CSAC marks bicentennial of 89 Main, Phelps family
MIDDLEBURY — A quick quiz on Middlebury history:
• Who were Samuel Sheather Phelps and his son Edward J. Phelps?
• What makes 89 Main St. in Middlebury, the home of the Counseling Service of Addison County’s adult clinical services, historically significant?
S.S. and E.J. Phelps are, for most, not household names like the town’s distinguished founders and promoters — Painter, Chipman, Storrs and Battell.
But in the 19th century, the Phelpses were one of the most distinguished legal families not only in Vermont but also in the country.
S.S., born in Connecticut in 1793, moved to Middlebury to continue his law studies with the Hon. Horatio Seymour after graduating from Yale in 1811. From 1831 to 1838, he was a Vermont Supreme Court justice. From 1839 to 1851, he was a United States senator where he was respected as a vigorous debater, skillful advocate before the U.S. Supreme Court, and profound reasoner on the questions of the day — temperance, slavery, immigration, and the Mexican War.
Three of his sons became lawyers, most prominently Edward J., his first son born in 1822. Described in documents in the Sheldon Museum as “a man of fine carriage and proportions, of particularly graceful address, an orator of distinction, and a man of pleasant bearing,” Phelps, a Middlebury College graduate, was president of the American Bar Association, U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain from 1885 to 1889, and a distinguished professor at the Yale Law School at his death in 1900.
While ambassador, the personable and articulate Phelps, one obituary noted, became “the most popular American England had ever seen.” But his admiration of the English doomed his chances to be named Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court after the politically powerful American Irish told President Cleveland they would oppose his nomination.
Historians now refer to 89 Main St., built in 1813 for the merchant Thomas Hagar, as the Phelps House as it was the family’s homestead for 80-plus years until they sold it in 1906.
Lavius Fillmore, the house’s architect, was equally distinguished as one of New England’s master builders. The federal-style Congregational Church at the north end of Main Street, then one of the state’s largest and most impressive meetinghouses, was completed in 1809. His hand can also be seen in the St. Stephen’s Church and half a dozen residences for the town’s prosperous merchant and professional class.
In 1982, the Counseling Service purchased the building from Charles Brush, a Middlebury businessman. Today, CSAC’s adult clinical programs are housed in the building.
To commemorate the 200th anniversary of the construction of the Phelps House, CSAC has commissioned a historic display. The 32-inch-by-58-inch panel, designed by Danielle Rougeau, assistant curator of Special Collections and College Archivist at Middlebury College, includes 19th-century photographs and lithographs, contemporary images, and historical text.
The display will be unveiled at the Counseling Service’s Annual Meeting on Nov. 14 and then be displayed in several public venues before its final display at 89 Main St.
“89 Main Street has been a community landmark for 200 years. We are delighted that we can share its rich history with the town,” Bob Thorn, executive director of CSAC, said of the project.
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