Historic buildings can make great incubators for innovation and the arts. There is no single broad formula that can be applied to instigate successful merging of arts and preservation. Some projects grow organically, some are the product of careful consideration of an institution, and others may be the result of a community coming together around a project they believe in. No matter how funding for these projects is appropriated, there is one common thread; these buildings make lasting impressions upon their community. The buildings themselves may even materialize as the defining features of a community or the pillars upon which the community organizes. But behind these buildings are dedicated groups of people who are their stewards. There is rarely a single individual responsible, but rather through the collective will of a group these projects can be completed.
Arts and preservation make interesting bedfellows. Both are often underfunded and contested, yet can have major positive impacts on the economic and emotional health of their communities. Though the combination of these two disparate fields, a powerful tool was born. Arts organizations have the power to mobilize a community; historic building preservation offers a sensible economic alternative to expensive new development. These groups working together result in powerful preservation projects with powerful positive impacts upon a broad community.
This paper investigates the recent history of several Burlington buildings that have been directly impacted by efforts of individuals, a community group, or an institution. The common theme among these buildings is that an arts minded organization spearheaded their development. The preservation of three Burlington buildings and their relationship to the arts is explored below: the A.C. & E.B. Whiting building complex (Howard Space) on Pine Street, the Flynn Theater on Main Street and the Royall Tyler Theatre on the University of Vermont campus.
The Flynn Theater is owned and operated by The Flynn Center for the Performing Arts LTD (FCPA).1 The events that culminated in the creation of the Flynn Theater commenced during the mid-nineteen seventies. The community, the city government level and the performing arts, believed there was a need for a mid-sized performance arts space within Burlington.2 The city had been flirting with the idea of funding a space themselves but the idea never came to fruition. While the city dithered, citizens’ groups such as the Lyric Theater Company decided to take action themselves. They recognized that the Flynn Theater, an aging Art Deco Movie theater from the 1930s, offered a great opportunity for a multi-use performance theater.3
A brief history of the Flynn, the Flynn’s grand opening was on November 26, 1930. It was the first ‘movie theater’ built in New England.4 The Flynn was designed by the architectural firm Mowll and Rand of Boston Massachusetts.5 The original owner of the theater was J.J. Flynn, he also was the developer who created and funded the plan for the theater.6 To understand the Flynn and why so much time was devoted to restoring the decorative elements it is also necessary to be aware of the architectural context and significance of the Flynn design. Movie theaters were still early in their building type development when the Flynn was constructed. The Flynn Theater is one of the last remaining Art Deco movie theaters left in New England.7 The theater has many elegant decorative features that were in fashion at the time of construction. Movie theaters were buildings of grandeur and important cultural buildings.
In 1980 members of the Lyric Theater Company formed the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts LTD.8 The goal of this organization was to raise enough money to become the owner and operator of the Flynn. The group was able to raise the required money through a variety of private backers. Negotiation for the purchase of the building began in 1980 and the sale was closed on July 1, 1981.9
The Flynn Theater restoration project was a major undertaking to be spearheaded by an organization as young as the FCPA. Andrea Rodgers, who held the title of project director, led this project.10 The FCPA enlisted the help of the Architectural Conservation and Education Service (ACES) program at the University of Vermont, led by Phillip C. Marshall. A comprehensive restoration plan was drafted by ACES that emphasized aspects of the theater that were deemed integral to its Art Deco design heritage.11 It was decided that maintaining the historical integrity of the building was essential to the success of the project. Points of emphasis for the restoration project were:
-To maintain the remaining original architectural elements of the theater
-To restore deteriorated features
-To document all decoration or feature, which during the restoration process must be destroyed or replaced
-To incorporate appropriate period decorations with contemporary design
-Any modifications of the structure and design must be as reversible as possible.12
The restoration project began as soon as the FCPA had access to the space. The project commenced smoothly until disaster decided to play its hand in January of 1982; the water sprinkler system froze, ruptured and then flooded the building.13 This flood at first seemed to be a major setback, if not the conclusion of the restoration attempt. The saying ‘‘All publicity is good publicity’’ became the saving grace of the Flynn restoration project. News of the flood spread and an outpouring of community support followed. The community reaction and subsequent support allowed the FCPA to raise enough money to not only fix the damage from the flood, but to finance several other stages of the project.14
This restoration project became a major boon for downtown Burlington. The Flynn restoration project was honored by the Art Deco Societies of America as one of America's ten most important Art Deco restorations.15 This building is a perfect example of what can be achieved with a melding of the Arts and Preservation fields. The result is a building, which has garnered national attention and is an important community organization.
