© Shelburne Museum
Fall for Vermont
Architecture, art and autumn colours on the generous grounds of the Shelburne Museum
The English romantic poet, John Keats, called autumn “the season of mellow fruitfulness” and so it is, especially in Vermont. People flock here at this time of year to see the coloured hills and the piles of pumpkins at roadside stands, to get lost in cornfield mazes, drink cider and munch on cider donuts, and have supper in rustic inns after late afternoon walks on leaf-strewn mountain paths. To do the things fall urges our hearts to do by the simple cooling of the air. I‘m in Vermont and I could be doing any of those things, but I’m not. I’m in a small cottage at the Shelburne Museum just south of Burlington surrounded by gorgeous 18th-century American furniture. Most pieces emit the soft glow of polished wood generally associated with fine antiques, except this one. This chest is painted in garish pinks and whites and yellows.
The curator explains that most furniture of the period was painted — and usually in the brightest colours the makers of the time could find. He compares it with the sculptures of ancient Greece and reminds me that the clean white marble we so much admire now was also often originally painted in garish colours.
The cottage is near the first historic dwelling brought to museum, the Dutton House built in 1782, which the museum’s founder, Electra Webb, purchased and had transported to Shelburne in 1947. The site has grown considerably since and is more like a version of Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia than the museum moniker suggests. The lushly landscaped property spreads over 18 hectares and is now home to more than two dozen restored houses, barns, a general store, jail, stagecoach shed, lighthouse and a 67-metre paddlewheel steamer, Ticonderoga, that once plied the nearby waters of Lake Champlain.
The art of planning
I began my day with the astonishing collection of impressionist paintings on display in the Pizzagalli Center. Yes, impressionist paintings by the masters — Manet, Degas, there’s even a Turner — along with better-known American artists of the period. It’s one of the most diverse such collections in the US. Quite a surprise in rural Vermont.
Many of the works were acquired in the early part of the last century by Louisine Havemeyer, the mother of the museum’s founder, on the advice of the noted American impressionist Mary Cassatt. Havemeyer’s daughter Electra, grew up in the three-storey family home on 5th avenue in Manhattan and developed a deep appreciation for art and architecture from her parents. Sugar baron H.O. Havemeyer and Louisine were both avid art collectors. They bequeathed almost 2000 pieces to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which are now in the MET’s permanent collection.
As you stroll the grounds you can’t help but be impressed by the woman who had the vision and energy to put it all together. I wanted to find out more about her and, as it happens, it was easily done. After her death in 1960, her children built a substantial columned Greek revival house patterned on one she’d admired in Orwell, VT. They recreated six rooms of her 1930s Park Avenue apartment inside. No detail was spared right down to the large period photographs that show Central Park from the fifth floor windows.
Looking at art and antiques is inspiring, but also tiring and, if you brought the kids, and you should, there are tons of kid-friendly things to do and see, they’ll be getting restless by now. Check the map you received with your tickets and head over to the cafeteria housed in a building that’s appropriately painted barn-red. Wraps, good salads, passable coffee and a range of fruit are on offer. If you’re lucky, you’ll also find they’re grilling hot dogs and hamburgers on a big barbecue out front.
Afternoon and there’s still an awful lot to see. The Circus Building is a fun place to start. You’ll find it tucked behind the Ticonderoga steamer near the Round Barn. There’s a working merry-go-round too, but keep it a surprise or the kids will drag you there first thing and then be reluctant to leave.
The Roy Arnold Circus Parade is one of the most popular exhibits. The hand-carved wood circus runs 152 metres and has almost 4000 figures in it. Follow up with the 3500-piece Kirk Bros. Circus, a miniature three-ringer fashioned by Edgar Kirk between 1930 and 1956 using only a jigsaw and a penknife. Still not satisfied? Take a gander at the 500 circus posters touting events at the big top between 1870 and 1940. While you’re there, don’t miss the folk art. There’s even more of it at the Stagecoach Inn and the Brick House, including weathervanes, cigar store figures and scrimshaw, if you’re up for a bit of a trek across the grounds. Electra bought her first piece at age 19 and Shelburne’s folk collection is now recognized as the biggest and best in the US.
Having fun? Don’t stop now. Take the short walk to the Toy Shop and take in the museum’s 400 dolls made between 1760 and 1930. And don’t miss the 30 automata: large and (usually) amusing windup toys that can be as tall as one metre that also play music. Boys, young and old, will likely hanker after the American Flyer electric train making it’s way around the tracks. It’s just like the ones that circled so many Christmas trees of lucky male children before 1960. There are dollhouses too, of course, including Ramshackle Inn, a rambling place with an artist’s studio in the attic, and an English Gothic Revival home complete with decorated gingerbread eaves.
Hats, perfume or quilts your passion? Stroll through the exhibits in the attached building. The depth and history of the displays are stunning.
Time for “Ti”
Take a break now and return to the café for a snack. Pacing is critical at Shelburne. If the weather’s fine choose one of the many gardens and set a spell under a tree. The afternoon wears on and there’s still a lot to see. Now’s the time to regroup and check off any spots you’ve missed; the Blacksmith Shop, perhaps, or the Horseshoe Barn. Stencil House is certainly worth a peek to discover the full effect of wallpaper, without the paper, and a quick nip into the Apothecary Shop would clearly not be out of place. Save your strength, though, for a tour of the Ticonderoga, moored back near the entrance.
The paddlewheel steamer is spit and polished and looking its very best. Tables are set in the elegant butternut-and-cherry panelled dining room with its proud gold-stenciled ceiling. The ship was briefly a casino and it’s easy to imagine poker games going on here after dinner with whiskey and cigars.
The massive engine sits amid ship where big windows reveal huge iron rods and gears powered by two coal-fired boilers that move the ship up to 27 km/h. Climb the stairs to the top deck for a view of the entire museum property.
I attended a summer camp near here and the highlight of the season was a cruise on the “Ti.” For three hours about a hundred boys roared around the boat getting into every nook and cranny — especially those forbidden to passengers — pursued by an exhausted and increasingly cranky crew. It was heaven!
But time grows on, the maples cast long shadows across the lawns and the October breeze runs cold. Red and yellow and brown leaves accumulate in the dips and hollows. A good time to repair to a cozy nook and share a glass. Shelburne town’s Village Wine and Coffee Shop is just such a place (see The pleasures of Sherburne).
This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.