Guest editorial: Younger generation needed to preserve Vermont aesthetic

The recent passing of Paul Bruhn, a champion of preservation and community development for more than 40 years, is a blow to the heritage conservation movement. Much like the vacant lots and storefronts in the historic town centers that Paul spent his life defending, his loss has left many of us feeling like something is missing.

Since 1980, Paul’s Preservation Trust of Vermont has served as the stalwart organization supporting communities in maintaining Vermont’s small-town aesthetic and in fighting off the type of development that threatens to change the very nature of our state. 

In spite of our loss, I firmly believe that the preservation and redevelopment of Vermont’s historic buildings and village centers must and will continue, but to be successful, historic preservation must be seen for what it actually is — an effective community development strategy. Paul’s legacy teaches us that the results of historic preservation and strategic (re)development are not only aesthetically appealing, but simply work. 

Vermont is full of historical societies, house museums, and gathering places (grange halls, masonic temples, libraries, meetinghouses, and countless religious sanctuaries) that are often selflessly and tirelessly run by town elders and passionate, yet aging, docents and caretakers. These buildings may seem eternal and their places in our communities a given, but let me assure you — these buildings are vulnerable and need our steadfast protection.  

Let the passing of Paul Bruhn serve as a rallying cry for a new guard to continue to fight for our communities and the historic buildings and villages that make them so extraordinary.

Vermont is in desperate need of a younger generation of stewards to stand against demolition, sprawl and neglect. What does this mean? It means joining the committees, societies, and groups that preserve our built heritage. It means taking stock of what makes our communities special and unique.

The time to fight against demolition is not when a wrecking ball is in the parking lot. If you do not want a Dollar General opening on the edge of your town, the time to pass zoning restrictions is now. If you cannot imagine your community without the old town hall, find out who is responsible for its upkeep and ask to help (I guarantee they will welcome a fresh face). If you want a place to hold yoga classes, ask who is using the Grange Hall on Tuesday afternoons. 

These buildings need to be used. If the gatekeepers fight back against new uses, explain that with community involvement can come community, state, and even federal funding. Without this kind of engagement, these buildings will be lost. In their place will come box stores and the sort of development that people like Paul Bruhn spent a lifetime keeping at bay.

Community involvement is required. It is what keeps Vermont from becoming like one of those disliked lower states. As the up and coming generation, it is our obligation to become the stewards of our communities and the historic buildings that have been so prudently preserved for our enjoyment. 

Alex Tolstoi is a preservation consultant and carpenter, and is the founder of Vermont Property Preservation Consultants.

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Addison County Independent

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Middlebury, VT 05753

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