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Past Perfect

Guiding the conservation of one of the country’s 11 most endangered places

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

Paul Bruhn’s office overlooks the Church Street Marketplace from 104 Church St., the building that housed his family’s business, Bruhn Office Equipment, when he was growing up. Bruhn helped found the Preservation Trust of Vermont in 1980 . He’s pictured in front of the Grand Isle Lake House, donated to the organization by Robert and Cindy Hoehl.

Paul Bruhn hasn’t strayed far from his roots. What he has done is continue to tweak them, to the benefit of us all.

Bruhn is executive director of the Preservation Trust of Vermont, which he helped to found in 1980. The list of properties the organization has helped since then — more than 1,500 — reads like a compendium of places that make Vermont ... well, Vermont. 

The organization’s story is much broader than preserving historic structures. The work involves, for example, a partnership with Mad River Glen to reconstruct and rehabilitate the single lift chair, an icon of skiing in Vermont; helping people in Starksboro establish a village store — so crucial to community life in small towns and villages; acquiring a geologic site in Isle LaMotte; encouraging large-scale retailers such as Wal-Mart to consider building smaller-scale stores in Vermont’s downtowns; underwriting publications that speak to the Vermont way of life; aiding community-supported agriculture or a group in Hardwick that, says Bruhn, with contagious enthusiasm, “figured out that if you’re going to have a good community and downtown revitalization project, you need a great small restaurant and pub that serves the entire community.”

Bruhn’s passion for his work makes perfect sense, especially when it comes to downtowns. He grew up in Burlington, where his family owned Bruhn Office Equipment on Church Street — in the same building where Bruhn’s office is today. “I used to hang out this same window when I was a little kid watching parades,” he says.

After graduating from Burlington High School in 1965, Bruhn studied at Fairleigh Dickinson and the University of Vermont. “I left without graduating, and just before they were probably going to throw me out,” he says with a grin. 

At the time, he was working for the Suburban List community newspaper and its founders, Proctor and Ruth Page. “I started out selling advertising at $25 a week,” he says, chuckling. “I was a reporter and took care of the paper when they were on vacation. They really gave me my start in life.”

That start included backing him when he launched Chittenden Magazine, a monthly publication he poured his life into from 1969 to ’73, including mortgaging his house for living expenses. “Proc and Ruth backed it for four years, and it was arguably an artistic success and not a real financial success.” He laughs heartily. “That was my real ‘college’ education.”

When the magazine folded, Bruhn found work with his friend Patrick Leahy, the state’s attorney for Chittenden County, as a consumer fraud investigator. A year later, he was tapped to run Leahy’s campaign for the U.S. Senate.

“That, obviously, was an amazing experience. I went down to Washington and served as his chief of staff for four years. I was 27, and fortunately lots of people took me under their wing and helped me through the intricacies of the operation of the Senate.”

Bruhn planned on staying two years, but lasted four, during which his interest in historic preservation grew. 

Returning to Vermont in 1978, he went into consulting, first helping to organize the restoration of the Round Church in Richmond. In Washington, he had worked with Leahy on obtaining federal funding for the development of the Church Street Marketplace. Back home, he helped put together the campaign for the required local 10 percent match.

Ann Cousins and Silas TowerReconstruction of the Ferrisburgh Grange is one of the projects supported by the federal Village Revitalization Fund, through the Preservation Trust. Silas Towler (left) is chairman of the Ferrisburgh building committee, and Ann Cousins works in field services and fund raising for the Preservation Trust.

When a group he had encountered during the Round Church project — the Vermont Council of the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities — decided to start a statewide preservation organization, Bruhn was hired to run it, “because I was available and inexpensive,” he says with typical humility.

The Vermont Division for Historic Preservation had provided a good infrastructure for preservation work in the state, having worked since the early 1970s on the state survey of historic places. More than 30,000 buildings and numerous historic districts are on the state register in Vermont, and 10,000 of those are also on the national register. 

Grant-making has been a piece of the organization’s work since the early days, starting with small seed grants of $250 to $500. Funding comes from various sources. In the late 1980s, the organization started the Fund for Vermont’s Third Century to encourage people to celebrate the bicentennial in ways that would last. It ran for four years leading up to and through Vermont’s bicentennial in 1991. 

In 1994, a special partnership was developed with the Freeman Foundation. “It would be impossible to overstate how important it’s been,” Bruhn says “We’re the nudge, the supporter, the enabler — and are lucky to have partnerships like this.” Funding from the Freeman Foundation has provided grants to more than 300 projects and played a key role in over $115 million worth of rehabilitation work, he says. 

