McKernon restored Vermont buildings to look their best
BRANDON — When most people die they leave a house and get a headstone to mark themselves in remembrance. Jack McKernon left hundreds of buildings all over Vermont: farmhouses, carriage houses, camps and barns, all meticulously redeemed to their former glory, or better.
McKernon died at his home in Rochester on May 28 at the age of 78. A man with a deep love for New England architecture and the finer things in life, McKernon changed the way Brandon looked, for the better as well.
The founder of the McKernon Group, a well-known building company in Brandon, McKernon arrived in the early 1990s via Sudbury, where he met a 20-year-old roofer named Kevin Birchmore. McKernon was renovating a 546-acre farm and needed someone to repair the slate roofs. Birchmore’s father lived next door and introduced the two men, and Kevin Birchmore hasn’t been out of work since. Chalk it up to Yankee ingenuity and a shared love of New England buildings and craftsmanship that propelled McKernon and Birchmore into partnership.
McKernon was 50 years old at the time.
“We pretty much built the business from he and I to 50 employees now,” Birchmore said. “Every place he went, it was important to him to fix things up and make it look wonderful. He always had a vision.”
But McKernon was not an architect in the official sense of the word. He just knew what he liked, and he liked building and architectural beauty. Birchmore said McKernon would often sketch out his vision on a paper napkin in great detail.
“We often joked that we built Jack’s houses off of napkins,” Birchmore said.
Many of those paper napkin sketches were realized along Arnold District Road in Brandon. That stretch of rolling pastoral road would look very different if it weren’t for McKernon, who rehabilitated the 140-acre Hill Farm, built the hilltop home of Brandon artist Fran Bull, and then realized the vision of a homeowner a mile down the road with the innovative Silo house. The dilapidated silo of a former barn was transformed into a library with a spiral staircase and spectacular view.
McKernon also bought the 10-acre parcel across from the Hill Farm and renovated the house there, as well. The intent was to run the McKernon Group from that location, but the business was growing too fast. Ultimately, the house became McKernon’s home for several years before he moved to Rochester.
In 1997, McKernon bought a number of buildings on the campus of the former Brandon Training School at the intersection of Arnold District Road and Route 7. The former institution for developmentally disabled children was built in 1915 and closed in 1993. One by one, McKernon and his employees renovated each broken down building he bought on 32 acres on the former Training School, including the former barn, which became the distinctive McKernon Group headquarters, in dark red with green trim visible from Route 7. The former BTS sugarhouse became McKernon’s forge, where the company makes hardware for the custom cabinets crafted in the wood shop, located in the former food service building. The construction yard is on the site of the former sewer plant.
McKernon was also a pioneer in building energy-efficient homes, well before global warming was a known threat. In the 1970s, he learned about urethane foam and started the very successful Urethane Foam Operations, or UFO, spray-on, rigid urethane foam for thermal insulation as well as blown-in cellulose.
By the early 2000s, the McKernon Group was very successful as well, and its founder was looking to help the town of Brandon. He has said in previous interviews that he was grateful to the town for the five years of tax stabilization he received after buying the Training School buildings, and wanted to give back to the town.
BUILDING UP BRANDON
By 2002, downtown Brandon had seen better days. McKernon bought the former Howe Scale Block on Center Street, and dismantled and recycled the buildings. When the new building went up, it contained retail shop space and Brandon’s destination French restaurant, Café Provence. Renowned Chef Robert Barral was looking for a space and worked with McKernon to create Café to include an open kitchen and outdoor plaza eating space.
Café Provence opened in 2004 and has since expanded to the space downstairs as well, which also houses a kitchen supply store and the Center Street Bar. Barral uses the street-level space for cooking classes and special events. A year later, in 2005, Robert and Line Barral opened the Gourmet Provence Bakery down the street in the Conant Block.
Ed Bratton has worked for the McKernon Group since 2001. It was McKernon who found the 100-acre parcel that Bratton and his wife, Deb, bought for their alpaca farm, Maple View Farm Alpacas. Retired from Sprint and wanting to make the move from Kansas to Vermont, Bratton said McKernon called and said there was a 100-acre parcel on Adams Road that he could see from his house on Arnold District Road.
Once they made the move, Bratton said McKernon suggested he work for the builder as a project manager. The Howe Block project was Bratton’s first assignment, and he was instrumental in catching Chef Barral’s interest in the property.
The Brattons have since expanded their business holdings to include the Vermont Fiber Mill in one of the Brandon Training School buildings, and Ed Bratton is no longer a project manager at McKernon. But he is still corporate secretary and safety officer, and he still sits on the board of directors.
“There will only ever be one Jack,” Bratton said. “He was a different character. He definitely had his way of doing things, and he always had a big picture in mind. Sometimes it took folks a while to understand what the big picture was.”
In 2011, McKernon retired from the business that bears his name, selling it to Birchmore and newcomer Justus Cameron. Birchmore said McKernon was satisfied with all he had accomplished.
“Jack did everything he wanted to do in his life,” he said. “He had an opportunity to do what he loved to do. Obviously, we will miss him here at the McKernon Group, because he was the icon of the business. He’s why the business survives today.”
McKernon’s passing was announced on the company website with the following note: “We will miss him in a very personal way, and our thoughts are with his family. He is most likely already sketching an energy-efficient beautifully designed home on the golden gates! That is the Jack we know!”
A celebration of McKernon’s life will be held at The Brandon Inn on Saturday, June 13, from 5:30 – 8:30 p.m. Guests are invited to stop by for a drink and a meal on Jack. RSVP to Judy McKernon at [email protected], or (860) 435-4809.
Memorial gifts, in lieu of flowers, may be made to The Brandon Town Hall Restoration Fund, c/o Dennis Marden, P.O. Box 182, Brandon, VT 05733.
Editor’s note: An obituary for Jack McKernon appeared in last Thursday’s Addison Independent and can be read here.
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