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The Converse Home

The Converse Home

The majority of this seven-by-three bay Federal style structure was constructed by William Chase Harrington, one of Burlington's earliest attorneys circa 1799. It is perhaps one of the oldest and best documented of Burlington's old homes and has survived numerous additions, alterations and events relatively intact. The central portion of the building, or the five bays containing the highly decorative entryway and porch, is the oldest section of the building dating from around 1799(17). Originally it was surrounded by an 80 acre farm and orchard as well as a maple sugar grove which was located near what is today the corner of South Union and Kingsland Terrace(18). At the time of its construction and reaching well into the 20th century the home had a wide, unobstructed view of Lake Champlain; a high- rise building now obstructs that line of view.

On January 13, 1801, the Board of Trustees of the University of Vermont met at Harrington's home, then considered far from the center of Burlington because of a ravine which once sliced through the heart of downtown, to sign the by-laws for the University. The next day they met on the campus green and selected the site on which to break ground for the University's first building. In addition to being a founder of UVM, Harrington also played an intricate role in Burlington affairs by serving as a selectmen and as a representative to the General Assembly. Later he would serve as the second state's attorney and it was while in this post that he played a role in one of the most storied occurrences in Burlington history. As State attorney it was his job to prosecute Cyrus P. Dean, one of an eight man smuggling party operating from the boat Black Snake, who was bought to trial for the murder of three custom house officials and sentenced to be executed; the only execution in Burlington history(19).

Harrington died in 1814 and in 1832 Bishop John Hopkins purchased the home from Harrington's heirs and in 1833 added two wings to the original structure to house a planned boy's school. These two wings doubled the size of the building and gave the structure its parapeted gable ends apparent today. Again in 1835 Hopkins once again expanded the building adding two much larger wings, however, the construction put Hopkins into serious debt and he was forced to sell everything he owned. Afterwards the creditors demolished the connecting corridors to the newly built wings and shortly thereafter the new owners of the property dismantled the north wing(20).

In 1844 John K. Converse came into possession of the properties on Church Street and established the Burlington Female Sanctuary within the structures. By 1880 the south wing was also dismantled and Female Seminary was closed, although the Converse family continued to reside in the building. John Converse died in 1880 and in 1921 the Converse family signed over the building to the Home for Aged Woman which has occupied it ever since. In 1932 they built another wing to the north which still stands and in 1954 the official name of the building was changed to the Converse Home(21).

Other historical rumors swirl that the house was a stop on the underground railroad during the Civil War and there are some hidden basement rooms believed to have been used for this purpose. Many also claim that at one time there was a tunnel which led from the Converse residence to the now demolished seminary building.