The clock on the corner of Main Street and Eastern Avenue St. Johnsbury was originally in New York's Grand Central Station

 

St. Johnsbury’s Main Street Historic District stretches from St. Johnsbury Academy campus to the elegant homes clustered around Arnold Park. In between, you’ll encounter six churches, the St. Johnsbury Athenaeum, the Fairbanks Museum & Planetarium, and many architecturally interesting homes.

Main Street is wide, and it’s easy to imagine this broad boulevard bustling with horse-drawn carriages. Today, Main Street hosts traffic of all sorts, including St. Johnsbury’s annual Pet Parade, and residents take pride in the Victorian heritage and beauty in all seasons.

 

 

Start your walking tour at the Caledonia County Courthouse.

Caledonia County Courthouse. St. Johnsbury became the shire town in the 1850s as a result of the railroads and industries that made St. Johnsbury the commercial center of the County. The Courthouse is next to a small park with a Civil War monument made by Vermont sculptor Larkin Mead. The bandstand is host to the St. Johnsbury Town Band, the third oldest in the Nation. The Band performs on Monday evenings throughout the summer. On the top of this Italianate-style building sits the belfry where the town’s fire alarm bell is located. When an addition to the courthouse was constructed, remains from an early graveyard were discovered and moved to Mt. Pleasant Cemetery.

The St. Johnsbury Athenaeum was presented to the town in 1871 by Horace Fairbanks, nephew of Thaddeus, the platform scale inventor. It has been carefully restored to its original splendor, including the upstairs Lecture Hall with its original woodwork and stenciled ceiling. The building, designed by John Davis Hatch of New York, includes an art gallery. Lambert Packard, a local architect employed by the Fairbanks Company, supervised the building. The art gallery is home to an amazing collection of Hudson River School originals, including The Domes of Yosemite by Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902) This National Historic Landmark stands as the oldest art gallery in the country in its original setting.

The Fairbanks Block, 1892, designed as the company store by Lambert Packard in the Richardson Romanesque style. The dignified, noble façade has at least 11 levels of indentation (“reveals”) in the brickwork, which accentuate the five-bay colonnade on the street level and the two-story Romanesque arched windows above. St. Johnsbury is one of the few cities outside Boston with so many buildings in the Richardsonian Romanesque style.

The St. Johnsbury House, 1850. This is a gracious North Country hotel that has housed Presidents and other
notables. Paired Doric columns frame the two story portico, which is a major architectural feature of Main Street, since it can be seen from both ends of the curved street. It is now home to senior housing and the Good Living Senior Center.

Walk south (left) past South Church to the Academy complex. In front of Fuller Hall, cross Main Street and turn left; pause here to view…

South Congregational Church, 1852, replicates exactly the North Church building at the time of its construction. The North Church had outgrown its space and the congregation had to be divided! The interior also has an air of New England neo-Classical formality with its elliptical ceilings and great brass chandelier.

St. Johnsbury Academy was es­tablished in 1842 for the town by the brothers Thaddeus, Erastus, and Joseph Fairbanks. None of the original buildings exist; however, the traditions of excellence present from its inception still thrive today. While school is in session, please stay on the public sidewalk.

St. Johnsbury Historic Walking TourBrantview (“High View”), 1883, is a sumptuous Queen-Anne style chateau designed by local architect, Lambert Packard for William P. Fairbanks (son of Joseph, one of the founders of the Academy). It has a 60-foot center hall, grand staircase, painted ceilings and fine woodwork. It is now a dormitory for the Academy. Its carriage barn (in back) also serves as a dormitory.

Continue walking down Fairbanks Drive to South Park, which was set aside in 1868 as “a pleasant elevated prospect.” The park is a good place for a picnic lunch under the maple trees and a view of a tranquil Victorian neighborhood.

The Tower House, 1871, is one of two houses in St. Johnsbury reputed to have a ghost. Here, the alleged ghost is that of H. N. Turner, the house’s second owner. Turner was a long-time manager of the Fairbanks factory. Turner’s wife donated the Tiffany window in the Methodist Church after he died. The home features such emblematic high Victorian details as bracketed eaves, a porte-cochere and an Italianate tower.

Cramton House is named for Dorothy Cramton, one of the first female trustees of the Academy. The house has many fine examples of quixotic Queen Anne features (bracketed windows, Juliet balcony, etc.). This home was acquired by the Academy and serves as a dormitory.

Cross Main Street in front of the Academy’s Fuller Hall and return to the Courthouse. If you haven’t already, you may choose to stop in the Athenaeum to see the splendid interior as well as the art gallery. The next bench is in front of the St. Johnsbury House, from which you can see the sweep of the 4,000-foot long street as it fans out in both directions.

Across the street is the first brick business block in town, 1869, designed by George Ropes, Jr., and actually built in five separate sections that are still visible.

Dean Hale Building, c. 1852, has always been a commercial building. The gable end was squared off to allow for a full third floor. A fire in 2001 destroyed all but the façade, which remained intact; the whole building has been recently restored.

