This is the story of a modest house with a history of change. Having taken on the occupancy of many families and individuals, each with their own ideas and actions having an impact, the history of this house was woven.
The story begins to unravel in 1807 on a hill overlooking Lake Champlain to the west, in the town of Burlington, VT. The University of Vermont had been chartered sixteen years earlier and University Hall was being completed when Moses Catlin signed a deed. The grantees of this deed were Limean, William and Hezekiah Hine of Colchester. They received, for their $800, land with buildings thereon, "adjoining the college square" and marked off in relation to a blacksmith's shop to the north.1
Not quite six years later these men got
their $800 back by selling to John Perigo Jr. the same parcel
of land, "on the west side of the College Green and beginning
at the stake being the southeasterly corner of land in possession
of Daniel Farrand Esqr. on which he now lives, thence southerly
on the said west line of the College Green, one chain and fifty-six
links to a stake, thence north eighty-six degrees west, three
chains and seventy links to a stake, thence northerly parallel
with the west line of the College Green one chain and seventy-one
links to a stake being the southwesterly corner of land in possession
of Daniel Farrand aforesaid. Thence by the southerly line of
said Farrand's land to the place of the beginning containing
ninety seven and eight tenths of a rod of land with buildings
thereon standing."2 A little
over two years later, in 1815, Perigo sold the same parcel of
land to Guy Catlin, but this time only for $131.52.3
This land is that which Nicholson House now stands upon. The original portion of Nicholson House is a 2-1/2 story, five bay, frame house in the Federal style. Two bays deep, the building has interior chimneys on each gable end.
It is believed that Perigo was the builder of the oldest portion of Nicholson House prior to the War of 1812.4 Yet, the course of these land transactions gives one pause when considering this theory, for John Perigo did not own the land until late in 1813. In addition, it seems curious that Perigo would build a new house on land for which he paid $800, then sell this land with the brand new house, only two years later, for a loss of $668.48. A possible explanation could be that this transaction occurred at the end of a spurt of economic prosperity for Burlington, with the U.S. troops occupying UVM during the War of 1812 on their way out of town. In addition, 1815 was known as "the year that summer never came to Vermont," in which there was frost and snow every month of the year, causing complete crop failures and the need for imported wheat.5
Nonetheless, one can safely refer to the
oldest portion of Nicholson House, at 43 So. Prospect St., as
having been constructed c1810. The Federal style of the house
was quite popular at the time and several houses in Burlington
were built during the same time period with quite similar appearances.
The Benedict House next door, to the north of Nicholson House,
was built sometime between 1809-1815, and has the same Federal
style elements.6 These elements include:
overall simple massing of a rectangular box shape, two rooms
deep, low-pitched roof, and balanced, symmetrical fenestration.
The following sixty years of the public record are vague for Nicholson House. However, it is known that various UVM faculty occupied the house throughout this period, no doubt due to the convenient location just west of the College Green. Included in the list of faculty residents is Prof. James Dean who taught mathematics at UVM from 1807-1824.7 He moved on to form with Dr. John Peck, Burlington's first extensive manufacturing operation, the Champlain Glass Works at Winooski Falls, in 1827.8
Prof. Henry Chaney also resided at Nicholson House while teaching chemistry at UVM. Although, unclear how long he actually was a resident there, Chaney worked for UVM from 1837-1863.9
It is believed that Mrs. Lucy Ann Abbott and Miss L. M. Abbott lived in Nicholson House at the 43 South Prospect St. from 1875 until 1881, but it is unclear if these women owned the property or were only tenants.10
The vacancy created by the Abbott's in 1881 was filled by members of the Underwood family, who were tenants until 1887. The Underwood family members residing at 43 So. Prospect included: Levi and Mrs. Levi Underwood, Cornelia C. Underwood, who was a teacher, Levi Underwood Jr., who was a law student, and Thomas C. Underwood, who was a clerk at Wells & Richardson Co.11
The Underwoods' landlord was D.C. Linsley, a railroad engineer from New York City who had come to Burlington during the Civil War. He was the builder of New York City's Third Avenue Elevated Railroad and Burlington's North Avenue Tunnel.12 In the spring of 1887, Linsley and his wife Martha sold 43 So. Prospect St. to Isabel J. Hart for the sum of $3000.13
Isabel J. Hart was the wife of William H. Hart and they lived at this property, along with other members of the Hart family, for six years. These additional family members included Miss A. A. Hart, Miss Annie C. Hart, and Miss Marabel F. Hart.14 The summer of 1893 found Isabel and William Hart moving to Portland, Maine. In July, they signed the papers transferring ownership of 43 So. Prospect St. to Frances A. Richardson for the amount of $4500.15
It is possible that under the ownership of either the Linsley's or the Hart's that some major work was done on the house, including a re-flooring of the first floor. As visible from the basement, the floor joists in the oldest portion of the house draw attention to this theory. These 2x8 boards clearly have circular saw marks throughout their broad side, which would date them after the late 1860's. Yet, they seem to predate a later 1890's addition, for the floor joists of that section are 3x8 with much narrower floorboards above. The method of construction of the floor is also distinctly different from that of the older part of the house.
