St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, Brattleboro, Vermont

St. Michael’s Episcopal Church on Main Street in Brattleboro, around 1905. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2017:

Throughout New England’s early history, Episcopalians were a religious minority, particularly in small, rural towns, where the Congregational church was the predominant religious organization. However, there were Episcopalians in the Brattleboro area as early as 1817, when a church was built in neighboring Guilford. Episcopalian services were apparently held here in Brattleboro on occasion, and the first regular church was established in 1836, although this only lasted for a few years. By the early 1850s, though, the town’s population increase, combined with an influx of affluent summer visitors, led to the establishment of St. Michael’s Episcopal Church in 1853.

The parish’s first, permanent church building was completed in 1858, on a lot immediately to the north of the recently-constructed town hall. It is set back from the street, and the ivy and trees hide much of the building’s design in the first photo, but its appearance resembled a medieval English country church. It featured a blend of Gothic and Tudor elements, including a steep roof, a quatrefoil window below the main gable, and a half-timbered exterior with brick infill. Local tradition holds that it was the work of prominent architect and Brattleboro native Richard Morris Hunt, but there does not appear to be any documentation to support this. Instead, it was evidently based on the designs of Joseph Coleman Hart, a New York architect who was responsible for a number of Gothic-style churches during this period.

The church stood here for nearly a century, but by the early 1950s this Main Street site had become valuable commercial real estate. The mid-20th century saw a number of downtown redevelopment projects across the country, most of which involved the demolition of significant numbers of historic buildings. Here in Brattleboro, this included the 1953 demolition of the old town hall, which was located just to the right of St. Michael’s Church. The site of the church was also slated for redevelopment, but unlike the town hall, the old church was moved to a new location about a half mile north of here, at the corner of Putney Road and Bradley Avenue. A bank building now stands on the lot that the church once occupied, but the historic church is still standing at its new location, and remains in use as an active Episcopalian parish.

Main Street from High Street, Brattleboro, Vermont

Looking north on Main Street from the corner of High Street in Brattleboro, in May 1937. Photo taken by Arthur Rothstein, courtesy of the Library of Congress, FSA/OWI Collection.

The scene in 2017:

The first photo was taken in May 1937 by Arthur Rothstein, a prominent photojournalist who worked for the Farm Security Administration during the 1930s. Like the other photographers of this New Deal-era agency, Rothstein traveled around the country, documenting rural life during the Great Depression. In 1936 he visited Oklahoma, where he took one of the most iconic images of the Dust Bowl, and the following year he was in Vermont, where his images included this scene on Main Street in the downtown Brattleboro. The photo shows rows of cars parked along the street, with a mix of houses, businesses, and public buildings on the east side of the street.

Probably the oldest building in this scene is the Centre Congregational Church, with its prominent steeple in the middle of both photos. The church was originally built in 1816, and was located a little north of here on the town common. However, in 1842 the building was dismantled and reconstructed here on this site, with a design similar to the old building. The new church was dedicated in 1843, and included a steeple and a columned portico at the front of the building. This steeple was destroyed in high winds in 1864, though, and it was rebuilt with a new Italianate-style design that omitted the columns at the front entrance. In 1929, the steeple was damaged in a fire, but was repaired and has not seen any other significant changes since the first photo was taken.

The other notable building in the first photo is the town hall, which is on the right side of the scene. Built in 1855, this building saw a variety of uses, including as town offices, post office, library, and the police department, and it also housed commercial tenants over the years. In 1895, the building was renovated, and an 875-seat opera house was added to it. By the time the first photo was taken, the opera house had the less-glamorous name of Auditorium, and was used primarily as a movie theater, with the marquee advertising Night Must Fall, starring Robert Montgomery. However, the auditorium fell into decline as newer theaters opened on Main Street in the late 1930s, and in 1951 the town offices moved just up Main Street to the old high school, leaving this building vacant. It was mostly demolished two years later, and a W. T. Grant department store was built on the site. However, portions of the exterior walls of the old town hall were left standing, and were incorporated into the new building.

More than 80 years after the first photo was taken, this scene has not significantly changed aside from the loss of the old town hall. The W. T. Grant building that replaced it is still there, although the old department store has long since given way to new retail tenants. The church is also still there, as is the three-story granite building on the far right, which was built around 1850 and was later converted into the Paramount Theatre soon after the first photo was taken. Today, these 19th century buildings are now part of the Brattleboro Downtown Historic District, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1983.

