Commercial Main Street Main Street between the railroad tracks on the north and Cannon Green on the south is the most rebuilt stretch of real estate in Middlebury, if not in Addison County. Ravaged by a whole series of fires in the second half of the 19th century, the area has experienced two total changes of character as well as many individual replacements and remodelings. In the first half of the century the notoriously muddy street was lined with shops and mill fronts with residences upstairs. Early views from the area of the churches show the ranks of these tightly-packed two and three-story house-like buildings of wood, stone, and brick along Main and Merchants Row converging on the town watering trough at the bridgeward corner of the Green and then running down to the creek. Here, just before the bridge and virtually overhanging the falls was the site of the first store in the County. The lot was deeded in 1789 by Painter to Benjamin Gorton of New York, whose nephew, Jabez Rogers, built a store in 1790 and then developed in close proximity brewery and potash operations. The shops that grew around Rogers' store held hardware and hatters, tailors and tanners, saddlers and silversmiths, serving the entire region. Only two store buildings from this era remain, and those (30 and 54 College Street) being across the bridge, will be mentioned later.
In its second phase, after the fires of mid-century, Main Street looked much like a Western boom town—wooden sidewalks, quite uniform wooden store fronts with large show windows, awnings or porches, elaborate upstairs window frames, and more elaborate brackets supporting heavy cornices. Destroyed in the great fire of 1875 and rebuilt, they perished again in 1891.
By this time tastes had changed, as witnessed by the sole survivor of the 1891 fire north of the bridge, the Beckwith Block (22 – 26 Main Street). Here is post-Civil War commercialism changing the previously domestic scale and character of downtown Middlebury. This building is of an era in which commercial structures vied for and were accorded the prestige and attention formerly reserved for public buildings and churches. It is big, bold, attention-drawing. With its elaborate multi-color brickwork and insets of stone and terracotta, windows of varied shape and size (including stained glass), grander scale, and busy cornice line, this building of 1882 – 83 was considered by its contemporaries to be the finest store in the county if not in the state. Its impact was such that the architect and contractor, Smith and Allen, were commissioned to build the new town hall and courthouse on the Green in a similar, if slightly more controlled, style. In 1996 the Beckwith Block was purchased by the National Bank of Middlebury and was physically connected to the bank to serve as its offices and as an expanded customer service area.
Battell Block (Main Street and Merchants Row) Rich and interesting as the Beckwith Block was, the proliferation of such individualistic structures would eliminate any communal unity the core of the village enjoyed. Fortunately, by the rebuilding after the great fire of 1891 a compromise between the unity of the seventies and the vivacity of the eighties had been found. The theme for rebuilding was set by Joseph Battell and his architect (probably Clinton Smith) in the construction of the Battell Block.
By any standards Joseph Battell would have to be considered one of the most influential and interesting figures in the history of Middlebury. He was a publisher, author, authority on Morgan horses, conservationist, and the largest landholder in Vermont. Opinionated and idiosyncratic, he was motivated by his own strong sense of what was right and by a deep love for his town and state. The automobile was his bête noire. As publisher of the Middlebury Register, he pursued a single-handed campaign against the motor car, filling his pages with news of every bizarre and ghastly accident in the entire country in which the machines were involved. Balancing this great hatred was an equally consuming love for the mountains. He loved them as an escape from the bustle of town life and developed an inn near Bread Loaf Mountain up in Middlebury Gap for the relaxation of his friends and himself. Guests would often be met personally at the station in town and be taken up to the overgrowing mountain retreat behind a team of Morgans. To protect his refuge, Battell began buying all the land visible from the inn—as he put it, buying mountains the way his turn-of-the-century contemporaries bought artwork. He wanted to preserve the natural mountainscape for the enjoyment of future generations. In the end he owned some 30,000 acres, which he left to Middlebury College, giving it in essence the largest college campus in the world. Battell land now forms a significant part of the Green Mountain National Forest, though the College has retained ownership of its fine ski area, the Snow Bowl, and of the Bread Loaf Inn. The latter serves as home of the Middlebury summer Graduate School of English and The Bread Loaf Writers' Conference (in which Robert Frost participated for many years).
Battell was also a great, if somewhat difficult, benefactor of the town. He tied up town politics for a year in his desire for a stone Main Street bridge (which he felt would be suited to the quality of the town), and he ended up paying more than half the cost to get his own way. In the aftermath of the 1891 fire, he had a vision of a modern, unified rebuilt downtown and constructed his own huge block to set the style. To build it, Battell purchased the sites of five separate buildings and arranged to close an alley running from the Main Street-Merchants Row intersection down to the creek. The Merchants Row portion of the structure was built in 1892; the final bays along Main Street not until 1898. Here is a combination of unity, visual interest, and grand scale—marking Middlebury, as had the Beckwith Block, as a major commercial center. It is a "fireproof" structure, with stone piers, steel girders over broad show windows, and paneled brick upper floors. The basic structural theme unifies the building and permits for variations in rhythm and dimension and for such embellishments as the corner tower (originally with an arched additional story and a conical cap—removed after the hurricane of 1950), the elaborate brickwork of the cornice, and the charming bay windows along Merchants Row without disrupting an overall sense of unity.
This became the guiding theme for the other new construction along Main Street, whether by Battell or by others, whether one story or two. The street level construction followed Battell Block materials and scale, and upper floors were free to delight in individual window forms and cornice elaborations—unity and diversity. Another aspect shared by the Main Street stores and the Battell Block is that of basements exposed to the rear. Battell's new bridge had necessitated elevating Main Street ten feet above its pre-1891 level, and thus the rebuilt stores were entered at what had originally been their second floor level.
Triangle Park The corner cut off from the rest of the Green by the railroad was embellished in 1908 by Joseph Battell and the Century Club with a three-tiered cast iron fountain carried by figures of cranes. Increasingly unpopular because its wind-driven spray would dampen the interiors of open cars parked around it, the fountain was dismantled by the town in 1938 and sold for scrap. Another fountain was placed in the park by the Middlebury Garden Club at the time of the national bicentennial. The fountain urn (from the same foudry and patterns as the larger original fountain) was discovered in the gardens of Battell's niece, Mrs. Jessica Swift and acquired from her estate.
National Bank of Middlebury The only building after 1891 north of the bridge to ignore completely the theme set by Battell was the National Bank. Designed by Burlington architect F. L. Austin in 1910, this is a structure in an altogether different tradition. Although Middlebury's bank had been housed in its conservative brick townhouse next to the inn, nationally there had been a long-standing association of banks with classical, temple-like architecture, dating back to the early days of the Republic (when Benjamin Latrobe used the style for the Bank of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia in 1799). Then, by 1910 there was a new force afoot, the City Beautiful movement. This had grown out of the highly theatrical classicism of the Chicago World's Columbian Exposition in 1893. Excited by the fair's display of grand formal architectural and landscape composition, towns across the country began adopting the classical style for their public buildings. The movement was a big topic in the Middlebury Register in 1910. Thus, when the bank determined to build a new home on a prominent site across from the Green, both associations and current fashion suggested a temple. About as monumental as a small one-story structure could be, the bank was set back from the sidewalk to create a landscaped space before it, leading to its column-supported pedimental entrance. It combines stone details with the then very current buff Roman brick (a particular favorite of the Midwestern Prairie School of architecture at that time). In recent years the lateral wings have been added and the original oak and muralled interior somewhat altered.
Walking along the west side of Main Street, one passes a number of significant sites from Middlebury's past.