At the change of hands from the Hart's to the Richardson's, the identity of the house at 43 So. Prospect St. was reinvented. As vice-president of Wells & Richardson Co., a wholesale and drug manufacturer, and president of Burlington Drug Co., A. E. Richardson was a wealthy Burlington businessman. In line with his skill and experience, he proceeded to transform 43 So. Prospect St. into a money-making venture. With an enormous rear addition, major stylistic changes and the conversion of the building into a two-family home, Richardson initiated a new chapter in the boarding house history of what had become 41-43 So. Prospect St.
After construction was complete, it appeared as a 3-1/2 story structure with the main addition's gable end intersecting the rear of the original house, perpendicular to the road. A pair of two story bay windows supporting pediments on brackets had been added to each side of the first floor porch. This porch now sheltered the twin main entry doors and was surmounted by a narrower second floor porch with a smaller ornamental pediment above it. Behind this smaller pediment, the gable end of the large rear addition rose, forming an additional, large, ornately carved pediment. In addition to clapboard siding, rich and varied shingling, including a wave pattern and scallops, decorated the bays, the center pediments and the sides of the gable balcony in the rear of the house.
These stylistic changes are clearly inspired by the Queen Anne style, which was popular in the late 1800's. The distinct "application" of these architectural details seems to be an effort to modernize the facade of what would have been considered an "old-fashioned" building. Perhaps, Richardson was intending to make his building more marketable to potential tenants.
The location of 41-43 So. Prospect St.,
however, was the most attractive quality to the tenants of the
building. Nicholson House, since its early days with Prof. James
Dean, was always occupied by UVM faculty or students.16
The Richardsons continued to be landlords for what was now 41-43 So. Prospect St. until 1910. By this time, Mrs. Richardson had passed away a year earlier and Mr. Richardson was elderly and poor health. He was able only to mark an "X" for his signature on the deed transferring ownership to Thomas J. Deavitt, Mrs. Richardson's trustee from the Capital Savings Bank & Trust Co.17
This trust was held until the summer of
1913 when Thomas Deavitt signed the property over to the University
of Vermont.18 The University continued
the established trend of Nicholson House being used as lodging
for faculty and student for the next fifty years, with one exception.
At the time of acquisition of the property and house into the
UVM system, a widow, Mrs. Martin T. Buckham was a tenant in #41.
She was able to stay in her home until after 1930.19
During the early 1960, the building housed the University Christian Association, home of the Campus Cooperative Ministry. In 1968 that 41-43 So. Prospect St. was modified and the use of Nicholson House shifted to classroom and administrative space, after a year of being vacant. The house was now the Math Building, as well as the Christian Resource Center.20 This change in use entailed major interior alterations to accommodate offices and classrooms. False walls and paneling were installed throughout, which has since disguised many possible clues as to the building's development. Quick repair and replacement has also fragmented both interior and exterior characteristics. For example, the mopboards throughout the first floor are plain painted wood panels, while on the back wall inside a closet under the stairs, the mopboard has ornate molding. In addition, the 1974 installation of aluminum siding has hidden the expressive, decorative shingling and gable-end quarter circle vents.
The mid-1970's saw the dedication of the house at 41-43 So. Prospect St. as Nicholson House. Named for Prof. George Hubert Nicholson who taught at UVM for fifty years, from 1923-1973. The building, again, took on a new identity, which it retains, for the most part, today.
The continuum of change and conversion
is central to the story of Nicholson House. This story is made
more clear not only through the physical characteristics, but
through archival and contextual evidence. The successive layers
of new uses and fashions are an important tangible record of
the ever-changing styles and ideas of the owners and occupants.
These concepts, manifest through this building, make Nicholson
House a most telling artifact.
Virginia and Lee McAlester, A Field Guide to American Houses (New York: Knopf, Inc., 1998).
National Register for Historic Places, Nomination for UVM Green Historic District, 1975 [copy located at UVM Land Records Office, Waterman Building, So. Prospect St.].
The New York Public Library - American History Desk Reference, (New York: Stonesong Press Inc., 1997).
This research paper was produced by Kerry Davis for Historic Preservation 395, Researching Historic Structures and Sites course with Prof. Thomas Visser in December 1999.