Main Street from Elliot Street, Brattleboro, Vermont (2)

Looking north on Main Street from near the corner of Elliot Street in Brattleboro, around 1865. Image from Picturesque Brattleboro (1865).

The scene in 2017:

The first photo shows downtown Brattleboro as it appeared in 1865, back when this section Main Street was still mostly lined with wood-frame commercial buildings. These included, on the far left, the Brattleboro House, which was previously known as Chase’s Stage House. Built in 1795 and subsequently expanded over the years, this was an important hotel throughout the first half of the 19th century, accommodating visitors and stagecoach travelers while also serving as a meeting place for locals. On the other side of the street, on the far right, was Hall’s Long Building, which was built in the 1830s or earlier. This building had a variety of commercial tenants over the years, and was the home of the post office from 1845 to 1849. The building also housed the town’s first telegraph office, sendings its first message in 1851.

This scene changed dramatically in 1869, only a few years after the first photo was taken. October of that year was a particularly disastrous month, beginning with 36 hours of heavy rainfall. The resulting flood on October 4 destroyed factories and homes along the Whetstone Brook, washed out most of the bridges over the brook, and killed two people. However, the flood also helped set the stage for another disaster at the end of the month. In the early morning hours of October 31, a fire started in the kitchen of a saloon on the left side of the street. The flames soon spread to the surrounding wooden buildings as firemen rushed to the scene, but their efforts were hampered by the aftermath of the flood. Their response was delayed by the washed-out bridges, and they also had difficulty getting water, since the flood had destroyed the water wheel that pumped water from the brook.

The fire ultimately destroyed the entire west side of Main Street, between Elliot and High Streets, including all of the buildings on the left side of this scene. Aside from all of the other challenges, firemen also had to contend with a strong northwest wind that blew embers across the streets. The Revere House, located just south of here on the other side of Elliot Street, caught fire several times, as did Hall’s Long Building across Main Street. However, both of these buildings were ultimately saved, and the fire was contained within just one block.

Ultimately, the fire spurred several large building projects on the site of the rubble, and the early 19th century buildings were quickly replaced by modern brick commercial blocks. The Crosby Block in the foreground, and the Brooks House in the distance were both completed in 1871, and both are still standing today. Meanwhile, the other side of Main Street would soon undergo some changes as well. Hall’s Long Block was destroyed in yet another fire, in 1883, and the following year the site was rebuilt with the brick, three-story Hooker-Dunham Block, which takes up most of the right side of the present-day scene.

Today, only two identifiable buildings are still standing from the first photo, and both are located far in the distance. The most noticeable of these is the Centre Congregational Church, which was built in 1842 and had its current steeple added in 1864, only about a year before the first photo was taken. This steeple still rises above the trees in the present-day scene, and is the only surviving feature from the first photo that is visible from this angle. Otherwise, the only other existing building from the first photo is the far less prominent granite-faced building at 165-169 Main Street, which is partially visible to the right of the church in the 1865 view. This building, although heavily altered, is still standing today, although it is hidden by the trees in the 2017 photo.

Main Street from Elliot Street, Brattleboro, Vermont

Looking south on Main Street from Elliot Street in Brattleboro, around 1850-1851. Image from Picturesque Brattleboro (1894).

The scene in 2017:

Brattleboro was founded in 1753, as one of the earliest towns in Vermont. For the first century it saw only modest growth, but by the mid-1800s it had grown into a small but prosperous mill town. This was aided in part by the arrival of the railroad in 1849, and over the next few decades the town saw considerable growth, more than doubling its population between 1840 and 1880 and becoming an important town in the southwestern part of the state. This growth contrasted sharply with that of Vermont as a whole, which saw a population increase of less than 14 percent during this same period.

The first photo is among the earliest photographs of downtown Brattleboro, showing the town as it appeared around 1850 or 1851. Main Street began to acquire its current form around this time, and many of the present-day brick commercial blocks were built during this period. The first photo shows a mix of the older wood-frame buildings, with a few newly-built brick buildings. These included the building on the far right, which was apparently the rear portion of the 1849 Revere House, and the Van Doorn Block on the far left, which was built in 1850 and is still standing today.

