Gilded Age Glory
Vermont’s spectacular Shelburne Farms is a 19th-century landmark with a 21st-century mission
By James H. Schwartz | From Preservation | September/October 2010
There's a curve in the drive that winds through Shelburne Farms about a mile from the stone gateposts on Harbor Road. Rounding the bend from the east, the forest suddenly falls away, the vast expanse of Lake Champlain glitters at the base of the Adirondack Mountains, and "the big house"—an exuberant red brick pile capped by half an acre of slate roof—appears in the distance. It doesn't matter how carefully I prepare myself or what time of year I return, the view literally stops me in my tracks, the result of artful landscaping and Vermont's arresting natural beauty. But most remarkable is the fact that this 1,400-acre paradise survives at all, more than a century after it was imagined by Lila and William Seward Webb. That, quite simply, is nothing short of a miracle.
The Webbs (she was the granddaughter of Cornelius Vanderbilt) began buying family farms along the shores of Lake Champlain in 1886 and by the turn of the century had acquired about 3,800 acres in Shelburne. With these substantial holdings and a multimillion dollar inheritance in hand, the couple set out to build a grand country house and a model American farm. The Webbs chose Frederick Law Olmsted as their landscape designer (he'd soon be hard at work at Biltmore House, the home of Lila's brother, George Vanderbilt), and Robert Henderson Robertson as their architect. Together the clients and designers planned a carefully contrived "natural" landscape of forest and farmland as well as an elaborate series of houses and outbuildings.
And what buildings! Over the course of 13 years, they completed Shelburne House, a sprawling, temporary, Shingle Style mansion that the Webbs liked so much they encased it in brick; a mammoth farm barn that would serve as the center for all agricultural operations; a brick-and-shingle piggery; a sheep and poultry barn; an elevator-equipped coach barn for their collection of carriages; an extensive complex of greenhouses; a dairy barn; and (my personal favorite) the breeding barn, a masterpiece of engineering that encloses nearly 45,000 square feet of space beneath a canopy of gables, dormers, and a central cupola.
As I walk the property on a brilliant fall afternoon, Shelburne Farms seems like a rare survivor of the Gilded Age—a place that never suffered a day of neglect or a moment of deferred maintenance. Like the Webbs once did, local residents stroll on the well-tended network of trails and walking paths, each identified by a tasteful wood sign. I can see a group of schoolchildren heading into the immaculate coach barn to catch the community art show, and to the north a carload of guests checking into the mansion, now an inn.
But my sense that little has changed here turns out to be an illusion. Inside the inn, where a fire roars in the imposing fireplace, I meet Shelburne Farms President Alec Webb, the soft-spoken and self-effacing great-grandson of the founders. His quick history lesson includes quite a few surprises.
The glory days of Shelburne Farms were both extraordinary and short-lived, he explains. Within decades of its creation, the model farm was failing and the Webb family fortune, already punished by the Great Depression, was being consumed by the new federal income tax and the prospect of additional inheritance taxes. "By the time my five brothers and sisters and I were growing up in the 1950s and '60s," Alec Webb says, "the condition of the property was pretty poor. Shelburne House was faded and leaking. Our father had put all his energy into a commercial dairy, and he just couldn't put any resources into the original estate buildings. They were all on the edge of being lost." Most of the elegant outbuildings were being used to store livestock or farm machinery, and portions of the once-perfect roofs had rotted away or blown off.
Webb's father decided to reduce the size of the farm and sell a substantial parcel for development, ensuring his descendants a generous inheritance. But in 1969 his six children (all under the age of 25) came forward with a shocking proposal: Forget about us, they said. We want to save Shelburne Farms for future generations. We'll take our great-grandparents' estate and turn it into a self-sustaining nonprofit that teaches visitors about preservation and conservation, and emphasizes the imperative of sustainability. We'll save it by giving it away.
"Our father didn't agree," remembers Marshall Webb, Alec's older brother. "He tried to educate us about the folly of our thinking—he even brought up a lawyer from Boston to convince us we were crazy." But the siblings remained unwavering in their resolve. "The farm was a part of our souls," Marshall says. "We didn't want to be selling our souls."
