Fire destroys Brooks-Lackie house, but memories remain

Photos by Bill Revill, Lew Watters and Kaitlin O’Shea. Story follows.

By Cynthia Prairie

An uninhabited house in the Stone Village burns down. Although few residents have ever seen the inside of it, many are moved to grief. Within minutes of posting photographs of the smoking ruins of the Brooks-Lackie House – or Kelley’s Tavern – on the Telegraph’s Facebook page, comments began pouring in.

And once we posted Lew Watters’ spectacular photos of the fire itself by mid-afternoon Wednesday, Sept. 26, the emotions of a town that loved the white clapboard house – some dating its construction to the late 1700s – continued.

 “This makes me so sad.”

“What a waste indeed.”

“I loved this house.”

“Heartbreaking.”

While the building’s history is sketchy at best, and a few stories are questionable, it seems clear that it was built as a residence and expanded into a tavern and inn featuring a large 2nd floor dance hall with a springy floor. In the mid 20th century, the two Whitney sisters and their husbands converted it into a duplex residence.

Ironically, Preservation in Pink, a website dedicated to retaining the built environment, published a piece and an illuminating series of pictures (http://preservationinpink.wordpress.com/2012/09/30/abandoned-vermont-chester-depot-inn/) on Sunday the 30th, unaware that the building was lost in a fire on the previous Tuesday. It only took four hours for the huge home to burn to the ground. (See more of Bill Revill’s and Lew Watter’s works.)

Childhood memories

Cora Whitney Hokunson – niece of the Whitney sisters – remembers the long, white house north of the Stone Church because she spent many summers there along with her brothers. Coming to Chester – via Route 5 before Interstate 91 was built – was a long trip from their Connecticut home, but for Cora, it was worth it.

The 24-bedroom inn and stagecoach stop had been bought by her aunt and uncle, Virginia Whitney Brooks and Oswin Brooks after “Ozzie” returned from World War II. The Brookses had moved into the north end of the building and began restoring the property, refinishing the pegged wide plank wood floors, adding cabinets, repairing the crown molding throughout the building, “to what it had been instead of making it modern,” says Hokunson.

When Virginia’s sister Florence married Henry Lackie, the newlyweds moved in with the Brookses. Both Ozzie and Henry were accomplished carpenters, and when Florence became pregnant with a son – Stuart — the Lackies created their own apartment in the south end of the building.

Neither couple had a television set, “and I don’t remember hearing a radio. But they were the most wonderful storytellers,” says Hokunson. “Florence played the piano, we’d sing songs, play games. We were never bored when we were there. They could tell stories all night long.” Today, she and her brothers “talk about the wonderful times we had with ‘the Vermont folks.’ And that’s passed down to my children and grandchildren.”

Neither couple had a television set, “and I don’t remember hearing a radio. But they were the most wonderful storytellers. Florence played the piano, we’d sing songs, play games. We were never bored when we were there. They could tell stories all night long.”
Cora Hokunson, niece to the Brooks and Lackie families

Hokunson recalls the federal style front door with the fanlight windows that graced the center of the building. It led to “a big, beautiful staircase open on both sides” that went to the 2nd floor. She recalls that old wallpaper adorned that center hall. Neither the door nor the staircase was being used by either apartment, so that middle section was closed off with the intention of finishing it some day, recounts Hokunson.

“In the back, on Florence’s side was a long porch. On Virginia’s side, there was a screened porch.” Virginia’s home had three bedrooms upstairs and a third-floor attic. On the first floor was the living room, dining room and kitchen. Florence’s apartment was completely on the first floor and consisted of a kitchen, dining room, living room, two bedrooms and a family room, Hokunson recalls.

And both “Virginia and Florence had wallpapered all their walls with floral design paper that was quite old fashioned.” While Hokunson doesn’t recall any raised panels or mantelpieces in the house — neither of the two fireplaces was in the apartments, she says, “I do remember the windows in each apartment had such wide window sills that you could place plants on them or cool a pie from the oven, as people did then. I always liked that.”

Stuart Lackie says, “The house just seemed like home…It’s just where I lived.” It was a while before he realized that not everyone grows up in a two-story house that’s 125 feet long and 22 feet wide that has a 60- by 22-foot dance hall with a floor Cora Hokunson calls “springy.”

Lackie remembers that “if you got in the middle and jumped up and down, the floor would bounce like a trampoline,” and he recalls a neighbor who had attended dances there years before telling him that “if you were out of step, the floor would kick you.”

