BENNINGTON — Town officials say they are bewildered and outraged after learning that the state architectural historian is recommending removal of the Paper Mill Village covered bridge from the National Register of Historic Places.
Town Economic and Community Development Director Michael Harrington was notified of the recommendation in a Nov. 30 letter from Devin Colman, an official with the Vermont Division for Historic Preservation, who said the covered bridge "will be considered by the Vermont Advisory Council on Historic Preservation for removal from the National Register of Historic Places at its meeting on January 19, 2017."
Colman added, "Constructed in 1889, the [bridge] was listed in the National Register of Historic Places on August 28, 1973. Due to extensive deterioration of the bridge, the original structure was removed and replaced with a replica in 1999/2000. Because the original bridge is no longer extant, and the replica bridge is less than 50 years old, the existing structure does not meet the criteria for listing in the National Register of Historic Places."
Harrington and Dan Monks, the assistant town manager and planning director, briefed the Bennington Historic Preservation Commission on the situation on Thursday. Commissioners subsequently voted to relay their strong concerns about the proposal and their unanimous opposition.
A letter will be drafted in reply to Colman, commissioners said, and other town and regional planning officials are expected to sign it.
Commissioner Jeff Goldstone and others said they could not understand how the designation could be withdrawn nearly 20 years after the restoration project, which was undertaken, they said, with guidance from state preservation officials. They said such a reversal would be "destructive to historic preservation efforts," since it would eliminate an incentive to follow historic construction methods or use appropriate materials during rehabilitation projects.
The bridge restoration project "was done very, very diligently" according to advice from state preservation officials, Monks said.
He said he had talked with Colman by phone and via email and found the official "exceedingly inflexible" on the issue.
Monks said Thursday that a meeting involving Bennington and state officials was requested but one hasn't yet been scheduled.
Colman was out of his office on Friday and could not be reached for comment.
Harrington and Monks said Colman's recommendation apparently was made based primarily on one criteria out of seven used to determine whether a structure is listed on the national register — whether the building materials are original.
In a follow-up email to Harrington, Colman stated in part: "I'll be evaluating the other six aspects, but integrity of materials is the big one. At the risk of getting too nerdy, it's similar to Greek paradox as to whether or not a ship that had been restored by replacing every single wooden part remained the same ship. Is a covered bridge that has been 'restored' by replacing nearly every single wooden part still the same covered bridge? Something to ponder over the weekend ."
The other aspects to be considered for listing on the register are location, design, setting, workmanship, felling and association to historic sites.
"The issue here has to do with historic integrity, and whether or not the 1999/2000 reconstruction of the original 1889 bridge retains enough historic integrity to warrant continued listing in the National Register," Colman wrote. "Based on the information I have about the 1999/2000 reconstruction, very little of the original building material (siding, beams, truss members, etc.) from the 1889 bridge was able to be reused. Absent information to the contrary, it is my understanding that the reconstruction, while very carefully and thoughtfully planned and executed, resulted in a bridge that is a recreation of the original, using almost all new materials."
The idea that a wooden bridge, which must carry vehicle traffic over the Walloomsac River, could remain essentially the same over time with original materials intact represents a "misguided" standard, Monks said.
In addition, he said, the bridge is considered iconic and one of three covered bridges in Bennington that represent an important feature of a bygone transportation era, and also provide a steady lure for tourists and other visitors to the area.
Commission Chairman Michael McDonough asked whether a professional in the preservation field could be consulted on the drafting of the town's letter, and Monks said he knows of someone who would likely agree to offer assistance.
"Ultimately, the decision to list or delist a property in the National Register is made by the Keeper of the National Register in Washington, D.C.," Colman wrote to Harrington. "The request is sent to the Keeper by our office following input from stakeholders and consideration by the Vermont Advisory Council on Historic Preservation."
He added, "Part of my job as State Architectural Historian is to manage Vermont's National Register program. This includes facilitating the process to list and delist properties, in consultation with the property owner(s), the local government, the Vermont Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, and the National Park Service. In order to maintain consistent and accurate records of National Register-listed properties in the state, sometimes a property needs to be delisted due to a loss of historic integrity, relocation, or destruction."
The Paper Mill Village bridge, also known as the Bennington Falls Covered Bridge, was placed on the National Register in 1973. A copy of the nomination application can be viewed at http://orc.vermont.gov/Documents/Bennington_NationalRegister__NominationForm_00000002.pdf
Jim Therrien writes for the Bennington Banner and VtDigger.org. He can be reached at 802-447-7567, ext. 114.