For several years, the future of Shelburne Farms remained uncertain. Marshall Webb says his father refrained from addressing the issue. "During the one conversation he and I had about finances and the future he told me, 'I don't want to discuss this further.' " But when the senior Webb died in 1984, his children were ecstatic to learn that he had quietly changed his will—and left them the gift they'd hoped for. "To our complete surprise he had guaranteed that the property would be part of the nonprofit we'd envisioned," Alec says.
Vastly relieved, the Webb siblings welcomed the news. The full weight of their new responsibility was instantly apparent. There was no endowment. The farm was losing money on an annual operating basis. None of the siblings had a comprehensive model for moving forward. And to say there were "infrastructure issues" was a gross understatement.
So they agreed to start where Lila and Seward Webb had started, with the big house on the hill. They would pull down an outdated and dilapidated servant's wing, restore the rest of the hulking residence, replace the slate roof, and transform the mansion into a hotel. Once up and running, the Inn at Shelburne Farms would generate the revenue they needed to support a series of educational programs.
"The first time I walked into this house it looked like a beautiful woman who had fallen on hard times," says Martin Tierney, the Vermont architect who guided the restoration. "The interiors were in terribly sad shape, and the roof was an absolute mess." Because recessed gutters had failed years earlier, much of the water from the roof flowed directly into the cavernous basement. "I remember wading through six to eight inches of water in the pitch dark with only a flashlight to guide me. It was like a swamp down there," he says.
Restoration took more than two years and was supported in part by a grant from Save America's Treasures, a partnership between the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the National Park Service. Today it's hard to believe that the house was ever neglected (or considered such a white elephant that the Webbs' father seriously debated tearing the place down). The living room and library are filled with the family's collection of furniture and books. Banks of windows and French doors look out onto the west lawn and gardens, where a team of restorers is finishing work on Lila Webb's ornate Lily Pool overlooking Lake Champlain. Inside the dining room, the baronial marble sideboard that the Webbs used still survives, as does the tradition of serving meat and produce from the estate and local farms. I feel as if I'm a guest at a sumptuous country house, where I can wander around at will exploring everything from the billiards room to the estate's archives.
As a special treat, Tierney takes me on a tour of his favorite parts of the house, including a few of the 24 restored guest rooms (mine fills a tower with a stunning view of the Adirondacks). There are antique beds and mantelpieces, and traditional wallpapers—some reproducing patterns chosen by Lila Webb. The hallways on the second and third floors connect playrooms, guest rooms, and landings, with bewildering twists and turns reminding you that this was a family house that grew as more space was needed. Because the inn closes for the season in mid-October, the bedrooms are unheated (I found a huge comforter in my closet), although baseboard heaters do warm the modern baths. The only reminder that you're a hotel guest and not a houseguest is the generous wedge of wax-wrapped Shelburne Farms cheddar set out on the desk with apples and crackers and a welcome note.
Today, the inn is the core visitor enterprise for Shelburne Farms, a nonprofit, membership-supported environmental education center. The organization's mission, as envisioned by the Webb siblings in the 1970s, is "to cultivate a conservation ethic." Fourteen hundred acres of working farmland have been set aside for rural land use. The Shelburne Farms dairy produces award-winning cheese from the milk of scores of Brown Swiss cows grazing on the property. A forestry staff manages about 400 acres of woodland that are culled for heating fuel and used as open-air classrooms. And an extensive education program focuses on nature and agriculture, providing classes for families, children, adults, and professionals. "If we're successful here, walking the walk and talking the talk," says Alec Webb, "we'll create a sustainable future."
Webb estimates that revenues from the inn, property tours, and fees and tuitions cover about two-thirds of the $8.5 million annual operating budget. The other third comes from members, gifts, and grants for outreach and improvements.
And the list of improvements continues to grow. Three years ago, crews began to remedy dangerous erosion along the shoreline below Shelburne House, eventually dismantling the historic balustrade there to reinforce the bluff with rip rap, then cataloguing each baluster for replacement or repair. Alec Webb hopes that project will be completed next year—if the development office can raise another $300,000. Garden restoration continues, informed by historic photographs from the 1920s and '30s, and plans are in place to turn the decrepit dairy barn into a residential learning center.
