DOT’S DOWNTOWN BEAT: Montpelier Secrets and Getaways

DotsDowntownBeat

The State House “underpass” then.

The State House “underpass” then.

by Dot Helling

In the 1970s I often slipped out of town through the Statehouse “underpass.” The “underpass” was a one-way, narrow passage through a section of the building that housed the cafeteria entryway. We lost that shortcut when the State House underwent restoration in the 1980s. I remember being surprised by the likes of Margot George maneuvering the one-way passage in the wrong

The State House “underpass” now.

The State House “underpass” now.

direction, like she always did at the top of Hubbard Street and on Cedar Street. Nevermind those “Do Not Enter” directionals. “They’re so inconvenient,” Margot used to say.

Montpelier has many shortcuts around town, some hidden, some private, some very much tread worn. The latter includes the grass cut-over at the corner of State Street and Bailey Avenue. This shortcut became so popular that two benches were installed along the pathway. The property belongs to the First Church of Christ, Scientist. Other well-used paths created by pedestrians to shorten the distance from point A to point B can be found off downtown streets such as Heaton to Fuller and Loomis to St. Paul.

Favorite shortcuts of mine include the alley between the Zutano store and Bear Pond Books on Main Street, and the walkway on the east side of St. Augustine’s Church. The Main Street alley has been decorated over the years, sometimes with lights, currently with ball ornaments. It’s cool in there in the summer and scoots you around the foot traffic at our central intersection. The Church’s walkway has a flavor of elves, with funky residences, thick shrubs and a sense of being in the Schwarzwald.

Some downtown shortcuts have been blocked off, for example, the gate installed on the eastern end of City Center where we used to cross over from East State Street to School Street. There are many shortcuts off Barre Street across the tracks to Stonecutters Way, including the Cross Vermont Trailway. I miss using the railroad bridge from the Carr Lot to Shaw’s, a quick route from the Post Office to the other side of town. It’s closed now and dangerous. Use it and you are subject to being cited for trespass. Plans to erect a footbridge through there are in the making as part of our city’s bike path expansion.

What other hidden getaways does Montpelier have? The quarry in Sabin’s Pasture is a special place, although private and currently off limits. All of Sabin’s Pasture with its trails, stream, views and features is a natural playground. Hopefully whatever development lands there will maximize those features and allow residents to appreciate them.

We are blessed to have Hubbard Park and North Branch, acres of public paths, wildlife, waterways, and forest, with special attractions such as the Tower, the Seven Fireplaces, the Capitol path, unique benches and outhouses, the nature center and a community garden. Did you know the Capitol path concept was originally designed as a place for legislators to stroll and debate their bills? I don’t think the builders thought through the fact that legislators meet during the winter months and may not be fit enough to climb that path, let alone talk while they walk it. For the rest of us, it’s been a fabulous addition to Hubbard Park.

Hubbard Park connects with North Branch via a trail skirting the ridge above Elm Street then out onto the old city dump road, now called Finch Road. That route passes you by an old firefighters’ training area that includes a running track, now grassed over. There’s also a multi-station exercise trail in Hubbard Park proper and another one among the treed trails below National Life. National Life employees walk those trails to work, accessing them by stone steps from the corner of Northfield and River streets.

Hubbard Park roadways and trails provide shortcuts across town, for instance, from the Meadow to Hubbard Park Drive, and from there to North Park Drive and Community College of Vermont on Elm. Another municipal jewel is Blanchard Park, accessible from Monsignor Crosby Avenue. From its high point you can sit on a homemade bench and take in the Montpelier cityscape, which is especially beautiful under a full moon. There are other special Blanchard Park creations but you’ll have to go up there and see for yourself.

Our pedestrian river bridges provide great river views and are fun, such as the one along the bike path between the Vermont State Employees Credit Union building and Taylor Street. The Lane Shop footbridge by the waterfalls on the North Branch used to be a rickety wooden thing half the width of the current structure. It’s a quick and interesting way from the North Street neighborhoods to the Meadow and Elm Street, and a getaway from walking the streets. Below Franklin Street there’s a hidden landscaped concrete river walk.

Many Montpelier residents have magical backyards, porches and gardens, using creative gardening techniques and creating settings that give the feel of being in the country or in a private sanctuary. Secluded backyards exist in unlikely places. There are yards with arbors, statuary, meditation areas, raised beds and wondrous perennials, annuals and blossoming shrubs ablaze in different colors throughout the spring, summer, and fall. One garden includes homemade wooden cribs raised to waist-height, beautiful and back saving. Another garden includes spiral stairs to a flower-filled rooftop. Many are filled with berry bushes, bird houses, feeders and baths, waterfalls, solar lighting in shapes such as butterflies and hummingbirds that change color and even chickens, flamingoes, and the occasional tennis court or swimming pool.

Then we have our community ecospaces and pocket parks, the newest being the Montpelier Pocket Park on Main. There’s a pretty little one on the corner of Elm and Court streets. The rebuilt Peace Park along the bike path by the river has beautiful perennial gardens, sitting spaces, and a semi-permanent inlaid brick mandala in the grass to the west. A mandala is a Sanskrit spiritual symbol representing the universe. I found mandalas etched in the sand a few weeks ago behind the Vermont Council on the Arts, next to the visitor center on State Street. In previous summers I found mandalas inscribed in the sand among symbolic stone sculptures erected along the Dog River, behind the recreation field across from the city sanitation plant. Try walking a mandala. It centers you and tests your balance.

Cemeteries are great places to walk and learn secrets about our ancestors. St. Augustine’s Catholic Cemetery has an incredible view of Camel’s Hump and a path from its northeastern corner into the Murray Hill neighborhood, providing a quick scenic way for uptown residents to strut downtown. The Green Mountain Cemetery has numerous pet monuments. Both cemeteries are fascinating with centuries-old gravestones and interesting and curious inscriptions.

If you know the right people you can explore secret rooms in the many spires atop our Montpelier churches or in some of the old Victorian houses with turrets. Just keep those eyes peeled and your noses to the ground and you’ll be sweetly surprised by what lies off the beaten track, a part of what makes Montpelier “Montpeculiar.” More on that next time.

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