Statement of Significance
William L. and Alice Sowles House
Early 1900's postcard view of the Sowles House and barn, then owned by E.T. Bradley. Streetcar tracks along Grand Avenue in foreground.
(Photo courtesy of Patsy Conder)
To see another old photo with better detail, click here.
The Sowles House is being nominated under Criterion A as associated with events that have made a significant contribution to the history of Swanton Village, Vermont, and to the history of Vermont in general. It reflects both the early industry of this small town along the Missisquoi River and the prosperous decades following the Civil War, when land prices were good and the mills, merchants, and marble quarries of Swanton were bringing in their handsomest profits. The Sowles House is also being nominated under Criterion C as a good example of an early 19th century residence updated in the Italianate and Queen Anne styles after the Civil War, a time of great prosperity and much home-building in the village. This modernization process was quite popular in Vermont during the 1870's and 1880's, and this house clearly preserves both layers of its architectural past, inside and out. Since its renovation, it has stood as one of the finer homes in Swanton Village. Its solid construction and fine detailing indicate excellent craftsmanship, much of which remains intact and in good condition today.
Swanton, located in the northwestern corner of Vermont, was first settled by whites in the last half of the eighteenth century, and was part of a land dispute between the states of New Hampshire and New York before the Revolutionary War. Located along the Missisquoi River, six miles from Lake Champlain and seven miles from the Canadian border, it featured both powerful falls and fertile floodplain soil. These ideal conditions increased the number of settlers to almost 900 by 1800. The township was incorporated in 1790 with the first town meeting on record. Five thousand acres, including the young township, were deeded by Silas Hathaway to Elijah and Jonathan Ferris in 1803, and the Ferrises are responsible for laying out Swanton's core grid of streets and its oblong town green (then called the Mall). This plat can be seen on the 1824 map, which was copied from Johnson's 1807 map and now hangs in the Swanton Public Library. Encompassing a sprawling amount of land, various areas of Swanton were soon given their own names, such as West Swanton, East Swanton, and Swanton Falls. Today's village core, where the town green and the Sowles House are located, was known more commonly in the 19th century as Swanton Falls. Much of the earliest construction took place in the area immediately around the falls on both sides of the Missisquoi, with scattered settlement along outlying roads.
Early industry included Joseph Atkinson's marble mill by 1812, and Henry Stinehour's tannery in 1814. The 1823 opening of the Champlain Canal gave Swanton a larger piece of the New York market, and a local company began building canal boats to transport lumber, marble, and other local goods to Lake Champlain for sale. In 1824, Swanton had one grist mill, five sawmills, two woolen mills, four marble mills, a tannery, a forge, and approximately 75 houses. Though the economy was somewhat slow in the 1820's, the population grew by nearly 700 people between 1810 and 1840. The Vermont and Canada Railway arrived in 1849, and two other lines were constructed through the town by the 1870's. The red stone known as Swanton Marble was first discovered and put into production in 1870. Limestone also underwent a boom in the 1870's. Rich in natural resources and ideally located for trade and transportation, Swanton prospered.
The original house was built by the Hon. James Fisk (b. 1763), a Massachusetts native who moved his family to Swanton from Barre, Vermont, in 1819 after an illustrious political career. Now included in Swanton history as one of its most prominent citizens, Fisk served in the Revolutionary War and began his political career at the age of twenty-two when he was elected to the Massachusetts General Assembly. During this time, he was a farmer and a Universalist preacher. In 1798, he moved his family to Barre where he farmed, preached, studied law, and began his legal practice. In 1806 and 1808, he was elected to Congress, and was a member in 1812 who voted to declare war with Britain. In 1815-1816 he was appointed a Supreme Court Judge, and in 1817 was elected U.S. Senator. He resigned as Senator in 1818 and moved to Swanton in 1819, building a house and barn on lot 9 of the village, then known as Swanton Falls. By then streets and lots had been laid out, but an 1824 map shows that the Fisks had few immediate neighbors five years later; most settlement was further north, near the corner of Grand Avenue and Canada Street.
