Westminster takes over historic site


WESTMINSTER -- Both sides said it was a long time coming.

Ever since the Vermont Division of Historic Preservation found out in 1991 that the William Czar Bradley Law Office had been left to the state, there have been discussions about turning the historic site over to the local historical society.

The property originally was willed to the state by Sarah Bradley Willard in 1909, but her son, Henry Kellogg Willard, and grandson, William Bradley Willard, retained ownership throughout their lives. After William Bradley Willard died in 1991 the bank handling Sarah Bradley Willard's estate began working on the transfer.

In 1998 the Vermont Division of Historic Preservation took over the site with the intention of one day turning it over to the Westminster Historical Society. On Thursday, with a large group of Westminster Historical Society members looking on, the property was officially transferred to the town.

"We've been talking about this ever since we took title to it," said Vermont Division of Historic Preservation Operations Chief John Dumville. "A single building like this is hard for us to take care of from Montpelier. These smaller sites are often better cared for and interpreted locally."

The William Czar Bradley Law Office is believed to have been built in 1802. He was the son of Stephen Row Bradley, one of the first two U.S. senators from Vermont.

Stephen Row Bradley wrote the argument on why Vermont should be a state, and his son, William Czar Bradley, as agent for the U.S., helped establish the boundary between Maine and Canada at the end of the War of 1812.

The small wooden office, which is just down the road from Westminster Town Hall, was used by Bradley to both practice and teach law until he retired in 1858. The Bradley Law Office is one of three historic sites the state is in the process of transferring over to a local municipality or preservation group.

Dumville said the Legislature passed a bill last year that allowed the state to transfer ownership of the building and grounds to the Westminster Historical Society.

The state maintains ownership of major historic sites, such as the Calvin Coolidge homestead and the Bennington Monument, but Dumville said it made sense for lesser known sites, such as the Bradley Law Office, to be maintained and presented by local groups.

"I think it's good for everybody to transfer it to a responsible group that really cherishes the building," Dumville said. "Of the smaller sites, this is probably the most historically significant because of its collection and its uniqueness. There aren't too many two-room law office buildings still intact."

When the state officially took over ownership of the house in 1998, Dumville said he was one of the first non-family members to enter after he had to climb through a window because the lock on the door had rusted. The law office was entirely preserved, with papers and books strewn about and file cabinets filled with records. Bradley's hats were even hanging by the front door.

Many of the most important documents have since been persevered at the University of Vermont, but the office is still filled with historic personal objects.

"It's like King Tut's tomb," Westminster Historical Society member Karen Larson said. "It hasn't been touched in all this time. It's as if the guy walked out yesterday. His hat is still hanging there. Hardly anyone has been in it since way back. It's just great. "

The Westminster Historical Society has been largely opening the office to the public, working with the state, and Larson said the historical society is still figuring out when it will be open and how the society is going to care for it.

The historical society will have to come up with $1,300 to cover the real estate transfer fee and there will be costs associated with maintaining the office and grounds.

"We've been watching over this little building forever," Larson said . "We've been wanting it for a long time. We're really thrilled. We love this building."

Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at 802-254-2311, ext. 279, or hwtisman@reformer.com. Follow Howard on Twitter @HowardReformer.


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