There's so much happening here that it's tempting to fill the day with activities, but I decide to keep things simple. With a cup of coffee from the family's formal dining room, I walk into Lila Webb's luxuriant gardens, filled with roses and other perennials, plus a sprinkling of annuals that thrive in this lakeside setting. I descend the hill below the house and follow the road up past the dairy and into the striking farm barn, which now houses offices for educational and day-visitor programming. Here I find acres of antique beaded board, plus a state-of-the-art cheese-making operation and a bakery housed in the north wing. Visiting school groups are playing with animals in the courtyard, and a nature class is just convening in one of the meeting rooms on the first floor. With a map in hand, I walk south, along a paved road to the breeding barn to admire elaborate details Robertson worked into the gargantuan space, and stop to speak to one of the carpenters restoring a copper roof on a nearby estate barn. ("It's more expensive, but it will last longer than you or me," he says.) A rare sense of peace and beauty pervades the property. The views don't seem to have changed since Lila and Seward Webb first visited in the 1880s. Yes, there's more to restore and more to conserve, but the work continues with the traditional hallmarks of diligence and care.
"When we were younger it was exciting to think about getting everything here done quickly," Alec Webb says with a smile when we say goodbye on the terrace overlooking the garden. "But we've learned that generally these projects take longer than you think."
And Shelburne Farms has always been a work in progress.
If you think you've seen it all at Shelburne Farms—incredible buildings, a rich family history, some of New England's finest scenery—drive just a few miles south on Route 7 and spend the day at the mind-blowing Shelburne Museum, where I promise you'll say goodbye to all your preconceived notions about collections of fine art.
If You Go ...
Shelburne Museum, located on Route 7, about 20 minutes south of Burlington, Vt., opens each May and closes Oct. 24 this year. "A Tour of Two Country Estates" on Oct. 16 includes both Electra Havemeyer Webb's Brick House and the Inn at Shelburne Farms. See shelburnemuseum.org.
Shelburne Farms stands just to the north. The inn closes Oct. 18 this year. Walking trails are open year-round, weather permitting. For details see shelburnefarms.org.
The life's work of Electra Havemeyer Webb, Lila and Seward Webb's daughter-in-law, the museum is an idiosyncratic collection of 38 buildings—most of them historic structures purchased or built by Havemeyer Webb during the 1940s and '50s and relocated to property adjacent to Shelburne Farms. Today they're filled with thousands of prized antique objects—from quilts and textiles to tobacco store Indians, carved circus figurines, 19th-century weathervanes, Windsor chairs, and priceless Impressionist works by Monet, Manet, Degas, and Cassatt.
Museum Director Stephan Jost says, "Creating Shelburne Museum was Electra Havemeyer Webb's project of love. The historic buildings here often had distinguished histories, but were basically abandoned and in terrible shape. She saved and assembled them in Shelburne, saying she wanted to create a place where 'learning was a pleasure and not a burden.' " Within a few years, Havemeyer Webb started filling the restored buildings with her ever-growing collection of folk art and Americana.
Walking the grounds with Jost, I quickly discover the breadth of the founder's interests, and the audacity of her vision. In a few hours we explore a Lake Champlain lighthouse, dismantled and relocated here atop its own artificial reef, followed by an 1840s general store exhibiting tools and medical instruments. The nearby Greek Revival Memorial Building contains European antiques from Havemeyer Webb's New York City apartment, and downhill we find an 18th-century saltbox filled with period American furnishings. Before the afternoon is over, we've walked through an apothecary shop, a brick meeting house, an 1830s house overflowing with historic decoys, and a one-time distillery displaying the museum's renowned collection of quilts. "Our narrative of American history," Jost says, "is the story of vernacular brilliance. My hope is that visitors leave the museum with an appreciation for the range and variety of American artwork. What they have seen here is great art by everyday people."
For more photos, stories, and tips, subscribe to the print edition of Preservation magazine.