Many across the state spent Friday mourning the death of a man whose life’s work was preserving Vermont’s history.
Paul Alan Bruhn, executive director of the Preservation Trust of Vermont for nearly 40 years, died last Thursday of heart failure, according to the organization he helped to found.
The Preservation Trust of Vermont is a nonprofit group founded in 1980 that has worked to preserve numerous historic buildings across Vermont, such as the Vermont Marble Museum in Proctor, Pierce’s Store in Shrewsbury, the Old Stage Coach Inn in Waterbury, and many more.
“Paul’s legacy is, he worked to create space and shelter for community to happen in Vermont,” said Meg Campbell, easement program director for the Preservation Trust, in a Friday interview.
Campbell, who worked with Bruhn for 18 years, said he traveled all over Vermont working with communities to keep their heritage intact. “I mean, all over the state. It’s extraordinary, actually,” she said. “He did it with such humble dignity. It was never about Paul, it was always about the people of Vermont.”
Those who now manage the places the Preservation Trust has protected said it would never have happened without Bruhn’s effort.
When Tropical Storm Irene caused historic levels of flooding across the state in 2011, one place that was damaged and saved by the trust’s efforts was the Old Stage Coach Inn in Waterbury. John Barwick, the inn’s owner and manager, said Friday it was Bruhn and the Preservation Trust of Vermont that wrote a grant proposal that got the inn the funds it needed to get up and running once more. He said floodwaters damaged every car in the parking lot, and inundated the basement where most of the inn’s infrastructure was kept.
“He certainly had a feel for restoring landmarks all across Vermont,” Barwick said of Bruhn.
Right around the time he helped found the Preservation Trust, Bruhn was working to preserve the Round Church in Richmond, said Neale Lunderville, chairman of the board of directors for the Preservation Trust. The church is depicted in the group’s logo.
“His life’s work was the foundation of PTV, so he will always be with us in that way,” said Lunderville. “His values, his character, are written into all the projects and people he’s been a part of for 40 years. Our goal will be to find a leader who can build off Paul’s great work. We have a succession plan we’ve worked on as a board. Today we’re really focused on remembering Paul and all the great work he did.”
Sally Deinzer, manager of Pierce’s Store in Shrewsbury, said Bruhn was with them in August celebrating the store’s first 10 years as a co-op.
“He was looking wonderful, and that’s why for me this was such a shock,” she said. “He was talking about another good couple of years.”
Pierce’s Store opened sometime around the Civil War years, 1860 to 1865, Deinzer said.
“The Pierce family bought the store in the early 1900s, First World War period, and ran the store as the community general store until 1993 when the second generation, the remaining member of it, turned 90 and said, ‘I’ve done this long enough, I can’t keep doing it.’ But she knew how important the store was to the community. Her name was Marjorie Pierce,” Deinzer said.
Pierce wasn’t the only one who saw the store’s importance. Somehow, she made contact with Bruhn and he readily saw what she did. Pierce died in 2001 and turned over ownership of the store to the Preservation Trust on the condition the group would find someone to run it as a general store.
“So, after Marjorie died and the Preservation Trust took ownership of it, then they updated the infrastructure, new roof, plumbing, heating, septic, all that stuff, and then they put out a request for proposals for someone to come forward to operate the store,” said Deinzer.
That someone was a “very naive group of Shrewsbury residents,” Deinzer said, she being among them.
The planning phase took about a year, she said.
“In that period I was probably talking to Paul every day,” she said. “And there were times when I was just so overwhelmed, he was able to just listen and say ‘Have you thought about this?’ or just say ‘Yeah. I get it,’ and he’d calm me back down.”
Bruhn had a wealth of practical information on how to keep the store running, she said. He seemed to know everyone in Vermont, or at least knew how to reach them. Deinzer said she has no doubt people will carry on without him, but right now his loss is being keenly felt.
“It’s emptiness,” she said. “Who do I turn to? He taught me so much, and I just hope we learned it as well as he taught it. There’s nobody who has his knowledge.”
Bruhn was also instrumental in the preservation of the Vermont Marble Museum in Proctor and the creation of the nonprofit that currently manages it.
Vicky and Bob Young are members of the Vermont Marble Museum Board of Directors.
“Paul felt this structure, and the history of Vermont incorporated into this building, was a treasure that simply could not go away, so he undertook the fundraising to make it possible for the Preservation (Trust) to acquire the building and part of the collection and archives of the Vermont Marble Co.,” Vicky Young said.
Bruhn then reached out to the Youngs for their support.
“He was the driving force behind it from the Preservation Trust, he worked very hard with state and federal authorities to get it pulled together, to get funding for things like renovation work that needed to be done in the building over the past several years, he was the driver of all of this,” said Bob Young.
U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said Friday in a statement that news of Bruhn’s loss hit him and his wife, Marcelle, hard.
“He is one of the finest Vermonters I ever worked with, and one of the dearest and best friends we have both had, and we loved him,” Leahy said. “His work on historic preservation is equal to the work that anyone has ever done for the state of Vermont. Those countless success stories are preserved in brick, mortar, stone and wood across our state.”
Bruhn was Leahy’s first chief of staff.
“I watched with pride when Paul received an award from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and we both had the same message: Historic preservation is not a cost for saving the past, but a wise investment in the future,” Leahy said. “Paul felt to his core that we Vermonters have a rich legacy defined by our people, our history, our downtowns and village centers, as well as our iconic barns and covered bridges. Now he is part of Vermont’s legacy. We’ll never see another like Paul Bruhn.”
The Preservation Trust of Vermont posted Bruhn’s obituary to its website: bit.ly/0919PaulBruhn.