Our Neighbors: An attention to detail

Saturday March 9, 2013

Adam Gopnik once wrote that New York is "an inverted garden, with all the flowers blooming down in the basements."

He was writing about the city's jazz music scene, but the same is more or less true for Vermont in winter. Excepting the skiers and snowshoers among us, we exist inside. Our gardens lie barren or smothered. We live by the woodstove, in oven-warmed kitchens, consumed by pursuits that hardly anyone else sees.

But we bloom all the same.

In a corner of West Halifax, Howard Alboum steps into his studio just off the kitchen of the 18th century house he shares with his wife, Rose. It's a tidy room, warm and light, lined with books and tools and a small table saw. A line of brightly colored wooden fish hang from one section of the wall, and a set of small buildings, including a reproduction sugarhouse, perch on a high shelf.

Howard strides to a table near the far wall. "Well, here they are," he says cheerfully. "The churches."

Five buildings sit gracefully on the table. Pert weathervanes sit atop bell towers and clock towers. Arched shutters lie open along tiny, many-paned windows. Small stout columns introduce solemn doors.

"I've been building reproduction churches for three or four years now," says Howard, or Howie to friends. "Rose came up with the idea."

Rose, now working upstairs in her own studio space on a massive quilt pattern index project, thought Howie would enjoy the challenge of reproducing churches in miniature. He'd already worked in the medium, making small versions of outhouses, a sugarhouse, and their own historic home. Often he worked from pictures of old structures in rare books that Rose, a lifelong lover and collector of antique and vintage objects, diligently tracked down.

"So we decided, only churches in Windham County," Howie explains. "We'd drive to different ones and take pictures, and then I'd build them based on the photographs."

Howie sought to capture the character and feeling of each building, rather than focus on precise dimensions.

"They're folk art reproductions," he says with a smile. "But it's all handwork, down the the shingles! Each one is its own little piece of wood."

He points to the roof of his version of the Old First Church in Bennington. Indeed, the shingles are separate pieces of thin wood, laid in proper shingling overlaps, and painted a dark black-blue. He uses wood leftover from a New Hampshire furniture maker, and it's strong enough to withstand the thin widths and delicate notchings that building in miniature requires.

Howie's talent for precision and love of detail appears in each church. The weathervanes are made from real metal -- he was a silversmith and goldsmith before he started woodworking -- and they really spin. The Brattleboro Congregational Church includes the clock tower and the bell tower atop it. The stained glass windows, as they look from the outside, of the First Baptist Church in Readsboro, are visible.

He has recreated the many spires of Guilford's Christ Church. The dual chimneys and endless shutters of the Newfane Congregational Church are in their place. A petite sign outside Howie's West Halifax Bible Church even includes the name of the actual pastor, Mark Monroe, spelled out in neat Lilliputian letters.

"I build each one in sections and then assemble them," Howie says. He demonstrates with pieces of the in-progress Marlboro Meeting House. His blue eyes, clear behind simple silver-framed glasses, crinkle as he smiles. "What a lot of work it is!"

It's work, though, that he enjoys as much as Rose loves her immersion into quilt history and all things fiber. It's work they both feel lucky to do.

"We spend the warm months outside, taking care of the land." Howie gestures out the window at the rolling yard covered in snow. "Then in the winter, well, we call it our production months, when we do our projects inside."

The couple didn't always have such freedom with their time. For 33 years, Howie worked as an art teacher and then administrator in the New Jersey public school system, while Rose raised their four children. She also worked outside the home when the kids were older.

Somehow they managed to come to Vermont as often as possible, inspired by Rose's love of antiquing, of all things touched by history.

"We were at the Newfane Auction early every Saturday," laughs Rose. Howie has relocated to an easy chair in her wood- and wool-filled studio. They trade sentences and stories with the affectionate, lightly cranky back-and-forth of a couple married 50 years this July.

"So 20 years ago, we decided to retire early, at 55-and-a-half," she continues.

Howie jumps in. "It was a huge risk," he says. "A public school educator doesn't exactly roll in money."

"But our jobs were killing us," Rose says with formidable certainty. "It was too much. I wanted to be able to see the sun. I knew I would rather have time than money."

She knew as well that she wanted to realize her dream of living in an 18th century house. After looking at upwards of 50 houses, scouring the back roads for something they could afford to buy and rehabilitate, they chanced upon the house in West Halifax.

"It was a little tired-looking, shall we say." Rose raises an eyebrow. "But I told the Realtor that this house was ‘baby bear' from ‘Goldilocks.'"

She smiles and Howie grins, watching her. The beauty and the reward of their long marriage float on those smiles: to be with someone who knows all your stories and likes you still, who can see where you might thrive and helps you get there, who takes pleasure in your discovery and your success.

"It was just right," she says.

They talk a bit longer, about their travels, their children, the house, the transition from life in New Jersey to life in Vermont, Rose's 60-plus collections of antique and vintage items and Howie's mild incredulity at each new acquisition, Howie's work with the Whitingham-Halifax Lions Club, the state of government and education and taxes and quilts and art shows and Halifax and snow.

Then each returns to work. Howie bends to the little clapboards of the Marlboro Meeting House. He'll place one at a time, carefully and cheerfully, making a new and beautiful thing to offer up in this time when we live and bloom inside.


Howard Alboum's folk art reproductions of Windham County churches is on display at the People's United Bank in Wilmington. To learn more about his work, contact him at 802-368-2795 or stonhavn@yahoo.com.

Becky Karush is a regular contributor to the Reformer. To suggest people for this column, write to her at reformer.ourneighbors@gmail.com.


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