BENNINGTON -- If you live in Vermont, your town may look the way it does because of George H. Guernsey.
Over the course of his 32-year career as an architect, Guernsey designed churches, town halls, schools, libraries, estates and private homes in at least 23 different cities and towns around the state, helping to define Vermont's architectural style during its formative years. However, until recently nobody really knew who George H. Guernsey was.
About 10 years ago the town of Bethel, Vt., started working to renovate its town hall and quickly discovered town records that named Guernsey as the building's designer. Intrigued, the Bethel Historical Society started gathering information on Guernsey and his other buildings around the state. After years of detective work, they have now compiled their findings into a new 124-page book, "Vermont's Elusive Architect: George H. Guernsey."
The book includes biographical information on Guernsey, old documents, archival and recent color photos, and individual sections about each of the architect's 45 known designs, including St. Francis de Sales Catholic Church in Bennington.
Born in 1839 in Calais, Vt., Guernsey spent his early years learning from his father, a builder, before enlisting in the Army of the Republic during the Civil War. After the war he moved to Montpelier and began working as an architect, designing his first business block in 1868, though he had no formal training in architecture, according to Janet Hayward Burnham of the Bethel Historical Society, one of the book's editors. He would go on to design at least 12 buildings in his hometown, many of which are still standing.
According to librarian Tyler Resch of the Bennington Museum, there are many buildings from Guernsey's era still standing around Bennington, although evidence suggests that William C. Bull was the predominant architect in this area during Guernsey's time, specializing in the Queen Anne style that can be seen around town.
Luckily for Bennington readers, Guernsey's influence shows clearly here. The parish of St. Francis de Sales built their first church of native stone in 1854, but only 30 years later the congregation began to outgrow the 400-capacity building after waves of immigration brought more and more Irish and French Catholics to Bennington. In 1887, Bishop Louis DeGoesbriand paid $3,300 for the plot of land on Main Street (now West Main Street) where the parish now resides, and they hired George Guernsey to design the new church.
Guernsey designed the new church in the English Gothic Revival style, adding a 96-foot bell tower with a 70-foot wooden spire and large cross atop it. Construction on the new St. Francis de Sales church was completed in 1892, and it has been in use since.
Other than church records showing Guernsey's name listed on a piece of parchment placed inside the cornerstone, there was no other mention of the architect in the parish's official history book, written by Margaret Boulet, and the parish staff said they were unaware of Guernsey's work on the church.
The book also includes some interesting stories and historical information about Guernsey's other notable buildings, including churches in 14 other Vermont communities and the storied, possibly haunted Redstone estate in Montpelier, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1978.
Guernsey's designs are unique in their choice of materials, Hayward Burnham said. While other architects in that time were starting to use steel framing to build taller and larger structures, Guernsey's buildings were all built with traditional materials, like brick, stone and wood.
While the Bethel Historical Society learned a good deal about Guernsey in their research, there is still no complete list of Guernsey's designs, and there may well be more Guernsey buildings around the state that they are not aware of. This is especially true because he designed so many private houses, which are not listed in town records.
Guernsey was also unusual because he designed buildings in so many different towns around Vermont, and even two in New Hampshire. Hayward Burnham explained that most architects of that era worked within a specific geographical area, like Lambert Packard, who designed many buildings in Caledonia county.
"Guernsey was everywhere," Hayward Burnham said. "He was all over the state, and into New Hampshire. That was unusual."
Middlebury architecture professor Glenn Andres agreed, in a 2014 interview on Vermont Public Radio.
"The only way to assemble [his buildings] is to pick up a building here and a building there," he said, "and I really have to congratulate the Bethel Historical Society on this work."
For more ...
Find the book:
George H. Guernsey'
is available from the Bethel Historical Society at bethelvermont.com