“You can save a building but it is nothing without great programing.” - Andrea Rodgers
E.B. & A.C. Whiting Building
The E.B. & A.C. Whiting building complexon Pine Street in Burlington, Vermont is now commonly referred to as the Howard Space. It is the current home of an eclectic mix of artist and entrepreneurs and is an anchor building within the South End Arts District (SEAD). The Howard Space has grown organically since its inception in the 1970s. The mission of the building owners is to offer affordable malleable space to act as in incubator for small business development.16 The transformation within the building over the last thirty years has emulated the construction process of the building.
The Howard Space was originally built as a factory for the E.B. & A.C. Whiting Brush Fibre Company in 1902.17 The original building was just a small square, as the company matured and expanded productions, additions to the main building were constructed.18 The result of the unplanned building expansion is an amalgamation of different architectural styles with factory space needs. Construction of buildings within the complex was completed by 1960.19 During the 1950s the company had began to experiment with plastic fibers. The result of the successful experiments with plastic fibers was the company’s decision to construct a new building on the southeastern corner or Pine Street and Howard Street in the early 1960s. The new building and subsequent selling of the fibre company shortly thereafter resulted in the abandonment of the E.B. and A.C. Whiting building.20
The history of the E.B. and A.C. Whiting building complex is entwined with the Unsworth family history. Thomas Unsworth took over control of the E.B. and A.C. Whiting brush Fibre Company in the early 20thth-century. Upon his passing in 1950 the businesses and the building were passed onto his son Raymond.21 Raymond then sold the business in 1955.22 Raymond then proceeded to buy the E.B. and A.C. Whiting building back in the mid 1970s.23 Raymond then passed the building on to his children Kathy and Steven. The Howard Space Partnership LLP currently owns it.24 The Unsworth family established the Howard Space Partnership in 1999, to manage the Howard Space for the adaptive reuse of the building. Steven Unsworth is now the director of the Howard Space Partnership LLP.25
The Howard Space/E.B. and A.C. Whiting's revival in the mid-1970s contributed significantly to the business revival of the South End.26 Ray Unsworth was the person who instigated the new era of growth within the district. He saw the potential in the site and decided to develop it. His idea was not to build a new building that would require high capital investment but rather to change the building through small incremental improvements as necessary to keep the costs down. The Unsworth family has taken the “If its not broken, don’t fix it” approach to the building's stewardship.27
The building interior plan is reminiscent of a maze; this is a result of never having undergone a major renovation over its one hundred year history. During the conversion from large factory to small incubator space the building was modified as needed for each tenant.28 The building has been a hotbed for innovation, entrepreneurial spirit and artists for forty years.
Within the Howard Space, numerous artist and entrepreneurs rent studios. They practice in a variety of mediums, from fine furniture making, lamp repair, and piano tuning, to instrument building. This eclectic group of people defines the Howard space, and in turn the greater South End Arts community. The building has been a hotbed for innovation, entrepreneurial spirit and artists for over thirty years.
The future of this building complex is currently firmly within the hands of the Unsworth family. The Howard Space complex is structurally sound and faces no threat of demolition. The only conceivable threat to the buildings is the continued development of the south end of the city. Plan BTV is the city of Burlington’s development plan for the South End. The existing community has opposed many aspects of this plan. The story of this development has yet to be written, how this plan will affect the Howard Space is still unknown. Hopefully the building will remain a staple of the neighborhood. The Unsworth family is determined to remain stewards of the building well into the future.
