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Keeping It Real 

Shelburne Farms showcases its new-and-improved original barn and gardens

Published June 8, 2011 at 7:02 a.m.

On a recent tour of Shelburne Farms, neither the bone-chilling weather nor unprecedented flooding could dampen the grandeur of this Gilded Age country estate. The north seawall was fully submerged in Lake Champlain, the brown Swiss cows obscured by fog. But there, around one sweeping curve of the gravel road, was the impossibly grand Farm Barn and, around another, the lakeside Shelburne House, aka the opulently appointed Inn at Shelburne Farms.

Extreme personal wealth landed this gem in Vermont. The 1400-acre estate was built in the 1880s as a summer retreat and experimental farm for a single couple, Lila Vanderbilt and William Seward Webb. Arguably, though, it’s the Webbs’ great-grandchildren who deserve Vermonters’ thanks. In the 1970s they turned the place into an educational nonprofit promoting environmental sustainability, land stewardship and conservation. Now everyone in the area thinks of Shelburne Farms as theirs, from its alpacas to its walking trails to its award-winning cheeses.

Familiar as the place may be, admirers have a couple of new reasons to revisit this National Historic Landmark District. The past few years have seen significant developments at Webb’s 1891 Breeding Barn, on the less frequently visited Southern Acres portion of the grounds; and in the formal gardens at Shelburne House, once the pet enterprise of Lila, as she’s called around here.

Both are ongoing $1 million-plus restoration projects that have reached new stages of completion. That gives Douglas Porter a bit of a breather. The 54-year-old historic preservationist, who is lead project manager on both sites, welcomes a chance to show off the progress on the two massive efforts.

The Breeding Barn

Porter drives his red Toyota pickup right through the Breeding Barn’s elegant, semicircular entry arch into the center of its dirt-on-cement floor. William Webb had the New York City architect Robert Henderson Robertson design the vast rectangular space to house a riding ring for showing off what Webb hoped would be a better draft-and-show-horse breed for New England farmers. Interested buyers would have sat opposite the arch in a second-floor grandstand and watched the horses being paraded below.

But what’s most striking is the view upward: The long ceiling is so high that the sound of cooing doves echoes as if through a cathedral. Light filters through huge, multipaned dormer windows. Porter says Robertson, who would five years later design the tallest building the world had yet seen (the 1899 Park Row Building in Manhattan), based the roof truss on French architect Camille Polonceau’s railway stations.

So the oft-repeated assertion that the Breeding Barn was “the largest unsupported interior space in the United States for 40 years after its construction,” as phrased in the National Historic Landmark nomination report, is “a false claim,” says Porter. “There were train sheds from the 1860s more than twice as broad as this,” he points out. It’s not hard to see why the claim persists, though: The space does inspire superlatives.

Porter has a master’s degree in historic preservation from the University of Vermont and teaches in its engineering school. He also leads restoration projects for the National Park Service, including Bandelier National Monument in New Mexico and Tumacácori Mission in Arizona. Those commitments require him to spend two weeks per month out West — which explains Porter’s pointy alligator boots and unseasonal tan.

Shelburne Farms engaged Porter after two engineering firms separately determined that the barn’s roof truss was structurally unsound. “It didn’t check out,” he says. “Some pieces were inadequate for snow loads” — yet the roof hadn’t caved in 100 years. “I was hired to figure that out,” Porter explains. Funding came from a 2004 planning grant from the Getty Foundation.

After four years of research that included everything from measuring the strain load of the truss by hanging 14,000-pound weights from its purlins to using laser scanning to generate computer models, Porter determined that Robertson’s structure had held up because, midway through the building process, he had added cross-tie braces to the truss’ iron support system. The barn, Porter came to believe, was incredibly well designed.

Porter and his crew of six framers and six masons spent a year doing stabilization work on the barn and addressing decay, funded through a second Getty grant. A new copper roof had been installed by Burlington architect Martin Tierney in 1995, but it merely halted deterioration of the woodwork that had progressed over decades of neglect. Through testing, Porter’s team detected water damage in 14 roof beams and several wood columns, some of it hidden in the beams’ cores. Instead of replacing those pieces whole, the team cut out the rot, shaped and fitted replacement sections, and bolted them to the good parts of the wood.

It’s remarkable to see Shelburne Farms going to such lengths to preserve the original barn, in Porter’s view. “Not many owners would say, ‘Take four years and figure out what really needs to be done,’” he declares. “What’s unusual to me is the level of care that’s being taken to minimize the impact on the historic character. The same process is going on at the gardens.”

