Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Herman Melville slept here: The Van Ness House in Burlington, Vermont

The Van Ness House, Burlington, VT

From the Burlington [Vermont] Daily Free Press and Times, Friday Evening, August 1, 1873:


F. B. Perkins of Boston, and Herman Melville of New York, are among the guests of the Van Ness House.
Found on 
The same item appeared in the morning edition of the Burlington Free Press on Saturday, August 2, 1873. The Van Ness House in Burlington, Vermont had opened on October 25, 1870, so it was still a new hotel. As shown in later photographs, the oldest section featured the
"two-story frame verandah wrapping the corner of Main and St. Paul Streets." --University of Vermont - Historic Preservation Program

F. B. Perkins is Boston librarian Frederic Beecher Perkins (1828-1899). Author of Connecticut Georgics and My Three Conversations with Miss Chester, Perkins like Melville had been a contributor to Putnam's Magazine in the glorious 1850's.  Nephew of Henry Ward Beecher, father of Charlotte Perkins Gilman.

Evidently, taking the Free Press for gospel, Herman Melville celebrated his 54th birthday in Burlington, Vermont. Burlington?

Melville biographers only locate him in Pittsfield, where he and his wife Elizabeth definitely were for a good part of Herman's two-week break from his Custom House job. The Springfield Republican informed readers on August 4, 1873 that
"Herman Melville, the well-known author, now employed in the New York custom house, is spending a short vacation in Pittsfield."
The same announcement appeared in the Pittsfield Sun on August 6, 1873.

But Herman and Elizabeth planned to leave New York City on July 26th and are not reported in Pittsfield until August 4, 1873--their 26th wedding anniversary. Burlington on Lake Champlain was a hub for summer travel with many wonderful attractions. Herman Melville reportedly got that far north, at least, on the front end of his brief summer vacation. Maybe he went looking for the lake monster, Champ. 1873 was the year P. T. Barnum offered a $50,000 reward for the
"hide of the great Champlain serpent to add to my mammoth World's Fair Show."
--Lake Champlain Region
After their stay in Pittsfield, Elizabeth went on (without Herman) to Boston. On August 15, Elizabeth Melville wrote Kate Gansevoort from Boston with news of the "delightful visit in Pittsfield" that "did us both much good."
We spent nearly all the time walking, or driving, or sitting out doors--and it seemed as if we could not get enough of the reviving air, after being nearly suffocated in the heat and smell of New York.  --quoted in Jay Leyda, The Melville Log Vol. 2, pages 734-735.
Hershel Parker has all this and more in Herman Melville: A Biography V2.761-3, including the happy news Herman got first about the engagement of Milie Melville and Willie Moorewood.


  1. From
    Historic Burlington Project • University of Vermont Historic Preservation Program

    Van Ness House
    This image depicts the Van Ness House, looking south west from the northeast corner of Main Street and St. Paul Street. This building occupied the southwestern corner of Main Street and St. Paul Street. Today, T.D. Bank occupies this location. The Van Ness House was a hotel that was built in 1871 by Messrs. Barber and Ferguson. Barber was the son of one of the first residents of Richmond, Vermont. Prior to becoming the construction of the Van Ness House, the Howard House Hotel, of which Barber was proprietor, stood in its place until 1863 when it was destroyed by fire. In 1881, the building was sold to Vermont Governor Urban Woodbury in a foreclosure sale through Burlington Savings Bank. At the time of the sale, the Van Ness House had 50 feet of street frontage of Main Street and 125 of St. Paul Street. In 1883, there was an addition to the building that added a west wing, adding 75 feet of street frontage on Main Street. Barber retired and spent his time working in a small livery stable behind the hotel.

    Historically, the Van Ness House was politically important building. Governor Woodbury, who also was proprietor of the American House hotel across the street, operated the two buildings as one unit that quickly became a hot spot for meetings and social gatherings. It has been said that Woodbury was able to use connections he made here to gain political clout, as well as to gauge the climate of Vermont politics.

  2. Named in honor of Vermont Governor Cornelius P. Van Ness (1782-1852)from 1823 to 1826.

  3. > "two-story frame verandah"

    UVM must have had some Southern catalogers working in their collections. As Herman could have told them, in New England we call that a piazza. (Pronounced peeyazza. :-)

  4. It would be nice to know if a hotel registry exists from back then. Did Herman Melville visit alone? John Gretchko

  5. It is probably coincidence and nothing more. On 14 October 1870, John C Hoadley leased a stable and small house for one year to a Andrew J Perkins. In 1872, Perkins sued Hoadley contending that Hoadley sold, not leased to Perkins. Hoadley won. John Gretchko