Constructing history: Student archives
buildings of influential architect © July 31, 2009, Norwich University Office of Communications
On a sun-washed July morning, Megan Morse gestured toward the roof of a two-and-a-half-story Victorian residence on East State Street in Montpelier, Vt., and listed architectural details—gable shingles, clapboarding, bracketing, textured shingles—that indicate the Queen Anne style popular in the late 19th century.
The green house, trimmed in plum and off-white, is a former residence of architect George Guernsey. It is of keen interest to Morse, a junior at Norwich University, because Guernsey’s work is the subject of her summer research project. As a student majoring in architectural studies with a minor in history, Morse’s trained eye readily picked out original details, especially those that distinguish it as a Guernsey design despite updates and remodeling.
“Guernsey was one of the most influential architects in Vermont. People sought him out to design for them,” said Morse. “Yet no exhaustive inventory of all his work has been completed.”
I fell in love with the town hall in Bethel, my hometown, only to find out later that it was designed by [Guernsey].
~ Megan Morse,
Her project was inspired by a history class called Regional Material Culture taught by Professor Gary Lord. Her goal is to document and categorize the work of Guernsey, who lived in Vermont from 1839 to 1900. After serving in the Civil War, the architect co-owned a granite construction company in Montpelier, where he served as mayor for a time.
Morse first bumped into Guernsey’s work while researching a high school history project in her hometown, which is not far from Norwich’s Northfield, Vt., campus.
“I enjoy classic Guernsey because the asymmetrical style makes each building really unique,” Morse said. “I fell in love with the town hall in Bethel, my hometown, only to find out later that it was designed by him.”
She gleaned much of the information for her summer project from the Vermont Division for Historic Preservation, a state agency that advocates for historic sites and landmarks. In the 1970s and 80s, each Vermont town was catalogued for historic and architecturally significant buildings.
Digging through the minutiae was not easy. “It’s impossible to read everything you come across,” Morse said. “You have to know when to stop following a lead and move on.”
“Megan’s project had several challenges: logistical, organizational and analytical,” said Lord, faculty advisor on the project. “It involved significant field work in visiting archives, as well as travel. Time is truly the limiting factor for her.”
Site visits around Vermont and New Hampshire moved Morse into the second phase of her project. She spent weeks in libraries and local archives following leads to churches, schools, libraries, bridges, residences and commercial blocks. Many structures have been documented as Guernsey designs. Others may have been his work, but telling details have been misplaced. Included in this list is the original Dodge Hall at Norwich, located on the site of the present administration building.
Morse chose to attend Norwich, the nation’s oldest private military college, specifically for the architecture program. It wasn’t only the reputation that drew her, but the fifth-year option, in which students earn a master’s degree after graduating with a four-year bachelor’s degree in architectural studies.
“I love architecture because it encompasses drawing, science, math and history.” Morse said. “You can use your hands and it allows creativity and forces you to solve problems.”
“The project blends her interests,” added Lord, regarding the cross-disciplinary nature of the research. “We encourage undergraduates to think in broader terms than just one subject.”
Morse used her deductive skills while scanning commercial blocks in bustling downtown Montpelier.
“That’s classic Guernsey,” she said, pointing to a Main Street location called the French Block. “The corbeling or brick layering on top, the half-moon windows, and the keystone granite are signs.”
Brick storefronts and commercial blocks are generally named for the people who commissioned them, she said. On State Street, Morse stood puzzled in front of the Union and Rialto blocks. Research suggested both were designed by Guernsey, but dates on the Union building read 1875 and 1915. Since Guernsey died in 1900, she conjectured that a fire might have caused the buildings to be remodeled. Morse noted the roofline lacked bricks on one side.
“It gets my mind going.” she said. “There is more to find out.”
Morse, one of 19 students awarded summer grants to work on a project in an area of interest, will eventually prepare a report summarizing specific findings and present it to the School of Architecture. She realizes she won’t know everything and could do much more than time allows in a single summer.
“Megan has an opportunity to make a real contribution to the field,” said Lord. “What’s beneficial about the summer research program is that it gives students an opportunity to do real history—the kind of historical research that is part of any serious historical investigation.”