National Register Nomination Information:
Brooks House, on Main Street in the center of downtown Brattleboro, Vermont has been an historic landmark for travelers and local citizenry alike since it was built in 1871, designed by the Worcester, Mass. architectural firm of E. Boyden and Son in an ornate but relatively provincial Second Empire style with a characteristic Mansard roof. The brick building stands four and in places five stories high and has a frontage of 175 feet on Main Street, and, at an angle, 120 feet on High Street; it remains to this day the largest commercial structure in Brattleboro. It is 70 feet deep and forms a modified "L"-shape which might be called a "spread L," as High Street meets Main Street at a wide angle.
The central block fronting Main Street is 25 bays wide, with the central 8 bays supporting a decked mansard-roofed 5th story of 4 bays. At the intersection corner is a 2-bay tower also rising to a 5th story. The "L" on High Street has 10 bays. There are 20 dormers in the Mansard roof at the 4th story level, 3 dormers in the middle tower, while the intersection tower is dormered on all four sides.
The Mansard roof is shingled in diamond-pattern gray slate; the top two courses of shingles are alternating red and green slate; the roof has a broad curb or skirt of copper. The foundation is of ashlar monoliths of granite, while the framework is of iron, except for the roof, which is wood timbers. Originally a 90-foot long, two-story verandah of elaborate cast iron projected out over the sidewalk on Main Street, but this was removed in modern times. Also removed were iron trim railings and finials on the decks and ridges, so the building does not have the flamboyant decoration it originally had, but quoin-work in the brick bond on the sides of the center pavilion and intersection pavilion, and the fact that these pavilions project out slightly (the depth of one brick--length), contribute to the breaking up of the smooth facade into ornamental components.
The dark-red bricks, kilned locally, are noted for their hardness, in contrast to the bricks of neighboring structures which have deteriorated under sandblasting. The brick walls are 16" thick at the first and second stories, and 14" thick at the third. The common bond has no header courses at all. Marble is used in the exposed posts and lintels of the ground floor, and sandstone is used in the lintels and sills on the second and third story windows of the Main Street facade. Cast-iron corinthian columns are recessed into the ground floor facade between the bays.
The roofline is uncluttered by any chimney stacks. The building was heated by steam from a detached boiler room, still existing with its twin massive boilers beneath a pizzeria in the lot behind the building. Also to the rear of the building, but attached to it, are one- and two-story additions which originally housed the kitchens, bakery, servant's quarters, and livery stables. The brick work and corbeled cornices of these dependencies are identical to those of the main structure and thus suggest that they were original, although there is no documented proof of this. The rear elevations of the main building are without ornament, and the general prospect of the rear, with its dependencies, is drab and industrial in contrast to the front elevations.
The entrance lobbies and shopfronts on the Main Street and High Street sides are trimmed with posts and lintels of unadorned light marble, interspersed with dark thin cast-iron Corinthian columns. Although not completely load-bearing, these stones and columns suggest that the massive pile of the upper floors is resting upon an airy and delicate base. The stone trim also surrounds a carriage passage way which penetrates through the ground floor of the westernmost pavilion and remains today the major access for vehicular traffic to the parking areas in the rear of the building.
The spacing of fenestration is ingenious. On the busy Main Street facade, the 25 bays of double-hung 2-over-2 sash (original) seems crowded, but as the facade literally curves around the corner into the more relaxed High Street, the spacing broadens. Also, the segmental-arched lintels over the windows of the Main Street facade are of stone, while those of the High Street facade, although the same shape, are of brick. This distinction, perhaps merely intuitive on the architect's part, points up the differences between "urban" Main Street and "rustic" High Street. The second storey windows are taller than those of the third, giving an illusion of greater height and dignity to the building. The four windows in the intersection tower have true-arched lintels or tympanum pediments, as do the 8 bays on the 4th storey of the central pavilion. Those 8 bays also have keystones of lighter stone in their arches, giving them the effect of being the dominant windows in the facade.
Originally, the second and third floors of the "L" on High Street were a ballroom, 50' by 50' feet, its floor space unobstructed by any columns or posts, a feat of engineering for the time. As with extensive renovations elsewhere in the interior of the building, this ballroom has been partitioned into smaller office spaces in recent times.
The whole interior of the building was radically altered in 1970-1972 to convert the ground floor and second floor into a diversity of commercial businesses and offices, and the third, fourth and fifth floors into modern apartments. Virtually nothing remains of the original interiors. The original lobby of the hotel now houses the Burlington Savings Bank, and the unusual entrance bay, a "Deerfield Door" with characteristic vernacular capitals of the flat embossed "Corinthian type" found widely in the Connecticut River valley, has been replaced by the bank's modern entrance. All of the hotel's alteration was necessary to save the building from demolition and make it commercially profitable. But residents of the modern apartments, with their lowered ceilings and Formica furnishings, testify that the aura of Victorian elegance is still very much present.
As mentioned earlier, also included within the nominated property at its western edge the former boiler house which served the hotel. It is a small (approx. 20 x 30), one story brick structure which was substantially rebuilt as a pizzeria in 1971, including new brick walls and a mansard roof, to the extent that it does not retain any historical character it may have had. It is not shown on the enclosed map.
Brooks House was one of the largest hotels in New England, a popular summer resort, and a year-around meeting place for citizenry. Its verandah served as a viewing stand for majestic parades and afforded a view of activities along the entire length of Main Street. The hotel was famous in New York and Boston, and many elegant parties were held in the spacious ballroom. As a "stagecoach" and rail hostelry, it was a transportation center without equal for miles around. It is considered one of the finest extant examples of the provincial Second Empire style, once common for hotels and commercial buildings throughout the country.
