By MADELINE HUGHES
Falls Road resident Tom Tompkins grew up finding pieces of history around his house: a 1923 calendar page, a religious book from the 1800s, and an early 1900s school book.
Tompkins has lived in the home at 969 Falls Road since his parents bought the place in the 1960s. He even found a piece of concrete in the basement that had coal fused in it from when there was a coal furnace in the basement. He keeps it in plastic wrapping in his living room.
“Some people consider that junk, but it’s part of the house’s history,” Tompkins said.
He’s been collecting that history since he was a child, and it came in handy as his house is one of the 38 buildings along Falls Road being nominated to the National Register of Historic Places as an historic district.
With no regulatory effect, the register nomination essentially captures a snapshot in time of the historic buildings using photos and descriptions of the properties. Individual properties or collections of buildings can be added to the registry. Shelburne is seeking to add the Falls Road residential hamlet to the registry as a collective district.
The registry “is not regulatory,” Planning and Zoning Director Dean Pierce explained. “It helps inventory and catalog the town’s historic resources. You need to know what you have as a first step to protect things.
“Change can occur to these areas that might happen slowly over time, so we don’t see it until we look back,” he added.
Shelburne has a long history of preserving historic buildings, Pierce explained. The town plan emphasizes historic preservation, and in the 1990s the town established the Historic Preservation and Design Review Commission to bolster that work. The commission is currently working on the Falls Road register nomination project.
The commission also vets projects for the Development Review Board within the Historic Preservation and Design Review Overlay, which covers a majority of the Falls Road neighborhood. The town’s zoning of the overlay district delineates the regulations landowners in the area must follow.
“We just make recommendations in accordance with the guidelines,” explained Fritz Horton, chair of the Historic Preservation and Design Review Commission.
Horton has been the chair of the commission since it began in the 1990s. He sees commission members’ roles as “stewards of this place for our kids or someone else. It’s O.K. to have old or new buildings as long as it’s something you care about.”
It doesn’t mean every house will have shutters or other historic markers, he said, adding they have made positive recommendations to the Development Review Board of buildings with vinyl siding.
“Our commitment is to preserve community spirit,” Horton said. “The spirit of the history, the present and the future. The continuity from the past through to the future is important.”
That’s why nominating districts within the town to the National Register of Historic Places is part of the committee’s charge.
“People need to be aware of the built environment in Shelburne to know what we have to plan its future,” Horton said.
The original village
The nominated district spans both sides of the LaPlatte River on Falls and Irish Hill Roads consisting of 59 properties. Of those properties, 42 match the registry’s standards to qualify to be included in the district. That covers 24 buildings, 15 outbuildings and three mill sites.
The neighborhood also happens to be the first area developed in Shelburne in the 18th century. The buildings being nominated were constructed between 1760 and 1960, historic preservation consultant Brian Knight wrote in the nomination documents.
The current village core was developed later, around the advent of the railroad in the mid-1800s.
The Falls Road “district’s architectural cohesion is enhanced by the fact that contributing structures are primarily vernacular, wood frame Greek Revival and Queen Anne-style houses and outbuildings built between the mid-nineteenth century to the turn of the twentieth century,” Knight wrote in the project summary.
The 113-page document consists of stories and descriptions for every property in the district.
Tompkins’ house is known historically as the George W. Curry House. The registry nomination details how the house and an accompanying general store were built by George and Rhonda Curry after they purchased the land from Joshua Isham in 1852.
The general store and home swapped hands over the years, eventually becoming a liquor store in 1903 when George Peet purchased it. The home changed hands twice more before Tompkins’ parents bought the house in the 1960s.
Shelburne resident RJ Noonan’s house sits within the district. However, his house is not one of the conforming houses because it was built in the 1960s. Still, the red barn behind his house is part of the nomination because it dates back to 1890. The register documentation tells the story of how it used to be a slaughterhouse.
The documentation also sheds light on some of the first landowners in Shelburne. Ira Allen, founder of the University of Vermont and younger brother of Vermont’s most famous historical figure Ethan Allen, was among the first settlers. He owned much of the land, and his name appeared in the registry nominating document 24 times. The project summary also states that he ran a blacksmith shop just east of the LaPlatte River, with 25 Irish Hill Road as the possible address.
Shelburne’s history with the National Registry
The town was originally looking at preserving a larger portion of the Falls Road neighborhood, but settled on the current area because of the concentration of historic structures alongside the LaPlatte River where Shelburne’s first residents settled.
This registry nomination has been years in the making. Pierce said graduate students started documenting the neighborhood’s history, then the town received grant funding to continue the project, hiring Knight as a consultant to compile the information.
This is the town’s second district nomination. The first was in the 1990s when the village core was successfully added to the national registry. The first nomination was granted by the state, allowing the district to receive grant funding for projects. Horton said one example of those projects was the village’s sidewalks.
Parts of Shelburne Farms and Sutton Farm on Dorset Street are also on the national registry, as well as various individual properties. Registry nominations can be made as districts, such as the two prepared by the town, or as individual properties. The National Registry for Historic Places has listed more than 12,000 buildings, structures, sites, and districts across Vermont since its creation in 1966.
The town of Shelburne has been supportive of the committee’s work and historic preservation in the town. Horton pointed to a recent Front Porch Forum discussion about the brick building that is home to Village Wine and Coffee at the corner of Shelburne and Harbor Roads in the village.
“The interesting part is people popped up with comments about the value of the historic building and its present value to the community,” Horton said. He added that he hoped residents will get involved with the commission’s work.
Shelburne residents will be invited to information meetings about the project in February.