Royall Tyler Theatre
The Royall Tyler Theatre is the home of the University of Vermont Theater Department. The Theater Department moved into the space east of University Place on the University of Vermont campus in March of 1974.29 At the time it was only to be a temporary home for the department; forty years later they are still there. The building was originally constructed to house the gymnasium for the university; construction was completed in October of 1901. The Boston architectural firm Andrews, Jaques and Rantoul, students of H.H. Richardson, designed the building.30
The conversion of the old gymnasium to a theater was a revision of a campus development plan finalized and then put into motion during the April and May University of Vermont Trustee's meetings of 1968.31 UVM was faced with the problem of how to accommodate the long-term growth of the university. Contained in the growth plan, was the approval of a $59,000,000 building program to be implemented between 1968 and 1976. The building development program placed an emphasis upon the renovation of existing buildings.32 According to this plan, the Arts programs at UVM were going to be placed in a large multi-department state of the art building specifically designed for the arts.
During the early 1970s the multi-million-dollar arts complex was a priority development, yet the money had yet to be apportioned. The Theater Department needed a new space. The departments current location of the Fleming Museum was about to undergo renovations of its own. The Military Arts and Science building (otherwise know as the ROTC building or Old Gymnasium), which was being vacated, was submitted as a temporary solution.33 The push to convert the gymnasium to a theater was spearheaded by Professor Edward Feidner.34 It was decided the renovated building would be named for Royall Tyler a scholar, university trustee and playwright who moved to Vermont in 1791.
The campus of the University of Vermont has traditional been a place where culture and social values are publicly displayed. The gymnasium has always been a place where these activities transpired: the opening of the gymnasium featured the Vermont Music Festival, often commencement ceremonies were held there and musical entertainment was commonly offered, dramatic performances amateur and professional have been held there. 35 During the first half of the 20th century UVM’s infamous Kake Walk was held at the gym.36 Vietnam protests during the 1960s and early 1970s were also staged in front of the theatre, at the time it was know as the Military Sciences Building. The building functioned as the ROTC Campus headquarters and it was deemed a symbolic gesture to hold the protest in front of the building.37 The protest escalated in the spring of 1972 after President Richard Nixon announced an escalation in war efforts. There was a multi-day hunger strike at the building as well as an occupation.38 The student occupation even damaged the building and helped to speed the removal of the ROTC offices from the premises.39 The conversion for gymnasium to theater was a part of the natural progression of the life of this building, formalizing the natural fit of the building as a cultural center for the University.
Previously, the building has been the home to many different departments; it has functioned functioned as the headhouse for the greenhouses, testing facility for civil engineering, as well as a research laboratory for the forestry and zoology departments.40
A conversion of the building for use as the Theater Department was a very cost-effective alternative to building an entirely new building. “A campus architectural gem could be preserved and put into worthy use while saving money.”41 Throughout the restoration process several elements of the building were deemed important to preserve. The planners took note to preserve the exterior of the building. The interior of restoration of the building saved the original balcony and the turned railing above the main floor.42 Many features of the original gymnasium were not destroyed or restored during the conversion to a theater, but rather covered up. The original gymnasium floor can still be viewed if one were to sneak a look underneath the seating risers. The Old Gym also featured an elevated running track, evidence of this track are still visible in sections throughout the auditorium.
The Royall Tyler Theatre currently has a very secure future. The Theater Department has adapted the building as permanent home. Over the summer of 2015, a ten-year restoration project was finished. The final phase of this project was to restore the auditorium seats to their 1974 installation condition.43 To fund the seating restoration, the University of Vermont promised $80,000 if the Theater Department could match this amount through their own fundraising efforts. Theater Department alumni did not just match $80,000, they exceeded it.44 The alumni association's support for the building though monetary pledges is an example of how the preservation of a historic building has helped garnered support from the community, guaranteeing its future.
All these buildings were at one point abandoned, tired, in need of restoration, or neglected. Each of these buildings was impacted by an arts organization. These groups successfully leveraged community support through arts and thus helped preserve the buildings they cared about. Large institutions, small community non-profits and private individuals have shown that they can all partake in preserving the cultural landscape of Burlington.
