University of Vermont

Vermont Quarterly

Big man back on campus

John Purple Howard sculpture
Photograph by Thomas Weaver


Big man back on campus

Rested, reinforced, and restored, the venerable John Purple Howard returned to his perch in front of Old Mill last semester. It has been seven years since the bust of the distinguished nineteenth-century Burlingtonian and stalwart supporter of the university was removed for restoration. Budgetary hurdles and the “surprises” inherent in working on a 130-year-old work of art conspired to make it a lengthy sabbatical.

The journey to Watertown, Massachusetts art conservator Daedalus, Inc. isn’t the first time Mr. Howard has traveled. A 1942 Vermont Cynic article describes an episode in which pranksters stole the bust by Jonathan Scott Hartley, eventually ditching it on a Summit Street lawn. The statue also spent a period languishing in the attic of Old Mill before being returned to the front of the building in 1968. At some point along the way, likely to better secure it, the bust was filled with cement in which a steel rod was embedded. The new restoration has corrected that ham-handed fix and also taken pains to make sure the historic work stays put for good.

So, who was John Purple Howard and why was he bust-worthy? A native son of Burlington, born in 1814, he learned the hotel business from his father and later went into the same industry in New York City with his brother. The Old Exchange, Howard House, and the Irving Hotel were among the ventures that allowed him to retire and return to Burlington a relatively young and decidedly rich man. He was also a generous one. His gifts to Burlington, which totaled nearly $300,000, included the Howard Opera House and block, proceeds that went to support the city’s home for destitute children.

Howard’s philanthropy extended to UVM, as well. He funded the construction of a new medical college building (the predecessor to Dewey Hall), an endowed chair in natural history and zoology, the fountain on the Green, and an 1885 renovation/facelift for Old Mill that created the building’s Victorian façade we know today. The bust of Howard wasn’t a case of the philanthropist celebrating himself; it was a gift from the citizens of Burlington in recognition of all he had done for the city and the university.

The project is the latest in a number of UVM public sculpture restorations completed in the last several years.

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