A picture is worth a thousand words, to be sure, but it can't be often that an exhibition of 19th-century paintings informs a heated discussion of . . . Home Depot. That's what happened last Thursday evening at the T.W. Wood Gallery in Montpelier. The genre images were made by the venue's namesake, Thomas Waterman Wood (1823-1903); the occasion was the annual meeting of the Montpelier Heritage Group. Their first speaker, gallery director Joyce Mandeville, talked about Wood's work; next up was Eric Gilbertson of Citizens for Community and Local Prosperity (CCLP), whose goal is to preserve traditional downtowns in central Vermont, and whose current imperative is to block construction of a Home Depot on the Barre-Montpelier Road.
Aside from the fact that the gallery is a lovely place to gather, the particular selection of Wood's paintings on display was apropos: Many of them depicted Montpelier in the post-Civil War era, long before anyone thought of building a big-box store. Wood "was a proud Montpelierite," says Mandeville. "Since he was born here, Montpelier was perhaps his first subject." What's particularly interesting, she notes, is how many of the buildings in the paintings still exist.
The Montpelier Heritage Group would like to keep it that way. "It's always good to connect today's view of the town compared to 130 years ago," notes Margot George, the group's president. "We coupled that with a discussion of Home Depot, touching on the fact that this is the community Wood lived in, how much it's changed and how much it might change."
The 32-year-old heritage group isn't just nostalgic for the past; it has preservation on the agenda. "Our goals are twofold," George explains. "To explore the history of the community, but also, in the present day, make sure its attributes are maintained and make sure the community understands them."
That resonates with Eric Gilbertson. Retired from a career as a historic preservationist, the Montpelier resident now works part-time for the Preservation Trust of Vermont and heads up CCLP. The latter group was spurred to action over the proposed Home Depot - the 134,000-square-foot store would be built on the former Ames site. And that size doesn't include the vast parking lot, Gilbertson points out. "That's a big store for central Vermont."
CCLP is hoping to be granted "party status" in the Act 250 hearings on the superstore, in order to address what Gilbertson terms the "economic pollution" of the area. "There are environmental issues, water-quality issues, traffic issues," he itemizes, "but the impact on the downtowns - that affects the people who live and work there."
Vermont's capital city successfully blocked a McDonald's years ago, but Home Depot is a Goliath of a different order, one that would threaten the survival of any number of locally owned small businesses, Gilbertson says. The Act 250 process is scheduled to begin in mid-February.
Meanwhile, Joyce Mandeville is taking down the Wood exhibition this week and putting up another, drawing from hundreds of paintings in the gallery's collection. It's a job that has made her intimately familiar with these images. Vermont wasn't so treed in Wood's day, Mandeville notes, and so the architecture in the Montpelier scenes is prominent. "There used to be a covered bridge where the Shaw's is now," she muses. Her favorite painting? One of three men arguing on the capitol steps. "Some things," Mandeville says wryly, "never change."