1 Burlington City Property Records, accessed at
2 Frank Kaufman, “Lyric Doing the Right Thing in Purchasing Flynn,” Burlington Free Press, December 13, 1980.
3 History of the Flynn, accessed at http://www.flynncenter.org/about-us/history.html
4 "New Flynn Theater Has Many Distinctive Features," Burlington Free Press, November 27, 1930
5 Phillip C. Marshall, “The History of The Flynn Theatre,” 1981, UVM Historic Preservation Program files.
8 Andrea Rodgers, interviewed by Neal Charnoff, Vermont Public Radio, September 18, 2009.
9 History of the Flynn, accessed at http://www.flynncenter.org/about-us/history.html
10 Andrea Rodgers, Grant Application, Cecil Howard Charitable Trust, April 1983, UVM Historic Preservation ProgramfFiles.
11Phillip C. Marshall, Flynn Theater Restoration planning study, 1980, UVM Historic Preservation Program files.
13 Thomas D. Visser, in discussion with the author, October 2015.
14 "History of the Flynn," accessed at http://www.flynncenter.org/about-us/history.html
16 Karen Unsworth, in discussion with the author, November 1, 2015. Also Karyn Norwood preformed a detailed analysis of the history of the E.B. & A.C. Whiting building complex in 2013; her work can be viewed here.
17 Enoch Bangs Whiting, writing on his life, Vermont manuscript files, Special Collections, Bailey/Howe Library, University of Vermont.
18 Insurance maps of Burlington, Vermont (New York: Sanborn Map Co. 1906, 1912, 1919.
19 Sanborn Map company, 1960 Burlington map.
20 Raymond Unsworth, personal memoirs, “History of The Whiting Company and Brushes and Brooms, 1998, courtesy of the Unsworth family.
21 Kathy Unsworth, in discussion with the author, November 1, 2015.
22 John Howland, “Doing Your Own Thing at the Howard Space,” Vermont Life, Spring 1982.
23 Kathy Unsworth, in discussion with the author, November 1, 2015.
24 Burlington City Property Records, accessed at http://property.burlingtonvt.gov
25 Kathy Unsworth, in discussion with the author, November 1, 2015.
26 Rhonda Phillips, Bruce F. Seifer, Ed Antczak, Sustainable Communities, Creating a Durable Local Economy (Routledge, 2013), 101.
27 Kathy Unsworth, in discussion with the author, November 1, 2015.
29 David J. Blow, “University of Vermont Green, ” Historic Guide to Burlington Neighborhoods.
30 Robert W. Chambers, “Royall Tyler Theatre Dedication,” University of Vermont Alumni Magazine, 54, No. 4 (1974).
31 Lyman S. Rowell, “Report of the President”, The University of Vermont Alumni Magazine, 49, No. 3 (January, 1969).
33 L.E. Benthuysen, “Revised Programs for the Fine Arts,” The University of Vermont Alumni Magazine, Vol. 51, No. 3 (June, 1971).
35 Robert W. Chambers, “Royall Tyler Theatre Dedication,” University of Vermont Alumni Magazine, 54, No. 4.
36 L. L. McAllester, “32 Annual Kake Walk at the University of Vermont”, February 1929, accessed though Special Collections at the University of Vermont.
37 Forrest Patrick Orr, in discussion with the author, October 15, 2015.
38 Jeri Covey, “S.A. Senate Supports Strike; Constituent Response Limited,” Vermont Cynic, April 27, 1972 No.12; Burlington Free Press article.
39 "Occupancy of ROTC Offices Ends," Burlington Free Press, May 15, 1971.
40 Lyman S. Rowell, “Report of the President,” University of Vermont Alumni Magazine, 49, No. 3 (January, 1969).
41 Robert W. Chambers, “Royall Tyler Theatre Dedication,” University of Vermont Alumni Magazine, 54, No. 4.
42 Robert W. Chambers, “The Fine Arts Project,” University of Vermont Alumni Magazine, Vol. 53, No. 3 (February 1973).
43 American Seating Company, Royall Tyler Theater plan, June 29, 1974.
44 Forrest Patrick Orr, in discussion with the author, October 15, 2015. Also, Melissa Smith performed a detailed analysis of the Royall Tyler Theater in 2011; her work can be viewed by here.