“If you got in the middle and jumped up and down, the floor would bounce like a trampoline.”
Stuart Lackie, owner, Brooks-Lackie house

“My uncles would keep their tools there and would use (the dance hall) sometimes as a workshop.” remembers Hokunson

Hokunson also recalls the beautiful furniture in the house: bedroom sets, a Revolutionary War era desk, dining room tables, chairs, cabinets. And the bicycle that she rode around Chester as a girl.

Lackie says the staircase was especially beautiful and there were tall shallow fireplaces with narrow wood mantels.

“Two years ago, we went through the house,” says Hokunson. “Vandals had … broken everything,” including a baby grand piano and the dining room tables of both apartments. “It was a mess,” she sighs. “People had stolen things.” She adds that there were cots set up in the house, indicating that squatters were living there.

“And now with the fire,” she pauses, “a sad, sad thing. It was such a special place to us. Thankfully no one was injured.”

 Historians weigh in

Museum consultant William Hosley agreed, calling the fire “demoralizing.” With a background in museum and preservation work, Hosley has spent 20 years worrying about the building and trying to gain access with no luck. Most of the buildings that you see in Vermont, he says, were built in the   19th  century or later. “The Rockingham Meetinghouse is an exception among probably 100” that were built before 1800 and remain, including – until last Tuesday evening – Kelley’s Tavern in the Stone Village.

“This was a very ambitious house for its time,” said Hosley, a presenter with the Vermont Humanities Council. “The building, I think, is from the 1780s. It could be earlier.” Hosley called it a “beautiful example of high Georgian design. The front door was a giveaway. Anything with a doorway like that should have been fantastic on the inside with raised panels and staircases, mantelpieces and corner cupboards. This was a great house.”

The detail around the front door is known as feigned rustication, Hosley added, where wood was used to mimic interlocking stonework. “It was an idea that was imported into the colonies in the 1730s. John Hancock’s house is an example. Newport, RI, and Boston have lots of examples.” This “high style” treatment, Hosley said, was going out of fashion after the Revolution. Still, he said, “it could have been one of the most upscale houses built in Windsor County at the time.”

Courtney Fisher, the late architectural historian who wrote the 1973 National Register nomination for the Stone Village, had called it an “unusual Asher Benjamin Builder’s Guide entrance,” referring to the early 19th century compendium of style written by an accomplished architect who was living in Windsor, VT, around the time of the construction of the house.

Architectural historian Hugh Henry, who grew up in Chester, isn’t convinced that the fancy doorway was original to the house. “That main entry may have been created in the early 20th century,” he said. “It was a Georgian house (built between 1720 and 1840) with four large rooms on each floor.”

He added that one indicator was that “the doorway on the second floor was completely different from the doorway on the first floor.” Hosley agrees that the house “had many additions and changes over the years.”

The second floor door to which Henry refers, appears in an undated photo of the building, opening onto the roof of a porch – or piazza as they were known in the 19th century, that ran the length of the building. The porch blocks the view of the first floor door – which might have given some clues about the origin of the feigned rustication.

But according to Lackie, it was his family who removed the porch in the early ’50s and the first floor door in question was there at that time. “That door was there,” he said, “My family didn’t install that door.”

The porch also lead to a bit of speculation that hatched a peculiar myth.

The stagecoach myth

In 1934, Evelyn Fuller offered a typewritten history of the North Village, including a brief look into Kelley’s Tavern. She speaks of the two large fireplaces in the building “among the largest that I have seen.” Then she offers this: “Upstairs, opening onto the roof of the piazza, is a door. Though no one is certain of its original purpose, it has been suggested that the stagecoaches of that day were high enough so that those who rode on top could step from them directly onto the roof. This might be true, because the door opens into a hall containing the stairs.”

Merri Farrell, a historian of horse-drawn vehicles who for 20 years was the curator of the carriage collection at the Museums at Stony Brook on Long Island, called the idea absurd. “In the hundreds and hundreds of pages of primary references that I have read in my research, I have never read any account of anyone getting on or off a stagecoach onto a roof.” She added that that is why stagecoaches were built with steps and ladders, “ways to get in and out and ways to get on and off.”

“Carriage makers,” she said, “were very sophisticated people. They did not expect people to jump from the house to the roof of the carriage (and vice versa) … remember, the stagecoach is attached to horses, not statues.”

“Carriage makers were very sophisticated people. They did not expect people to jump from the house to the roof of the carriage (and vice versa) … remember, the stagecoach is attached to horses, not statues.”
Merri Farrell, horse-drawn vehicle historian

Stuart Lackie also says he never heard the story about passengers coming and going from the second floor. But he added that his parents thought that the upstairs door was used for loading and unloading luggage from the stages and that a second door on the back of the house could have been used for loading things in and out of the dance hall.

