Editor’s Note: This is Part II in a series examining the history and architecture of the Brantview dormitory on the campus of St. Johnsbury Academy. The 134-year-old structure needs $6 million of conservation and restoration work, which is set to begin this summer. This article will focus on the interior details.
While serving as dorm master for the St. Johnsbury Academy Upward Bound Program, the position gave me the privilege of living in Brantview for the summer and the opportunity to explore the rich details of its interior. Many of the boys who enrolled in the program said they felt like they were living in a museum. Like me, they seemed captivated by the endless exquisite details of Brantview’s interior, which provided a never-ending feast for the eyes.
As a visitor approaches Brantview, its imposing grandeur and castle-like appearance is moderated by its projected vestibule which, like an outstretched hand, provides a warm, welcoming feeling. The visual attractions of the exterior of Brantview arouse a strong feeling of anticipation for the visitor regarding what awaits them as they enter.
The gabled vestibule projects 12 feet from the north façade of the mansion. The massive granite steps with serpentine side-blocks welcome the visitor and contribute to the feeling that this is an extraordinary home.
The doors are set into a Richardsonian-Romanesque arch framed by two brick pilasters with terra cotta Corinthian style capitals on either side. Its bi-fold oak doors with Italianate arched class lights admit ample light, along with a window to the left and a door with a window to the right leading to the port-cochere, to illuminate the dark oak paneling.
The interior of the vestibule is 12 feet square with oak paneling and an arched coffered oak ceiling of intricate design. The floor is of red and black octagonal tiles. Once in the vestibule, the visitor faces the inner doors leading to the central hall. The inner doors are oak-paneled with beautiful brass hardware. They originally featured stained glass leaded windows designed to obstruct the view of the casual visitor into the main house. The delicate stained glass windows were replaced many years ago with beveled glass.
Once admitted, the visitor enters the massive central hall. It is 11 feet 7 inches in height, 24 feet wide and 60 feet long. Its size and intricately designed details on every surface creates a strong statement of what is yet to come. It leaves no doubt of the resources or social standing of its inhabitants in the community. At the same time its golden oak finish work creates a warm, welcoming point of entrance.
The central hall features a three-part design, which is evident in the walls, the ceiling and the fireplace mantel design at the south end of the room. The central hall is surrounded by golden oak wainscot of intricate design. The walls feature stippled plaster up to the height of the picture-rail which meet the door cornices. Above the rail, rising to the ceiling is a 12-inch band of low-relief plaster work of large scrolled leaves and rosettes. There are three pocket doors on the left side of the Hall, two single and one double, leading to the parlor, drawing room, and library. They have beautifully designed Renaissance frames. The pocket doors leading from the central hall provides an option for joining all of the formal rooms for entertaining.
The first section at the point of entry from the projected vestibule was clearly designed for entrance and welcome with the mid-section aligned with the drawing room designed for entertainment and circulation and the portion at the south end of the central hall designed for intimacy and quiet fireside conversation. Another section defines the grand staircase on the right side of the central hall. The large reticulated oak beams are major architectural elements, which in addition to segmenting the hall, help to minimize its length. From the center field of the ceiling hangs a large, six branch brass chandelier with six lights featuring acid etched glass shades. Originally adapted to gas lighting the chandelier has been converted to electric lights.
The floor of the central hall is oak parquet with basket-weave rectangles and a wide border of crisscrossing parquet panels. It provides an intricate design to capture the eye of the visitor.
The grand staircase defines the center portion of the left side of the central hall. The staircase rises two steps up to a landing and a 90-degree left hand turn. On the left of the entry point to the staircase is a tall ornate oak pillar of intricate design which rises to the first lateral beam in the ceiling. Beneath the handrail are two square-section oak vertical and horizontal balusters forming rectangles into which are inserted panels depicting low relief oak leaves and acorns. There were originally 24 of these carved panels, all containing oak leaves and acorns of unique design, which mirror similar acorn clusters on the exterior of Brantview. Based on iconographic symbolism the oak leaf and acorn represent longevity. The grand staircase leading from the central hall has a staircase above it leading to the third floor. The underside of the third floor staircase is paneled in oak.
Off from the great hall in the center portion is a hallway that leads to the kitchen. Just below the cornice at their ceiling level there is a small carved reticulated frieze which further embellishes the area immediately below the stairway assent.
At the south end of the central hall is a massive fireplace in an alcove defined at the ceiling by the third of the traverse beams which divide the central hall into three defined areas. Below the beam is an openwork truss supporting brass rods with rich velvet curtains that defined the area for quiet fireside conversation. The fireplace mantel itself is of three-part design, which serve as a focal point for the south end of the central hall. Its large firebox is cast-iron surrounded by a brass molding around the outer opening. Around this inner frame is a border of pressed verdigris copper with a sunflower and scrolled leaf design. The sunflower, being the iconographic symbol of happiness, also appears in the terra cotta friezes on the exterior of Brantview. The mantel incorporates intricate oak framing and pedestals backed by narrow beveled glass mirrors. In the center of this composition is a high relief gilded plaster sculpture of seven classically robed Medieval choir-boys singing. It is a copy of the Cantoria (“Singing Gallery”) by an Italian, Florentine sculptor Lucadella Robbia. The original was sculpted from 1431-1438 for the Cathedral of Florence. Above the Choir-boy relief there is a high concave panel with a design of leaves on a gilded field painted on canvas.