The Fisk house burned in 1823, an event notable enough to warrant inclusion in George Barney's history of Swanton, which was published in 1882 in Volume 4 of Abby Maria Hemenway's Vermont Historical Gazetteer. Barney goes on to note that Fisk immediately rebuilt the house with one story, and that the second floor was added by a subsequent owner, Adrian D. Story, "around 1840." However, deeds show that the house was in the hands of the Fisk family until James Fisk's death in 1844, and that the Storys bought the house and property from James' son Zoroaster Fisk in 1844 and 1846. This indicates that the Storys probably added the second floor later than 1844. Adrian D. Story owned a series of woolen mills and numerous properties in Swanton and was evidently quite prosperous. Part of his land purchase deed leaves a small portion of the property behind the house facing York Street to Zoroaster Fisk and his wife Moretta, who built a house and eventually ran the town post office there. The new Zoroaster Fisk house can be seen on the 1857 Walling map. Adrian Story moved to Alburg in 1854, exchanging his Swanton house and mill with the Alburg property of Judge William L. Sowles.
The house was owned through the late 1800's and early 1900's by members of two important and well-to-do families in town, including Judge Sowles (b. 1800) , who bought the house in 1854 and died there in 1878, his wife Alice Blake Sowles, and William H. Blake II, a prosperous hardware merchant and Mrs. Sowles' younger brother, who purchased the house in 1894 after her death. Judge Sowles, a prominent citizen, also owned a large tract of land along the Missisquoi which was part of his deed from Adrian Story. Besides living there the longest of any owner, the Sowles family is also responsible for the important renovations to the exterior and first floor of the house which define much of the building's character today.
The prominent location of the Sowles House in the core of Swanton Village and the booming economic conditions in the years immediately after the Civil War led to its dramatic remodeling during the mid-1870's. Inspired by the number of stylish new Italianate and Queen Anne homes rising all over town, Judge and Mrs. Sowles invested considerable money to remake the house into some semblance of the latest local fashion. Instead of tearing down their solid old house and starting anew, they updated its interior and exterior trimmings to bring it up-to-date. Impetus was surely added by the 1873 death of Mrs. Sowles' wealthy father, bank president Joseph Blake, and the subsequent selling of his many land parcels. The large estate and its proceeds were divided among Mrs. Sowles and her four siblings. Her substantial inheritance undoubtedly helped fund the renovation of her home. A center-gable wall dormer with a blind window, scrolled cornice brackets, peaked window lintels, a bracketed bay window, and a wraparound porch with a rounded verandah corner were added. Except for the missing gable window and cornice brackets, all of these later elements remain intact. Homes all over town have peaked lintels, Italianate bay windows, and turned woodwork similar to that on the exterior of the Sowles House. These materials were probably manufactured locally by one of the many sawmills.
Inside the house, the Sowles family modernized the first floor with new varnished hardwood floors, elaborate varnished Queen Anne woodwork with bullseye moldings and four-panel doors, an ornate newel post and stair balustrade, a built-in china cabinet with leaded-glass doors in the dining room, and decorative wood and terra-cotta fireplace surrounds in the parlors. Oak and other fine woods were used throughout, detailed with beautiful carving, and great skill was used to make the most of the old floor plan while providing the necessities for a stylish appearance. Though it is still a center-hall floor plan, the first floor today is thoroughly in keeping with its late 19th century vintage.
The less-public upper floors, however, were largely left alone and thus preserve their 1820's origins. On the second floor, the 1820's painted six-panel bedroom doors were replaced with varnished Queen Anne four-panel doors, but the wide-board floors, simple painted woodwork, center-hall plan, and one fireplace with plain wooden surrounds were left intact. One of the old doors was recycled and now leads into the attic of the ell. In addition, the visible vertical corner beams in all of the rooms reveal the post-and-beam construction of the original Classic Cape house. The attic features additional evidence of the building's age, including vertical water saw marks on its beams, Type A and B nails, and an entire young tree trunk, with its bark still intact, used as a rafter.
