Noted architectural historian to speak in BF

Friday March 15, 2013

BELLOWS FALLS -- James Garvin loves old structures.

So much so, in fact, that the architectural historian authored a book on the history of northern New England’s buildings and is writing another about highway bridges.

It is information from these works that Garvin plans to share with an audience when he speaks at the Windham Antiques Center on Saturday. The event at 5 The Square is set to last from 10 to 11:30 a.m., with a half-hour discussion portion to follow.

The lecture, part of the Rockingham Historical Commission’s speakers series, is free and open to the public. Rockingham Development Director Francis "Dutch" Walsh said other lectures have covered topics such as plaster repair and historic wall coverings.

Walsh said he is friends with Garvin, who told him he would be delighted to speak in Bellows Falls.

Garvin told the Reformer he will explain to audience members how they can date their old houses and buildings based on the style, technology and workmanship used.

"You can tell a great deal just from physical evidence of a structure," he said in a telephone interview Thursday, adding that he hopes to pass information on to other people. The title of his 2001 book, "A Building History of Northern New England," will serve as the title of Saturday’s event.

Garvin said he started his career in 1963 at the Strawbery Banke Museum in Portsmouth, N.H., and until last year served as the state architectural historian at the New Hampshire Division of Historical Resources.

"In that work, I found that people are very much interested in (architectural history), especially people who have an older house or people who have custody of an old building," he said.

He has degrees in architectural engineering, art history, early American culture, and a doctorate in American Studies from Boston University, and is now an adjunct graduate faculty member in a new historic preservation master’s degree program at Plymouth State University in New Hampshire.

Garvin said he has known Walsh for years and worked with him on community development and historic preservation in Newport, N.H. He said he will also touch on the issue of the Vilas Bridge -- in which he, Walsh and the village of Bellows Falls have a shared interest.

Garvin said he is writing about the Vilas Bridge in his book about highway bridges, which he is putting together for the state preservation office and the NHDOT. He is unsure of when the book will be published but is now doing research by going through NHDOT files.

The bridge connects New Hampshire, which owns 93 percent of it, and Vermont, which owns the rest. The New Hampshire Department of Transportation in 2009 deemed the structure unsafe for pedestrian and vehicular traffic and closed it. The closure has become a hot-button issue in Bellows Falls because merchants say it negatively affects business, as it prevents traffic from flowing through The Square.

Members of the Bellows Falls Downtown Development Alliance -- an organization that aims to bring entrepreneurial prosperity to the village -- say they want New Hampshire to make good on a promise they believe was made in 1993. According to a letter written nearly 20 years ago by Charles O’Leary, the then-commissioner of the NHDOT, to Nancy C. Muller, then the director and state preservation officer for the N.H. Division of Historical Resources, the Vilas Bridge would be removed only under exceptional circumstances (natural disasters creating a serious safety hazard or another unforeseen situation).

The bridge was added to the New Hampshire Preservation Alliance’s Seven to Save list, which was created in 2006 "to focus attention and resources on significant historic properties threatened by neglect, deterioration, insufficient funds and inappropriate development in the Granite State.

Walsh, a resident of Chesterfield, N.H., nominated the bridge because nominations could be submitted only by people living in New Hampshire. He previously told the Reformer he was nominating the Vilas to ensure it remains a priority with New Hampshire. The bridge, a three-span reinforced-concrete open spandrel arch, was recently dropped from the state’s 10-year plan.

Christy Hotaling, a part-time employee for Rockingham, said she is looking forward to Saturday’s event.

"James is very knowledgeable in the field of American architecture ... This is an excellent opportunity for our community to learn more about the architecture that surrounds us in our day to day lives," she said in an e-mail. "We hope that everyone will leave with a greater knowledge and appreciation for how buildings were built, how building styles have changed over time and how to date structures."

Domenic Poli can be reached at, or 802-254-2311, ext. 277. You can follow him on Twitter @dpoli_reformer.


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