University Green Area Heritage Study

Historic Burlington Research Project - HP 206


Grasse Mount

411 Main Street

An exceptional example of Adamesque-Federal style architecture, Grasse Mount is regarded as one of the most significant early nineteenth century buildings in Vermont. Facing north on the southwest corner of Main Street and Summit Street, the mansion is a two-and-a-half story, Federal style house of yellow-painted brick load bearing construction. It has a hipped roof, roof balustrade, an Italianate style belvedere, paired interior chimney stacks and an elaborate fa├žade five bays across. Pilasters decorate the second level topped with a finely ornamented cornice. Meanwhile the entranceway is supplemented with a Roman Doric porch.

The mansion was constructed on the corner of Main Street and Summit Street to the design of John Johnson for a Burlington merchant, Thaddeus Tuttle, in 1804 on 80 acres of land. Tuttle was a chief supplier of lumber to the Quebec market. Ironically in 1804 much of the Vermont landscape was in the process of being stripped bare of its trees that would take generations to restore. The property was initially a part of larger holdings of Ira Allen, founder of the University of Vermont and a leader of the Green Mountain Boys with his brother Ethan Allen during the American Revolution. Ira had claimed that he had been swindled out of the land by Tuttle while he, Ira, was abroad for five years attempting to obtain funding for a canal for the newly-formed state connecting Lake Champlain and St. Lawrence River. (1) Tuttle obtained the property indirectly, but it’s been noted that he played a part in the seizing of the property by falsifying land records to make his title good. (2)

In 1824 Tuttle met some financial difficulty and sold the mansion to Cornelius Van Ness, then the eighth governor of Vermont serving his second term. In 1825 Van Ness entertained Marquis de La Fayette, the prominent French general in the American Revolutionary War, at Grasse Mount after the aging military officer laid the cornerstone of the University’s oldest building, now known as Old Mill. (3) The extravagant open house was afterwards talked about for years and Lafayette’s statue at the north end of the University Green commemorates the visit. (4)

Governor Van Ness was also an ambassador to Spain from 1829 to 1840. During his long absence, the house was occupied by banker and diplomat Herman Allen, a nephew of Ira Allen. Records indicate that Mrs. Allen named the house “Grasse Mount” to honor a friend of La Fayette, the Count de Grass, a Rear Admiral of the French Navy who defeated the British fleet in the Chesapeake Bay in 1781 as it was trying to reach General Cornwallis at Yorktown. During the occupancy of both Van Ness and Allen there were little alterations to the house. (5)

In July 1845 the governor sold the estate to an attorney, Henry Leavenworth, who divided the land into housing lots. The mansion and property was then sold in March 1853 to Captain Charles Marvin, a retired naval captain and merchant who made his fortune in the gold rush of 1849, for twelve thousand dollars. Marvin was married to a local woman, Ellen Blackman.  The seafarer felt a need to demonstrate his worldliness and spent ten thousand dollars on hiring artisans to decorate the interior. Paintings of shields, moldings, cornices and other trompe l’oeil paintings filled many walls and ceilings of the mansion. Murals of old European ports recalled his earlier adventurous life out at sea. The most dramatic element added to the house was the addition of the Italianate belvedere on the hipped roof. Giving a clear view to Lake Champlain and the Adirondack Mountains, this feature gives Grasse Mount its Italianate-style that catches the eye of any passerby. Lastly a gas illumination system was installed that modernized the home to meet the needs for the Marvin family. (6)

Captain Marvin spent only ten years at Grasse Mount until his wanderlust propelled him to move his family back to California in 1866. Lawrence Barnes purchased the property on April 7th of that same year.  By this time, the land comprised only of what was contained in the block formed by Willard, Prospect, Summit, and Main Streets. Captain Marvin received thirty-five thousand dollars for the property. (7) Mr. Barne’s wealth from his Burlington lumber business and additional marble trade enabled him to afford the mansion. The Lawrence Barnes Elementary School in Burlington was named in his honor.

Grasse Mount, c. 1910. UVM Special Collections.

Mrs. Barnes was less than enthusiastic about Capt. Marvin’s aesthetic tastes of the interior. Most decorations from the frescoed parlors were removed, painted over, or were wallpapered. The new decorative scheme favored hand stencils of fleurs-de-lys, stripes, and other geometric motifs that were common in the Victorian era. (8) Mr. Barnes also nearly doubled the house’s size by adding the conservatory on the west end of the building as well as building a large ell on the southern end. Grasse Mount’s present appearance is the result of these changes. He further modernized the mansion by adding indoor plumbing and coal-burning fireplaces.  Lawrence Barnes died in June of 1883, and the widowed Mrs. Barnes lived there until her death in 1892. (9)

Grasse Mount c. 1930s. Photo by H.W. Congdon. UVM Special Collections

In the period between the deaths of Mr. Barnes and his widow, Edward Wells bought a portion of the southeast section of the property on which he erected his own home.  After Mrs. Barnes’ death, Wells purchased the remainder of the Grasse Mount property and sold the house along with two acres of land to the University of Vermont for $12,000 in 1895. The mansion then served as a dormitory for women students for decades. (10) Students housed there were very fond of the dwelling, and they even composed a song to honor Grasse Mount:

Spirit of Grasse Mount, come to us, we pray,
Roll back the curtain from the dusty past;
Show us the joys which follow you today,
Help us to keep your vision to the last. (11)

            Grasse Mount functioned as the girl’s dormitory until 1971. It was then converted to office space for Continuing Education on the first level and space for the U.S. Department of Agriculture on the second level. (12) The mansion was individually entered on the National Register of Historic Places on April 11, 1973. Later in 1985, renovations were underway that were the first attempt to rehabilitate the building’s historic significance. Kielman and Batten, a Burlington architecture firm, first studied its history in preparation of the renovation. Brian Powell, an architectural conservator from Boston, managed much of the restoration of Marvin’s murals and wall ornamentation. The general renovation costs amounted to about $700,000. (13)

South end of Grasse Mount with the Barnes addition of the conservatory and ell. Photo by Andrew Evick, 2011.

Text by Andrew Evick

(1) "Glamorous Grassmount," Vermont Alumni Weekly, 20 Nov. 1936, 7.
(2) Herbert Congdon, Old Vermont Houses: 1763-1850 (Peterborough, NH: Noone House 1968), 71.
(3) Jeffrey D. Marshall, Universitas Viridis Montis: An Exhibition of Documents and Artifacts Telling the Story of The University of Vermont (Burlington, VT: University of Vermont, 1991), 22.
(4) “Glamorous Grassmount,” Vermont Alumni Weekly. 20 Nov. 1936, 7.
(5) John Gittelsohn, “At Grasse Mount: A Picture of the Past Rediscovered,” Burlington Free Press, 14 Aug. 1985.
(6) “Painted on the Hill.” Lookout (Dec. 1986 - Jan.1987), 6.
(7) Pauline E. Burridge, “Glimpses of Grasse Mount, Part III.” Vermont Alumni Weekly, 10 Dec. 1930, 163.
(8) Gittelsohn, 5.
(9) Burridge, “Glimpses of Grasse Mount, Part III,” 164.
(10) Peter Carlough, Bygone Burlington: A Bicentennial Barrage of Battles, Boats, Buildings & Beings (Burlington, VT, 1976), 140.
(11) Pauline E. Burridge, “Glimpses of Grasse Mount, Part II,” Vermont Alumni Weekly, 26 Nov. 1930, 36.
(12) Carlough, 66.
(13) Gittelsohn, 5.