George Jones Brooks, a native of Brattleboro, made his fortune as a dry goods wholesaler in San Francisco during the early days of the California gold rush. Homesickness brought him back to Brattleboro in the 1860's, and he commenced to lavish his fortune upon a number of public projects. Apart from the Brooks House itself, which was viewed more as an act of civic philanthropy than as a profit-making venture, he also constructed the Brooks public library as a gift to the town.
In 1869, a catastrophic fire wiped out the entire south side of Main Street bounded by the two principal intersections, Elliot and High Streets. Totally razed in this October 31st disaster were the Blake Block, originally a Federal style private house and later an inn with retail shopfronts, the Brattleboro House, the town's major stage house at that time, and other buildings.
In 1870, George J. Brooks bought most of this charred land from Charles Chapin (see deed, Continuation Sheet 10-1), and commissioned E. Boyden and Son of Worcester, a major commercial architectural firm of the time, to design a hotel in the then-fashionable Second Empire style. The style seems to have originated, in this country, in New York City, but quickly spread to smaller cities and larger towns throughout the country. Other examples then extant which were similar to the Brooks House were the St. Julian Hotel in Portland, Maine, Newton's Hotel in Woodbury, New Jersey, and especially the Towsley House Hotel in Waterloo, New York, which was so similar to the Brooks House in general plan and details as to suggest that Boyden & Son plagiarized it.
However, the Brooks House was considerably larger than any of these, and was quite possibly the largest Second Empire structure outside of New York City. Interestingly, in the same year construction began, 1871, the plans for the nation's two largest and "full-blown" Second Empire buildings, the City Hall of Philadelphia (John McArthur, Jr.) and the Executive Office Building of Washington, D.C (Alfred B. Mullet), had just been placed on the drawing board. These and other grandiose public buildings in the most elaborate French manner are similar to the Brooks House only in the most basic concepts of Second Empire, and hence the Brooks House and similar buildings have to be called "provincial" Second Empire.
The total cost of the land and the building thereon was in the vicinity of $150,000, suggesting that George Brooks spared no expense in making it a superior among the hotels of New England. For its opening, a prospectus was printed and widely distributed in an attempt both to justify the construction of so large a hotel in such a relatively small town, and to attract clientele: "The desire, so marked, of late years, to turn the tide of Summer Travel from the current of the European Tour, formerly so fashionable, to a trip among the Mountains, Valleys, and Sea-Coasts of America, is gradually producing the desirable result of causing to be provided for our home tourists the proper hotel accommodations. "It has been with the view of aiding in perfecting these facilities for home travel, during the coming seasons, that in the beautiful town of Brattleboro, Vermont, at the head of the Connecticut Valley, and amid the glories of scenery and healthful atmosphere of the Green Mountains, there has been erected a hotel building, which, in all its departments, is the equal of the best establishments in the Metropolis."
Although Brattleboro's population at the time (1870 Census) was only 6,000. the town was a major rail transportation center and was a thriving industrial community, home of the Estey Organ Works, and was also enjoying the largesse of its most-famous native son, Jim Fisk, the robber baron of the Erie Railroad. Contemporary newspaper accounts indicate that the Brooks House was a great success from the beginning and continued to have high occupancy rates until the middle of this century, when competition from motels caused its decline.
Every Main Street has (or should have) its dominant landmark structure, and the Brooks House remains conspicuous not alone because of its size, its central location at the principal intersection, and its aristocratic Second Empire style, but also because the combination of these factors give it a towering leadership among the cluster of also-but-not-equally impressive brick buildings of the nineteenth century downtown area. Brattleboro in particular, and the architectural preservation movement in general, are indeed fortunate that one man, Norman B. Chase, saved it from demolition in 1970.
Burt, Henry M., The Attractions of Brattleboro, Brattleboro: Leonard's Steam Printing House, 1885.
-----, Burt's Guide through the Connecticut Valley to the White Mountains and the River Saquenay, Springfield, Mass: New England Publishing Co., 1874.
Cabot, Mary R., Annals of Brattleboro 1781-1895, Brattleboro, Vermont: E .L . Hildreth & Co., 1920.
Child, Hamilton, Child's Windham County Gazetteer, 1724-1884, no publisher or location given, 1884.
Harrison, Victor B., "Brooks Was Once Elegant Hostelry," The Brattleboro Reformer, March 16, 1970, page 7.
------, "New Era Looms for Brooks House," The Brattleboro Reformer, March 12, 1970, page 1.
Hemenway, Abby Maria, Vermont Historical Gazetteer, no location or publisher given, 1891.
Houpis, John N. Jr., Brattleboro: Selected Historical Vignettes, Brattleboro: Brattleboro Publishing Company, Ltd., 1973.
Kristensen, John, "The Brooks House Hotel and The All Souls Church," unpublished term paper for Design and Conservation course, Cornell University, Fall, 1972. (Filed under "Hotels" in Local History Room standing file, Brooks Memorial Library, Brattleboro, Vermont)
Pomeroy, Rev. Frank T., ed., Picturesque Brattleboro, Northampton, Mass: Picturesque Publishing Co., 1894
DATE ENTERED: February 1, 1980.
BACK TO NATIONAL REGISTER PROPERTIES