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Big Man Back on Campus

Historic bust returns to Old Mill façade

John Purple Howard bust
The restored bust of John Purple Howard returned to the front of Old Mill this week. Cyrus Baker of Alpine Building Restoration puts final touches on the installation Tuesday. (Photo: Thomas Weaver)

Rested, reinforced and restored, the venerable John Purple Howard returned to his perch in front of Old Mill this week. It has been seven years since the bust of the distinguished 19th-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.

Shirley Fortier, campus planning, has guided the efforts to restore the statue (the work of art conservators at Watertown, Mass.-based Daedalus, Inc.). And David Blatchly, physical plant, has been the point person as the site has been prepared and upgraded by Alpine Building Restoration of Waterbury, Vt., to give JPH a safe and sound pedestal. In early October, Fortier and Blatchly sat down to coordinate final details as the historically accurate plinth of Champlain marble was trucked down I-89 and the bust itself was moved to campus after a stint in storage at Fort Ethan Allen. The project is the latest in a number of UVM public sculpture restorations completed in the last several years under the leadership of Linda Seavey, campus planning services director, and the UVM Ad Hoc Sculpture Committee.

This recent journey isn’t the first time Mr. Howard has traveled. Fortier’s research into the history of the work by sculptor Jonathan Scott Hartley turned up a 1942 Vermont Cynic article describing an episode in which pranksters stole the bust, 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.

While the restoration of the Howard bust has brought this era of UVM’s past front and center, just up the Green another piece of that same story has been rejuvenated in a quieter way. The statue of the Marquis de Lafayette, another gift from John Purple Howard at the time of the Old Mill renovation, stands at the north end of the Green. (The work was originally a complement to Old Mill and was situated where Ira Allen’s statue now stands. Lafayette made the move north in the 1920s when James Wilbur funded both Ira Allen Chapel and the sculpture of UVM’s founder.)

While Lafayette has stood fast in his “new” locale for nearly a century, sometime within the past decade, vandals wrenched away the bronze walking stick originally in his right hand. The damage to the statue wasn’t glaringly evident, but apparent to someone who knew the work well, such as Bill Lipke, professor emeritus of art history, who brought the loss to the attention of UVM officials.

But all is well again with the Marquis. Earlier this semester, Lafayette had a new stick placed in his hand. Burlington business Conant Metal & Light, headed up by alumnus Steve Conant ’78, designed the new staff to match the original, crafted it in their Pine Street workshop, and installed it. They even guaranteed that Lafayette would not suffer another loss — this is a theft-proof cane. Conant says that constructing the piece of extruded bronze rod rather than cast bronze gives it much greater tensile strength. There was also some vandal-baffling innovative engineering — Conant demurs on the details — that went into how the walking stick is attached.

Tight-lipped caution is wise. Now that General Lafayette and his patron JP Howard are complete, safe and secure, best to help keep it that way.

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