Today, more than 160 years later, the Van Doorn block is the only surviving building from the first photo. Some of the buildings in the distance at the bottom of the hill were destroyed in the 1869 Whetstone Brook Flood, while others – including the Revere House – were destroyed in fires. However, almost all of the major changes in this scene occurred more than a hundred years ago, and by the early 20th century this scene had largely taken on its present appearance. Starting on the far left is the yellow brick American Building, which was constructed in 1906. Just beyond it to the right is the 1900 Ullery Block, which hides most of the Van Doorn Block from this angle. The other side of the street includes the 1877 Pentland Block on the far right, the large 1915 Barber Block just beyond it, and the 1936 Art Deco-style Latchis Hotel, which is barely visible near the center of the photo. Today, all of these buildings are now part of the Brattleboro Downtown Historic District, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1983.

Main Street Pedestrians, Brattleboro, Vermont

Pedestrians on the sidewalk of Main Street, near the corner of Elliot Street in Brattleboro, in August 1941. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, FSA/OWI Collection.

The scene in 2017:

The first photo was taken in August 1941 by Jack Delano, a prominent photographer who was, at the time, working for the Farm Security Administration. Among the projects of this New Deal-era agency was hiring photographers to document living conditions in rural America in the wake of the Great Depression, and Delano traveled throughout Vermont during the summer of 1941. He took a number of photographs in downtown Brattleboro, showing everyday life in the small town on the eve of World War II. These two young people were the subjects of several of his photographs, and his original caption reads “On the main street of Brattleboro, Vermont, during the tourist season.”

The first photo does not show much of the surrounding streetscape, but several historic buildings are visible across the street. To the left of the lamppost is the stone building at 109-113 Main Street, which was built around 1850 and features an exterior facade that contrasts with the more conventional brick of the surrounding buildings. On the right side of the photo is the Union Block, which was built around 1861 and was evidently named in recognition of the patriotic sentiment at the start of the Civil War. Both of these stores housed discount department stores when the first photo was taken, with F. W. Woolworth on the left and M. H. Fishman on the right.

More than 75 years after the first photo was taken, this scene has not significantly changed. Most of the historic commercial blocks on Main Street are still standing, including the two in this scene, and even the present-day fire hydrant is still in the same location as the one in the first photo. The only noticeable difference – aside from the modern cars – is the change in the businesses occupying the storefronts. The era of downtown department stores is long gone, and both Woolworth and Fishman have since gone out of business. However, unlike many other downtowns, Brattleboro has managed to retain a thriving Main Street, and the storefronts here now house an eclectic mix of different businesses.

Richards Bradley House, Brattleboro, Vermont

The house at 53 Harris Avenue in Brattleboro, around 1894. Image from Picturesque Brattleboro (1894).

The house in 2017:

This house was built in 1858 as the home of Richards Bradley, a member of a prominent political family in Vermont. His grandfather, William C. Bradley, had served two terms in Congress in the 1820s, and his great grandfather, Stephen R. Bradley, had been one of Vermont’s first two U. S. Senators, and served as President pro tempore of the Senate from 1802 to 1803 and 1808 to 1809. Richards Bradley briefly worked as a merchant in New York City, but in 1856 he married Sarah Ann Williams Merry, a wealthy heiress from Boston. With this fortune, he was able to live as a country gentleman, and in 1858 he built this elegant house on a large plot of land, just to the north of downtown Brattleboro on the banks of the Connecticut River.

Richards and Sarah’s first child, Robert, was born in 1857 but died just a week later. They had six more children, all of whom grew up in this house: Susan, Richards, Jonathan, Emily, Sarah, and Walter. During the 1870 census, the family also lived here with three servants and a coachman. Richards was listed as a farmer in that census, with real estate valued at $50,000 and a personal estate of $20,000, for a net worth equivalent to over $1.3 million today. Then, in 1877, they purchased a second house at 122 Commonwealth Avenue in Boston, in the city’s exclusive Back Bay neighborhood. This became their winter residence, with the family spending summers here at their Brattleboro home, and they continued this arrangement until 1891, when they permanently returned to Brattleboro.

Richards Bradley died in 1904, and Sarah in 1914, but the house remained in the family for several more decades, until it was finally sold in 1940. Six years later, the house was converted into apartments, and at some point it was expanded, with a large addition on the right side of the photo. The large estate has also since been subdivided, and the house is now surrounded by mid-20th century homes. The exterior of the original part of the house has seen some changes, particularly the loss of the porch, but it retains much of its original appearance. It is now used as a senior living facility, and it is currently undergoing a major renovation and expansion to increase the number of residents.