by Joshua Jerome
Around the turn of the 20th century, Barre was a hotbed of development spurred on by the booming granite industry. Throughout the downtown, old wooden structures were replaced with granite and brick, and helped to highlight the artisan craftsmanship embodied by Barre’s culturally diverse immigrant community. Many facades throughout the downtown have intricate architectural details and, in my opinion, are some of the most remarkable in Vermont.
One building in particular, the Miles Block, was described in the Barre Daily Times on December 17, 1898 as a beacon of “peculiar pride, almost akin to affection” as it described the granite block façade. Named after Fairfax native, David McDonald Miles, who after traveling the country finally landed in Barre and became involved with granite quarrying, coal storage and clothing. The newly constructed building became home to Homer Fitts new “dry goods” store where linens, china, draperies and clothing were sold by friendly clerks; later, a shoe store.
The building contained the city’s first elevator which was operated by a bellboy and was site of two accidents in the first few years. The first being nearly fatal when young John McKnight had his legs caught between the second and third floors. The second mishap, reported by the Times on October 13, 1905, injured one Joseph Judici and was caused when a prank went awry. After letting off a passenger “out of the elevator, he found his cage going up without his pulling the rope” and in a panic “stepped up to catch the ascending car and caught his toe and fell with his head caught between the cage and the wall.”
Memorialized in the lobby hall on the second floor today, is the door to the original cage elevator that McKnight and Judici sustained injuries from. Since 1898, the building has kept the same mix with first floor retail, second floor offices and residential units on the upper two floors. Today, the Miles Block is owned by Bill Patno and Brent Sleeper, proprietors of the Granite Financial Group located on the second floor. The business partners purchased the building in 2008 and as Miles had elevator accidents to contend with, Patno and Sleeper have had to deal with flooding.
Barre was the hardest hit in the May flooding in 2011 and Patno described the severity of flooding damage incurred by their building, “as I walked down into the basement, I could see files and paper floating down the hallway.” The May deluge caused massive flood damage to the basement of the building. During the reconstruction process, they found an old wooden walk-in cooler hidden in the walls. Months along into reconstruction, Tropical Storm Irene came through Vermont and while Barre was spared from the catastrophic flooding suffered by southern Vermont, the Miles Block saw flooding once more.
The extent of the damage was not as great as sustained in the spring, but it was enough to delay the recovery process and add to the cost of reconstruction. Almost four years later, the two have embarked on restoring the façades of the first floor. Beginning with the storefront of the antiques store, Grakles, the project began several weeks ago, but while peeling back the existing façade, one of the six 18-inch polished granite columns originally adorned on the front of the building was discovered. Although the column had lost much of its luster, it was decided to incorporate the column into the newly designed storefront.
Plans to redesign the southern end of the storefronts that include Next Chapter Bookstore and one available storefront space are being developed for next year and will match the style and design of the recently finished northern end. The façade is not the only part of the building that is getting a facelift. The office space available on the second floor is getting a new coat of paint.
Patno and Sleeper are contributing to the revitalization of Barre by renovating their façades to a more historical time period. These moves are enriching the aesthetics that contribute to the attractiveness of downtown Barre.
The writer is executive director of The Barre Partnership.