(Host) Today Vermonters place a high value on historic preservation, but it wasn’t always so. Commentator Chester Liebs remembers one man who influenced how we think about our built environment.
(Liebs) William B. Pinney died this year at the age of 85. Back in 1967 he became director of a somewhat sleepy government agency, the Board of Historic Sites. The Board cared for a small but important collection of state-owned historic properties — places like the Bennington Monument and the Constitution House. Bill woke things up by acquiring Mt. Independence and Chimney Point, and by building a visitor’s center in Plymouth to honor Calvin Coolidge.
But this was only the beginning. Congress had recently passed the National Historic Preservation Act to help states survey, for the first time, all their historic sites and nominate properties to a new National Register of Historic Places. Grants were also made available for promoting a then radical but simple idea — you don’t have to tear old buildings down or make them into museums. Instead you can reuse them and have something beautiful and economical to boot. Bill’s tiny board had been responsible for the protection of only State-owned historic sites. Renamed the Division for Historic Preservation, it was now responsible for all of Vermont’s historic places.
And these place desperately needed protection. Everything from railroad covered bridges to historic hotels were being threatened and Urban Renewal was decimating historic areas in Burlington and Winooski. So Bill, in his new role as State Historic Preservation Officer, went through a transformation along with his agency. He became a champion of all of Vermont’s cultural heritage. And once Bill Pinney decided to do something nothing could stop him.
Bill expanded survey and National Register programs. He battled to bring more Federal money to the state, including a 1.2 million-dollar US Economic Development Administration grant to restore over 100 buildings from Bellows to Burlington, as part of the nation’s Bicentennial. He also hired and mentored a talented professional staff. He made sure the historic as well as natural resources were protected under the state’s environmental laws. And he helped pass the Vermont Historic Preservation Act of 1975. Bill retired in 1983, but that law continues to guide historic preservation in Vermont today.
Bill always tried to do what he thought was right, not just what was politically expedient. In the mid ’70’s, for example, he stood up to the Vermont Highway Department when he asked the State Environmental Board to stop a massive road project thorough the village of Brookfield. Despite political pressure, Bill stood his ground. Finally, when Governor Thomas Salmon took a look at the project, he dubbed it “The Brookfield Massacre,” and the media went wild; Bill’s courage made saving Vermont’s heritage a serious government priority.
This May, the Preservation Trust of Vermont gave its first William B. Pinney Award, for government officials who demonstrate, quote, “extraordinary tenacity and willingness to really stick their necks out for Vermont.” The winner was State Senator Vincent Illuzzi for his legislative work to preserve Vermont’s heritage. Let’s hope the award, and Bill’s fighting spirit, inspire other public servants to have the courage to protect our beautiful state.
Landscape historian Chester Liebs is professor emeritus of history at UVM and founding director of the University’s Historic Preservation Program.