Bruhn’s lively, creative mind, good sense of humor, and ability to inspire affinity have served him well in his chosen career. James Maxwell, a Brattleboro attorney and a member of the board of the Brattleboro Arts Initiative, has seen this first-hand. He was president of the board in 2000-2001, when the BAI became involved in buying the Latchis hotel and theater complex. 

“Paul is a man of wide comprehension as to the needs of downtowns in Vermont, and I would venture to say in the country as a whole,” says Maxwell. “Not only is his knowledge comprehensive, but he is a feeling human being, someone who resonates with groups that he works with and is of incredible assistance, not only in the nuts and bolts of how you go putting together a deal, but also how you move things along. 

“He is a congregator. Without getting up on the pulpit and giving a sermon, he is able to congregate people in a situation.”

This talent and Bruhn’s understanding of the benefit of being willing to change with the times have helped keep the organization strong.

He inspired change 10 years ago, when the organization entered a nationwide competition sponsored by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Mellon Foundation, seeking ideas on how to improve the delivery of services and the effectiveness of the historic preservation movement nationally. 

Vermont was one of two states whose submissions were chosen, says Bruhn. “We were selected for developing a program for providing field services, so instead of providing support to local organizations via telephone calls and some visiting in the field, we would hire two part-time people who would spend the vast majority of their time in the field working with local organizations helping them move their projects along.”

The Preservation Trust of Vermont received a significant grant — “It was $170,000, and that was 10 years ago,” says Bruhn — which provided full funding the first year, 70 percent the second year, and 30 percent the final year. 

The program so impressed the National Trust, it recently dedicated a $5 million grant it received to helping other statewide organizations establish their own field service programs.

Another big change came, says Bruhn, when Robert Hoehl, the co-founder of IDX, and his wife, Cindy, purchased the former Camp Marycrest from the Sisters of Mercy, then donated it to the Preservation Trust in 1997. “We had not owned property prior to that — hadn’t dreamed of owning property — but this was an amazing opportunity.”

The organization gratefully accepted and formed a partnership with caterer and former restaurateur and innkeeper Beverly Watson, who leases the property. “We use it largely for weddings on weekends during the summer. During the week, it’s used for retreats and training.”

A big turning point was in 1993, when Vermont was named an endangered state by the National Trust. This brought the issue of sprawl to the fore. “We became a much more visible organization,” he says, and work very closely with citizen groups and partners like the Vermont Natural Resources Council and Smart Growth Vermont on the issue of sprawl and the negative impact that big-box retailing can have on our downtowns and village centers and how they change downtowns. In 2004, the National Trust again named Vermont one of the 11 most endangered places in the nation.

Bruhn was the only staff person early on, and even today, the staff is small, with the equivalent of four full-time employees. 

The other full-timers are Elise Seraus, the office manager/administrative assistant, and Ann Cousins, who splits her hours between field services and fund raising. Bill Polk, the financial officer, works one day a week. Eric Gilbertson, who was deputy director of the Vermont Division for Historic Preservation and recently retired after almost 30 years, works half time in field services. Meg Campbell, also half time, manages the facade easement program, does field services in Bennington County, manages the website, and produces the electronic newsletter. 

Because he’s been with the organization for so many years, Bruhn says, “there are people who say, ‘Well, the Preservation Trust, it’s just Paul Bruhn.’ It’s not even close to that.” 

“I’ve always had a very strong, very involved board of directors who provide a lot of the direction for the organization.” The directors, he says, genuinely like each other, are very proud of the organization, “but that doesn’t stop them from having good disagreements and good debate.”

Elise SerausThe Preservation Trust has the equivalent of four fulltime employees. Elise Seraus, the office manager/ administrative assistant is one of the full-timers.

The secret to keeping a board active and involved, he says, is to have two-day board meetings four times a year. “In February, in the middle of a snowstorm, we went on a two-day tour around the northern part of the state.” He counts off eight towns (and multiple projects within them). “We talked all the while on the bus, a great discussion about what’s happening in Vermont, how the community’s doing, and this work — the support we try to give to local organizations.

On the importance of the organization’s downtown work, Bruhn is adamant. “I love downtown Burlington. I grew up here, helped secure funding for the Marketplace when I was working for Sen. Leahy; but downtown Burlington has become one that focuses on entertainment, high-end retail and tourism. We get that there are a lot of people in Vermont who need to be able to shop at a place like Wal-Mart, but wouldn’t it be terrific if Wal-Mart would be interested and willing to build a smaller-scale store in downtown Burlington? It would insure that downtown Burlington would serve the entire community.”

Bruhn pauses and takes a breath. “We’re not in favor of pickling Vermont,”  he says. “On the other hand, we’ve got to find ways to grow that reinforce what’s important about our place. It’s essential that we are good stewards of our place.” •

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