Rebuilding the Vermont State House (1857-1859)
In the winter of 1857 the Vermont State House was gutted by fire and a special session of the legislature convened to discuss rebuilding. The legislators appointed three commissioners and a superintendent of construction. George Perkins Marsh of...
In the winter of 1857 the Vermont State House was gutted by fire and a special session of the legislature convened to discuss rebuilding. The legislators appointed three commissioners and a superintendent of construction. George Perkins Marsh of Burlington, Norman Williams of Woodstock and John Porter of Hartford were named to the commission; Dr. Thomas E. Powers of Woodstock was to act as superintendent. A young Vermont sculptor, Larkin G. Mead, Jr., was commissioned to design the statue to top the dome.
Thomas William Silloway, a young Bostonian who had trained under Ammi Young, creator of the previous State House, was appointed architect. Silloway consulted Marsh, the most knowledgeable of the commissioners on design issues. However, Silloway and Powers were soon at odds. Their disagreements led to Silloway's resignation which he quickly rescinded. In the interim, however, Powers appointed another architect, Joseph Richards, to redesign several key features of the building. At Silloway's behest, a House investigation concerning the dispute was held to examine Powers's charges that Silloway was incompetent. The trusses supporting the dome, the portico columns, and the heating system came under particular scrutiny. Silloway was vindicated by the House committee but construction had proceeded too far to restore his design. Powers then published a pamphlet with his own defense. The State House re-opened in October 1859. Since it had been completed with due speed and under budget ($150,000), most observers declared it an unqualified success.
The letters in the University of Vermont Collection date from March 11, 1857, when Marsh was first appointed to the Commission, and continue to the end of 1859, when the legislature moved back into the building. Most of the letters were written by Silloway to Marsh and discuss his ideas and the problems he faced, both technical and personal, in implementing them. In addition, we include selected published reports that document the original intent of House members and spirited defenses by Silloway and Powers justifying their actions.
For a detailed history of the 1858 reconstruction, see Daniel Robbins, The Vermont State House. A History & Guide (Vermont Council on the Arts, Vermont State House Preservation Committee, 1980).