The Corner of State and Main: A Love Story

The Kelley Building at the corner of State and Main in downtown Montpelier. Photo by Bob Nuner.

The Kelley Building at the corner of State and Main in downtown Montpelier. Photo by Bob Nuner.

by David Kelley

In 1978, I had been out of law school for two years and decided to run for Washington County state’s attorney. I lost the election. The day after the election, I had to confront the fact that I was broke and unemployed. In fact, I had sold my car to pay for a newspaper ad in the last week of the election. With no income or a set of wheels, I hitchhiked to Sugarbush and got a job running a chairlift.

That winter, I started picking up a few clients and began practicing law out of my living room. Sometimes, in the evening, I would walk down to the corner of State and Main and just stand there dreaming and admiring the old Hubbard Block. I thought the building had a simple, classic elegance—sort of like Audrey Hepburn.

The Cody family owned the building at that time, and for months, I wondered if there was some way I could buy it. My wife at the time, Candy Moot, was earning little more than minimum wage as a secretary at Norwich, and I was just barely eking out a living doing title searches. But I finally worked up the courage to go down to Cody Chevrolet and tell them I wanted to buy 2-6 State Street. That morning, I met with Don Cody, Bob Cody and Fred Bashara. I thought there was a chance they might laugh me right out of the dealership. Instead, they were some of the nicest people I ever met. They listened to me with genuine politeness.

Don, Bob and Fred said they had been thinking about selling the building, but they owned four other adjoining buildings and the parking lot out back. There was a central heating system that served all the buildings at the time, and they wanted to sell everything together. They said they would finance 75 percent of the price if I could come up with 25 percent in cash. So I asked them to give me a couple of weeks.

I then went to each of the businesses in the four other buildings and asked the proprietors if they wanted to own their stores. Three businesses signed up to buy three buildings. The business owners in the fourth building were close to retirement age and wanted no part of it. But fate intervened when one of my clients told me his brother had inherited some money and was looking for an investment. We sat down with each other and worked out a partnership.

I still didn’t have enough cash for my share, so I then went to see a wealthy fellow who lived in town and laid out the proposal to buy the buildings, with the understanding that if he became a third partner, I could buy him out in five years. To make a long story a little shorter, I thus began to move my office to the corner of State and Main.

The attic was empty, so I decided that would be my office. As I began fixing it up, I discovered that the attic was a repository for 150 years of Montpelier history. None of the beams had been sawed. They were all hand hewn. In the center of the attic was a huge bull wheel that had been used to hoist supplies up and down to the old dry goods store on the corner. There were two wooden signs painted black with gold lettering that bore testimony to the age of the building because they read “The Old Corner Store.” The signs themselves were obviously very old. There was a huge wooden tank that looked like it had been used to hold the building’s water supply. Underneath all the dust and debris, there were two old, framed railroad posters trumpeting cheap land in the American West. Then there were boxes and boxes of ledgers that had belonged to Timothy J. Hubbard and boxes full of files that belonged to an attorney named Harry Shurtleff. There were old gas stoves, some tools and 150 years worth of odds and ends.

From the land records and the old files in the building, we pieced together a history of the building. In 1800, three brothers, Timothy, Roger and Chester Hubbard, came to Montpelier from Connecticut. Chester married a woman named Julia Jewett, and in 1823, they had a son they named Timothy J. In 1825, Julia gave birth to a daughter, Emma, who later married a man named Anderson Dieter. Emma and Anderson had a son named Frederick, of whom Timothy apparently became fond.

About the time Emma was born, Chester built the building that now sits on the corner of State and Main, and for about six years, he operated the “old corner store.” His son, Timothy, or TJ, inherited the building when Chester died in 1832.

After Chester died, TJ’s mother, Julia, remarried a man named Clark, and she continued to run the corner store. TJ never married, but he appears to have been devoted to his sister Emma and her son Frederick. In one of the letters that survives, TJ thanks someone who tended his sister during her recovery from an epidemic in 1858. Another letter, written by Emma to TJ in 1870, is full of endearments like “My Dear Brother” and indicates that they cared deeply for each other. After TJ died in 1880, Frederick began helping to manage some of his property. Frederick died in 1944, and a few years later, the Codys bought the property.

The Hubbard Block has seen the best of times and the worst of times. The first winter I owned the building, I got behind in the oil bills, and the oil company not only refused to deliver oil but called every other oil company in Washington County and told them not to deliver oil to me. So each night, I had to figure out how much oil it would take to get through the next 24 hours, and then go down to the old Shell station on the corner of Barre and Main and buy diesel fuel in a five-gallon gas can to get the building and tenants through the night.

One morning in the early spring of 1992, I was having breakfast at the Coffee Corner, when suddenly we watched the waters of the Winooski come pouring into downtown Montpelier. For some of the businesses, the losses were devastating, but everybody pulled together, and we not only survived, we also acquired a deeper appreciation of each other as well.

An even more difficult time came on the bitter cold evening of January 13, 1998. An outpatient from the Waterbury State Hospital left Charlie O’s after it closed. She went into the Hubbard Block to get warm and tossed a cigarette into a recycling bin a law office had left in the hallway. The fire was horrific. It roared up the stairs to the third floor where there were four apartments. Without the help and courage of the Montpelier Fire Department, I believe lives would have been lost.

I looked at the ashes that morning and felt total despair. I knew the insurance policy wouldn’t cover the cost of rebuilding. As I stood there, Maureen Burgess drove by and said, “You’ll land on your feet Dave. I know you will.” And I believed her.

A few days later, the Vermont Division of Historic Preservation came and explained that, since the building was on the National Historic Register, there would be investment tax credits that would help make up some of the shortfall. Chris Turley, my banker at the time, said the Howard Bank would work with me if I was willing to go ahead with restoring the building. To do it, I had to cut back on my hours at work and act as the general contractor, but my principal client at that time, the Vermont Ski Areas Association, said they would keep me on the same retainer.

So we decided the building would be restored. The building was not only restored, but it was renovated with a sprinkler system, a central alarm, Thermopane windows and a host of other modern amenities. That was 15 years ago. It has survived for 200 years now.

The Hubbard Block survived the fire in 1998 and is an even better building today. Just like Audrey Hepburn in films like Roman Holiday or Breakfast at Tiffany’s, it, too, has been preserved, and hopefully, it, too, will be there for years to come, to charm more people who stand there on the corner on quiet evenings with empty pockets and lots of dreams.

 

David Kelley is a former longtime Montpelier resident and attorney. He currently lives in Ennis, Montana.