Shelburne Farms is often recognized for “its innovative agricultural practices” and for “leading the way on food issues and techniques for small farms,” Porter continues, “but their commitment to cultural conservation is not as well known.”

Visitors can catch a tour of the Breeding Barn each Monday until the end of Shelburne Farms’ 2011 season. They’ll see the scaffold-free interior for the first time since the towering support structure — a work of art in itself, Porter notes — came down. Future rehab plans include restoring doors, windows and siding, and adding bathrooms and accessibility to outfit the barn as an event space.

The Formal Gardens

Webb’s horse-breeding hobby was short lived. With the emergence of steam power, he began selling off his 200-odd horses a decade after the barn was completed. By contrast, Lila worked on her formal gardens for 40 years.

And that’s just the trouble with “restoring” them, according to master gardener Birgit Deeds.

“For me, the difficult thing is that a garden is not like a painting: It’s always evolving,” says the 74-year-old, pushing her white bob behind her ears. “She was always changing it.” During a reporter’s visit, Deeds and Porter sit among several gilt-framed paintings in the inn’s tearoom. Deeds holds a proof of her forthcoming booklet, Guide to the Formal Gardens, which is being published by Shelburne Farms.

The Vanderbilt heiress, Deeds explains, had a parterre garden until 1910. Then, inspired by a trip through Europe, she redesigned it to combine the structured look of Italianate gardens with the painterly sweeps of color then being popularized by English garden designer Gertrude Jekyll.

While other millionaires simply hired Jekyll to do their gardens, says Deeds, Lila “did it herself; she wanted it to be her vision.” As a result, the heiress never engaged a landscape architect, who would have left behind detailed plans, as Robertson did of the barn. Deeds — who has been mining Lila’s letters, diaries and photos of the estate for clues since the mid-1980s — has located only a few rough sketches and some plant lists that were “just sort of cobbled together.” As a Jekyll specialist who studied historical-garden restoration at Harvard University, Deeds is basing her restoration on the gardens’ Jekyll-inspired period.

Outside, Porter helps Deeds jump past a temporary barrier fence to the lower terrace bordering the lake. The formal gardens’ restoration began in 2007; visitors before then may remember seeing a chunk of terrace that had tumbled into the lake, bringing with it a section of curved balustrade. (Some of that damage can be seen in Eva Sollberger’s 2009 “Stuck in Vermont” video on the gardens’ restoration.) The lily-pond wall and nearly all the brick retaining walls forming the upper terraces had been knocked over. “There was some inclination to treat this as a ruin. It was seen as too big a project,” Porter recalls. Fortunately, an anonymous donor stepped up.

Since then, Porter and his crew have rebuilt the seawall, an operation that involved trucking boulders across the frozen lake and dumping them into a trench during five hair-raising days. (“They drove off a day before the ice broke,” Porter says.) The team also rebuilt the curved overlook and brick terrace walls, and regraded the multiple levels in between.

Conservator Angelyn Bass Rivera — Porter’s collaborator in their consulting business Conservation Associates — led the restoration of 600 pieces of cast stone, including hundreds of individual balusters. Now under tarps nearby, these will soon be relining the overlook and lily-pool wall. Future phases of the restoration, which is expected to last through 2013, will return the lily pool and its restored marble, lion-faced fountain to working order; dig up a second, currently buried pool off the north end of the house; and rebuild its pergola with wood cut on the property.

Visitors to the inn can see panoramic photos of the gardens from the 1920s, which hang in the hallway leading to the game room. In them, exotic potted bay trees line the overlook, forming a stately frame for the Adirondacks beyond. Will Deeds be restoring those?

“Oh, no,” she declares. “That was when [Lila] had 50 gardeners, and they would roll those pots into the greenhouse every fall. Now there’s just me.”

On a historical estate like Shelburne Farms, Deeds continues, there’s enough to do as it is — “you put out one fire after another,” she suggests.

“The fires are stacked up all around,” adds Porter with a laugh. “You just have to choose which one to put out next.”

Want to see for yourself?

The Shelburne Farms Breeding Barn tour runs Mondays at 1:30 p.m., through October 16. $5 with admission; free for Shelburne residents and members. Call 985-8442 to register.

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About The Author

Amy Lilly

Amy Lilly has been a contributing arts writer for Seven Days since 2007.

About the Artist

Matthew Thorsen

Matthew Thorsen

Matthew Thorsen was a photographer for Seven Days 1995-2018. Read all about his life and work here.


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