Despite the history, for Lackie, growing up in the home evokes fond memories. The backyard was shaded with trees including one that had a rope to swing out over the Williams River where they would swim. “We kind of owned the whole area when we were growing up,” remembers Lackie. And every day when his father came home for lunch, Stuart remembers him taking time to play catch behind the house.

Lackie returned to his boyhood home on the Friday after the fire, accompanied by Chester Det. Matt Wilson. At that time, authorities had found no definitive cause for the fire and Stuart Lackie doubts that they ever will.

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About the Author: Cynthia Prairie has been a newspaper editor for 30 years, having worked at such publications as the Raleigh Times, the Baltimore News American, the Buffalo Courier Express, the Chicago Sun-Times and the Patuxent Publishing chain of community newspapers in Maryland. She and her family moved to Chester, Vermont in 2004.

16 comments on “Fire destroys Brooks-Lackie house, but memories remain

  1. Great story. And great pictures. Thank you! When I lived in Chester I was always curious about that place. Never learned more than I did from your article. Very sad that it’s gone.

  2. Wayne Sweet on said:

    Very good article on this historic structure. I had driven by a couple weeks before the fire and was commenting to my wife about it being such a historic building but did not know a lot about it. I do remember having delivering the [GRIT] newspaper there during mid-’50s but had forgotten their names until I read the article. Such a loss.

  3. Penny Cote on said:

    I love the story…thank you

  4. Cynthia Prairie on said:

    Hi Ron,

    Thanks for your comments.

    It seems as though you have misunderstood both what Evelyn Fuller and Merri Farrell have said. Fuller admitted that what she was saying was a suggestion. And Farrell never said that people did not ride on top of stagecoaches.

  5. I’d like to comment on the wagon expert’s opinion above. “Merri Farrell, a historian of horse-drawn vehicles.”

    We have at the historical society a circa 1909 photo of the stage in front of the Fullerton Inn. In that photo can be seen about nine people sitting on top of the stage. Other photos exist that show beyond any doubt that travelers did ride in the same fashion. While some coaches might have had ladders, in many cases it was easier to level step off the top of the coach. So much for that expert. I would be happy to forward the photo I mention.

  6. Lonnie Lisai on said:

    Terrific article Cynthia. I always wanted to see the inside of that house, to walk those same floors and steps that first generation of some Vermonters walked. So sad.

  7. Amanda Way Narconis on said:

    Thank you to the firefighters (so many volunteers!) who also protected my parents’ house during this horrendous fire!

  8. Amanda Way Narconis on said:

    Thank you for your article and information about the house. I have always loved the Brooks/Lackie house: afterall it dominated the view from my bedroom windows throughout my childhood. I often dreamed of dancing on the spring dance floor. I have fond memories of bringing our neighbors bunches of flowers I had picked, and was envious of Mrs. Brooks as she sat up late reading in her front window when I had to go to bed so I could go to school in the morning. I was stunned by the photo my mother sent me as it burned last week. What a sad loss for everyone.

  9. Scott Crocker on said:

    I wonder if the rope swing on the river is the one known as “the vine”? We used to all swim there. It was basically like Chester’s swimming pool at the time — trout, frogs and occasionally leeches. I’d bet that Paul Hazen could shed light on the place, the Stone Village was his ‘hood.

  10. Vickie on said:

    The house has been empty as far back as I can remember — I grew up near there and always admired it. I often wondered why anyone would just let it stand empty all these years, even if locked up. Terrible shame.

  11. Cynthia Prairie on said:

    Lew,
    Tell us more about what you remember of the gardens and the house.

  12. Cynthia Prairie on said:

    My apologies if this wasn’t clear enough. The house was owned by Stuart Lackie, who was left it when aunt and uncle and parents died. Abandoned? No. He had attempted to secure the property.

  13. What is the recent history of the building? Was it abandoned? Who owned the property?

  14. Susan McNeely on said:

    Thank you for your article. I loved that house and always wished I could buy it and restore it to its original splendor. I wished that the house could talk and reveal all of its memories. Thank you again for sharing!!!

  15. Having known Henry Lackie over the back fence and in his splendid gardens, but seldom in his house, your article captures the grace of those inside. Is there a book in all this?

  16. Mary Watkins on said:

    Thank you for the story about the house. Even more, thank you for telling us about the people who lived in it.

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