On Central Street, around the corner and to the left, is the Grace United Methodist Church, notable for the Bethlehem window by Louis Comfort Tiffany in the south wall. The original building was destroyed by fire in 1915 and rebuilt the next year.

Walk north on Main Street to the next bench at The Common, which is between Main and Summer Streets. You will pass three churches that will be mentioned later. The Common was deeded to the School District #1 in 1863 by Charles S. Dana, Esq. for a consideration of $1200, “to have and hold … on condition that no building be erected on any part of said granted premises.”

St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church, 1896, formerly known as St. Aloysius Church, was established for the Irish Catholics to separate them from the French Cathedral. After Notre Dame des Victoires burned in 1966, the two parishes combined as St. John’s.

Summer Street School, 1863, was erected in the Italianate style that also characterizes the Courthouse. There is a wonderful view of the building from Main Street. The recently rehabilitated building now houses offices.

The Pearl House, 1874, formerly known as the Dana House, is a fine example of one of the many stately homes that have graced Main Street for over 125 years. Its grand proportions and large windows make an inviting entrance to the residential north end of the street.

Continue walking north on Main Street, where the next bench is at Arnold Park, which was formerly called The Plain. This was the site of the first framed house (1796) of Jonathan Arnold, the town’s founder. Arnold was a friend of the explorer and statesman, St. John de Crevecoeur, for whom St. Johnsbury is named.

Estabrook House, 1896, showcases an eclectic mix of Queen Anne details: curlicue arabesques in the gable ends, shingled upper stories, decorative metal finials, an eyebrow window, pavilioned porch, Juliet balcony, stained glass windows, etc. This “Painted Lady” has been recently restored, looking as it did when it was featured in architectural magazines, and is an inviting Bed and Breakfast.

Paddock House, 1820, was the first brick home in town. It is a Federal mansion with a floor plan only slightly changed from that of the home of Charles Bulfinch, a famous Boston architect. The large Palladian window and its glass were transported from Boston by horseback! The front parlor contains its original Bay of Naples scenic wallpaper from France, one of five known existing sets.

Idlewood, 1874, is also known as the Jewett-Ide house. Mr. Jewett resided here until he founded Vassar College and became its first President. In 1893, Mr. Ide added the porte-cochere, designed by Packard, that grounds the four-story mansard tower. Ide became Chief Justice of Samoa and a close friend of Robert Louis Stevenson. He heard Annie Ide had complained of being born on Christmas Day. She had never had a birthday to call her own, so Stevenson drew up an official document which willed his November 13th date to Annie to celebrate as her own!

Across the street is the C.H. Stevens House, 1890, designed by Lambert Packard in the Queen Anne style, with a corner octagonal tower capped with a bell-shaped roof, eyebrow window, porte-cochere and hardwood interiors (gleaned from nearby Victory and Granby, Vermont, as Mr. Stevens was a lumber king.) The foyer has an elegant stairway and fireplace.

The Huxam Paddock House, a white Greek Revival cape, c. 1842, is a fine example of the many elegant New England town houses, with their classical proportions and Doric columns, that still can be found on many streets of St. Johnsbury. It was designed for practical, comfortable living, with low ceilings and iron stoves in the kitchen and parlors for easy heating.

Now walk south on Main Street to the next bench in front of the Fairbanks Museum. You’ll walk past several other stately residences on the way.

Fairbanks Museum & Planetarium, 1890, by Lambert Packard reflects Richardson Romanesque with its tower, corbel faces, eyebrow windows and rounded arches. Given to the town by Franklin Fairbanks, it is a true “cabinet of curiosities.” A must see is the barrel vaulted ceiling running the length of the building.

St. Andrews Episcopal Church, 1878, exemplifies the Arts and Crafts “Stick Style” construction. The charming interior has hammer beams, an old pipe organ and a St. Andrew portrait window in the apse, which contrasts pleasantly in shape and content with the Gothic lancet windows on the side walls.

Colonial Apartments, 1925, replaced the Music Hall, which was destroyed by fire. The Music Hall began its life as North Congregational Church across the street, but was moved to make room for the larger church that exists today. It tries to look neo-Georgian, with its cornice and brick parapet.

North Congregational Church, 1878, was designed by Lambert Packard in Early English Gothic style. It is faced with Isle LaMotte limestone. The interior has rich windows, cherry woodwork, a stately organ and elaborate pulpit furniture. This building replaced the church that the design of the South Congregational replicates. There is a little irony in the church’s foundation: the huge stones that support this tower came from the County Jail in Danville!

North Church Manse, c. 1860, is Italianate in style, with cast-iron cresting on the roof, and has many Victorian touches by Lambert Packard. It is now a law office, but 150 years ago, it was the scene of American medical history. In this house in 1864, Dr. Selim Newell performed a trachea operation, which was relatively unknown at that time. Crowds stood outside cheering the success. Until the 1960s, it housed ministers of North Congregational Church.

And now back to the Courthouse and your starting point. We hope you have enjoyed this glimpse into the social and architectural history of our town.