The central hall also contains two massive oak settees backed by large beveled glass mirrors. These were architecturally designed pieces by the building’s architect, Lambert Packard, in addition to a beautiful table which stood in the center of the central hall next to the grand staircase. Much of the intricate woodwork for Brantview was fabricated in the E. & T. Fairbanks carpentry shops.
The parlor is on the left of the front door entering the central hall from the vestibule. Despite the fact that it is a large room, it feels more intimate in size and proportion. The ceiling is magnificently painted in a complex design including a border of rosettes surrounding the central portion of the ceiling with rectangular panels painted with long gold leafed spears, tipped with gold pine cones with a sunflower at the center of each rod with bay-leaf crowns in each corner. The center of the ceiling is sky blue with triple scrolled leafy florets. The ceiling itself is a magnificent piece of artwork. Its design was inspired by the myth of the Greek god, Dionysus, the Olympian god of wine, vegetation, pleasure, festivity and wild frenzy. His attributes include thyrsus, a pine-cone tipped staff. He is always depicted with a crown of ivy. The sunflowers as the iconographic symbol of happiness were clearly included to unify the exterior decorative symbolic elements of Brantview with decorative elements of the interior. The room has floral wall to wall carpeting which creates a feeling of warmth.
The central feature of the parlor is the fireplace at the east end of the room. Its magnificent mahogany mantel surrounds a firebox with a gas log. The mantel is of highly intricate, complex design with a beveled mirror in the upper portion. The mirror is framed on either side by Corinthian columns with a delicate mahogany elliptical arch which unifies the composition. The decorative elements surrounding the firebox itself include acanthus leaves at the top of intricately carved pillars. The firebox opening is surrounded by a brass frame.
To the left of the fireplace is an intimate round alcove which occupies the northeast tower of the mansion. It has three long windows and an architecturally-designed mahogany settee. As the visitor reclines and looks up toward the ceiling there is a beautiful mural depicting cherubs on a sky like background with trailing swags of flowers. The alcove provides an intimate retreat for rest and meditation.
The drawing room on the east side of the central hall is located between the parlor and the library. This is the largest of the three formal rooms, which were designed for entertaining. As one enters the room, they face a large window at the end of the room with a faux fireplace positioned to the left of it and on the right is a flower alcove in the southeast tower forming an octagonal section at the east end of the room. The mahogany fireplace mantel is intricately carved with cornucopias on either side of a large beveled glass mirror. It was clearly designed to be the centerpiece of the drawing room. There are beautiful carved roses in high relief, acanthus leaves and ivy swirls. The firebox is of cast brass depicting birds of Vermont.
The drawing room adjoins the library on its south side and can be accessed through double pocket doors. There is a single pocket door leading from the library to the central hall and another at the opposite end of the room leading to the flower alcove. The room has only one large window which opens onto the octagonal porch on the south side of the mansion. The wood-burning fireplace in the library has a cherry mantel reflecting Louis XIV design qualities. By comparison, the library mantel is restrained in design. The area surrounding the hearth is tiled with brown tiles that have a design of coreopsis sprays in a lighter shade than the background. These tiles are surrounded with smaller ones which have a shell motif. The tiles surrounding the firebox are brown with a floral design in lighter shades. In the center over the firebox is a helmeted Roman soldier.
There is a mahogany L-shaped bookcase in the southeast corner of the room. It reflects Louis XIV design qualities and is intricately carved. The height of this room is diminished by a deep frieze below the ceiling highlighted by fruit-tree branches, leaves and fruit in iridescent silver. The ceiling is painted in the same design and colors as the frieze.
The dining room is on the right hand side of the central hall at the south end. It is a large octagonal-ended room with a magnificent coffered ceiling and a complex parquet floor. The main ceiling panels are painted with stylized classical vases containing small peach trees against a blue background. In the center of the ceiling there is an elaborate brass chandelier with four lights with globs and a central milk glass dome and light. Mahogany wainscot with surrounds the room. At the south end of the room is magnificent fireplace with a classically designed mahogany mantel. On the west wall is a large elaborate built in buffet. It is very large. It is a nine-part design being three elements wide and three high. It includes cabinets with beveled glass for display purposes and drawers in the base for linen and silver storage. The dining room has an air of stately grandeur and dark splendor.
The only remaining room on the first floor was the housekeeper’s room. A pleasant room with a fireplace surrounded by a black marble mantel. This room served as the law office of Col. Joseph Fairbanks during residence at Brantview following his mother’s death.
Clearly no expense was spared in providing Lambert Packard with extensive options in his creation of endless visual attractions in designing the interior of Brantview. His keen eye for aesthetics and the inclusion of symbolic design elements is clearly present throughout the first floor of Brantview which consists of the formal rooms designed for entertaining. From floor to ceiling in each room the decorative elements provide a feast for the eyes of the visitor.