The 1870's carriage barn behind the house, with its center gable and Queen Anne massing, is today a fine, intact example of its type. In form it echoes the popular neo-Gothic carriage barn design publicized by A.J. Downing in the 1840's; this neat, simple, center-gabled ideal was still fashionable in the 1870's. Built to contain the owner's team of horses, his carriages, chickens and perhaps a cow or two, with a large hayloft above, it dates to the same period as the house remodeling and superseded an earlier structure. As with the main house, however, appearances are deceiving; a traditional Vermont English barn of the early 1800's is concealed within the Queen Anne outer shell.
(The Blake Block in the 1920's. Photo from Ledoux's A History of Swanton)
Around the same time, with his uncle William H. Blake I and merchant siblings, Mrs. Sowles' brother William H. Blake II built the Italianate Blake Block on Merchant's Row to house the various family businesses. The c. 1804 store building they had been using burned in 1877. The new two-story Blake Block, built in 1877, became the centerpiece of this group of commercial buildings at the northwest corner of the green. It featured a prominent Italianate cornice with a center arch containing the building's name and date, hooded arched windows, and an elegant, symmetrical facade. The Blake Block was destroyed along with the rest of the old Merchant's Row in 1970 by a disastrous fire and was never rebuilt, but Blake's very public fondness for the Italianate style had a lasting influence which is evident today. His commercial building undoubtedly inspired numerous imitations both commercial and residential, and the rest of Merchant's Row and countless homes were subsequently constructed or updated with Italianate features. Center gables, bracketed cornices, and bay windows survive on a large number of Swanton houses. The Queen Anne porch was also popular, and many homes in Swanton display a combination of the Italianate and Queen Anne styles similar to that of the Sowles House. Evidently, homeowners borrowed and copied ideas from each other's homes, creating a distinctive vernacular adaptation of both styles.
Blake is known to have owned the house into the early 1900's, and was followed by his son-in-law, Edward T. Bradley, who was married to Blake's daughter Abbie. E.T. Bradley owned an insurance company and was active in town. He lived into his 80's and died in the 1940's. W. Harold Bradley inherited the house and in 1948, it was sold to Harold E. Bliss and his wife Mildred, who died in 1971. Ms. Bliss's estate executor sold the house to the current owners, Daniel and Patsy Conder, in 1979. During the Bliss occupancy, the center gable window was walled over with aluminum siding and the cornice brackets removed. More recent alterations have included the addition of a garage in the end of the ell, remodeling of the kitchen, a new back porch, and an in-ground swimming pool in the back yard.
Its location at the heart of Swanton, facing the Green and on lot 9 of the 1807 Johnson town plat, indicates that the Sowles House site is among the oldest house lots in Swanton. Most early residences around the green are now gone, replaced by commercial buildings, the library, the post office, newer houses, and so on. However, the 1824 map shows the Sowles (marked "J. Fisk") House standing in relative isolation with no immediate neighbors, meaning that it is probably the oldest surviving home in that area of the village. The house is now one of only three left on Grand Avenue facing the green. Its next-door neighbor to the north at 33 Grand Avenue, now the Sweeney Barber Shop, has a three-bay I-house plan and was built in the Italianate style with a center gable, bracketed cornices and a bay window during the 1870's. The proximity of this stylish new house may have been a factor in the decision to renovate the Sowles House. Unfortunately, little of its detail has survived. An older Federal or Greek Revival frame house survives near the corner of Grand Avenue and Canada Street, next to the post office, and is now a commercial building. This house has also been updated many times, retains little detailing, and is now engulfed by a one-story storefront addition on its front.
The Sowles House today remains a private residence and its fascinating history has only recently come to light. It represents the village of Swanton during the greatest period of its history, and retains much of its own architectural integrity. The story of its evolution speaks volumes about both its owners' personal histories and the larger trends of the nineteenth century. It is truly a house, and a history, worthy of careful preservation.
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