Bristol, Dar Williams a hit at preservation forum

BRISTOL — Singer-songwriter Dar Williams may have been the most famous person at the June 8 Historic Preservation and Downtown Conference at Holley Hall, but the host town of Bristol was the true star of the show.
On a fine, clear morning more than 250 historians, artists, architects, entrepreneurs and municipal planners converged on the “Gateway to the Green Mountains,” as Bristol markets itself, for a day of networking, education and inspiration. The goal was to help keep Vermont’s small towns vital through restoration of old buildings and streetscapes and planning for new infrastructure and neighborhoods.
While participants — including plenary speaker Williams — considered Vermont as a whole, Bristol clearly grabbed the spotlight. The welcome video, “Bristol: The Little Town That Could,” matched iconic imagery with village voices:
“Bristol really has the sweet spot,” said one resident.
“Just look around you,” said another.
“There’s not much else you can ask for,” added a third.
Those visiting town for the conference got the message.
“Bristol is an incredibly charming town,” Erica Roper of Brattleboro told the Independent. A transportation planner for the Windham Regional Planning Commission, Roper had never been to Bristol before.
“They did an excellent job with the town green,” she pointed out. “The trees, as well as the combination of the fountain and the playground, make it an inviting space.”
Roper wished she could have stayed longer, she added, but pointed out that if visitors want to spend more time in a place, that means the place is “doing a good job.”
Numerous Bristol locales served as shining examples of conference session topics and one earned special recognition.
Bristol Village Cohousing won a 2018 Preservation Award from the Preservation Trust of Vermont.
The award video traced the integration of the 19th-century Boarding House, Tomasi House and Peake House buildings into a planned community of 14 households — a collaboration among Bristol Village Cohousing, Vermont Integrated Architecture and Raycroft Meyer Landscape Architecture. (Click here to watch the video.)
“With its 21st-century vision, this community within a community enhances Bristol’s historic character by creating density downtown, preserving and restoring a late 19th-century streetscape and showcasing modern strategies for energy efficiency,” said the video voiceover. “Bristol Village Cohousing exemplifies the notion that honoring a town’s past helps keep it vital for the future.”
Jim Mendell, a resident of Bristol Cohousing and its marketing coordinator, was thrilled by the award.
“Our goal has been to preserve the iconic downtown streetscape and contribute to the economic vitality of Bristol village,” he said. “We are honored to receive this award and thankful to the partners who helped make this cohousing project a reality.”
After the award presentation, landscape architect Katie Raycroft-Meyer led 40 conference-goers on a lunchtime tour of the community, where she was peppered with enthusiastic questions from the group.
LOCAL LANDSCAPE ARCHITECT Katie Raycroft-Meyer (third from right) leads a tour of Bristol Village Cohousing during the Historic Preservation and Downtown Conference — which won a Preservation Award — this past Friday.
Independent photo/Christopher Ross
Another Addison County landmark, the Salisbury Congregational Church, also won a Preservation Award. (Click here to read more, and watch a video, about the church.)
The conference was organized by the Preservation Trust of Vermont, in partnership with the Department of Housing and Community Development, the town of Bristol and Bristol CORE.
Williams delivered the plenary address in Holley Hall, a building whose renovations also won a Preservation Award — back in 2012.
“The opposite of division isn’t unity — it’s collaboration,” she said. “Where do we discover how and if we can collaborate, where do we decide that we want to collaborate? We go to places called the Bobcat and Hatch and Hogback (Brewery) and the things that draw on our regional foods and our regional ethos and the history of Vermont having these public meeting spaces.”
Williams spoke about how to revitalize small towns, seamlessly weaving her music into the presentation, picking up her guitar every once in a while to play a song whose lyrics in some way illuminated her subject.
Though she confessed she is terrible at self-promotion, Williams did explore the “positive proximity” concept she developed in her 2017 book, “What I Learned in a Thousand Towns: A Traveling Musician’s Guide to Rebuilding America’s Communities.”
Positive proximity, she said, “is this experience of walking out the door in the morning and feeling that living side by side with other people is more good than bad. Yes, a tree branch is going to fall and you’re going to fight about whose property it was on and who has to clear it, and some dog’s going to, you know … That’s going to happen. But positive proximity is this way that we walk out in the morning and say, ‘What can I give to this town? I love this town, this town gave me something, what do I give back?’”
Summarizing what she has learned from her many visits to Vermont over the years, Williams added that “a lot of towns I’ve been to have taken history and woven that straw into gold. But what I realized about Vermont is that the straw is the gold.”
For Roper, Williams’s presentation was memorable not only for the engaging stories and music but also because it was “illuminating to see how our work is perceived by nonprofessionals and to see how people interpret the places we use.”
Local residents, businesses and projects added richness and depth to the conference.
A walking tour of Bristol’s green focused on its revitalization to improve the town’s quality of life.
The Coffin Factory segment of the Bristol Trail Network offered visitors a glimpse into how developing trails can integrate community, spirit, economic development and recreation.
A session on adaptive reuse highlighted a number of Bristol buildings, including the Deerleap Building (which began as a Packard automobile dealership), Howden Hall (which was built as a church), and Japanese Gardens (where Martin’s Hardware now lives).
A before-and-after lunchtime tour focused on Bristol Mill, Little Mill House and 11 Main St.
Downtown food and performance venue Tandem served as a model for a discussion about “Pop-up” shops and how they can lead to more permanent retail situations.
Artists were in full force, too. Representatives from ARTsight, Bristol Clay Studio, Art on Main and Yarn & Yoga gathered to underscore how the arts and creativity play an important role in economic development, and the Vermont Arts Council held a roundtable lunch on the state’s creative economy.
Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected].

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