enjoyment of the homeowners in their backyards.
You may be inclined to stop to chat with homeowners you encounter along Main Street. Yes, the natives are friendly, and they are all house-proud about their neighborhood. For strangers, though, it can get confusing since the locals refer to these houses by name, not by number. You’ll hear them casually mention the Pew House, Elmo’er, Skinner Cottage, Lyman House, and others. In captions on images from the turn of the last century and in personal letters, the properties are commonly referred to by name rather than by house number.
As you walk along this side of Main Street, it’s fun to see how many incongruous architectural details you can find: a classical Georgian-style door frame on a house where a suggestion of Victorian tracery has been added to thin porch columns; another house has an elegant double-bracketed cornice on the gable ends that hint at Italianate-style, yet, the rest of the house is wrapped in an enlarged veranda. Trying to figure out how some of these older houses have been transformed over time is what makes them interesting. The residence at 3467 Main Street has imposing triple columns at the entrance, deeply fluted and with Ionic capitals, mirrored by more fluting on the pilasters surrounding the front door. The heaviness of the columns on the ground floor is contrasted by a wee bit of tracery in the windows on the upper story dormers, which are interestingly mismatched.
The original parts of the Lyman House at 3485 Main Street date to 1790, and records show it was a tavern around that time. From 1860 until just recently, the house stayed within one family, beginning when Rev. Dr. Joseph D. Wickham bought it. A Yale grad, he came to Manchester to be headmaster at Burr & Burton Seminary (then a college preparatory school for boys), a position he held for over 25 years. Wickham, who taught Bible school at the First Congregational Church just up the street, was 95 when he died in Manchester in 1891. The Georgian-style house at 3519 Main Street gives you an idea how some of these houses may have looked before large porches were added.
The grandeur of the iconic Equinox Hotel has always been its connection to so many famous people–politicians, diplomats, and celebrities. Among its distinguished guests and passersby were Mary Todd Lincoln, her sons Tad and Robert, and former presidents Ulysses Grant and Theodore Roosevelt (TR stood out front and gave a quick speech there in between campaign stops at Bennington and Rutland). In 1912, while still in office, President Taft was “entertained” at the Equinox, perhaps only at a reception before giving a speech at the Music Hall on Union Street. He spent the night at the Lincolns’ Hildene estate, not far away.
Stylistically, the hotel is not easy to categorize because the original part has been attached to several other buildings, fitted together and enlarged with wings, and improved and remodeled multiple times. The look of the 9-acre complex today, with those bold colonnades marching across the Main Street facade, evokes a Greek revival spirit. But, to pick a starting point, the first Equinox House, a much smaller establishment than what you see there now, opened in 1853 under Franklin Orvis, in what had previously been his father Levi’s residence, as well as his store and boarding house. Over time, the guest accommodations here have been known by many different names, including Vanderlip’s Hotel, the Taconic Hotel, the Orvis Hotel, and the Equinox House. Guests arriving in the summer of 1901 must have been delighted to find that the hotel had been wired and “fixtures” for electricity.
The property earned its own separate listing in the National Register in 1972 primarily because it is symbolic of how important the emerging “vacation industry” was in Vermont beginning in the mid-1850s. The story of the hotel, how it grew, and the sort of people who became its regular clients is proof that the early business leaders of Manchester Village were quick to see the economic benefits of attracting high-society visitors, even if at that time “the season” was merely mid-June to September. The Equinox Hotel is one of the last of the great old hotels still standing in the state and remains the focal point of the Historic District.
“A historic district possesses a significant concentration, linkage, or continuity of sites, buildings, structures, or objects united historically or aesthetically by plan or physical development.” That’s the government talking–simply said, Manchester Village was recognized as “significant” by the National Register of Historic Places for more than one reason.
First, taken as a whole, it is important as an example of an early 20th century New England “vacation attraction.” Second, the character of the individual buildings in the district–the hotels, homes, and civic and religious sites–is typical of the domestic and commercial architecture in a rural resort town in a specific era. In other words, because this part of Main Street has changed so little since the early 1900s, it is easy to see and understand its time and place in history. Although a historic district can also include buildings and sites that are very different than the other properties, and that have no connection to the historical nature of that area (say, a gas station), the Equinox House Historic District (its official name in the NR) is remarkable because almost every structure on Main Street, and many nearby, adds distinction.
When to Go
Historic Manchester Village is accessible everyday and the streetlights are lit after dark. Parking is limited directly along Main Street, but the side streets allow free parking.
Where to Eat Nearby
Within walking distance there are a variety of restaurants to choose from including multiple fares at the Equinox Hotel; The Cooper Grouse Restaurant & Bar at the Taconic Hotel; The Reluctant Panther Inn and Restaurant; and Mulligan’s of Manchester. For details see the Dining Listings.
Special Thank You to
The Manchester Historical Society
Located in the Manchester Community Library
138 Cemetery Avenue, Manchester