Discover the ‘Across the Street’ Photo Exhibit with the Bennington Museum

One of the many historical panels in downtown Bennington

December 30, 2020

Bennington’s town center is not a green or a building, it’s a wide crossroads where Main Street (Route 9) intersects with North and South Streets (Route 7). It’s known locally as the Four Corners, and if you’re walking downtown, you’re likely to pass through.

Next time, don’t pass so fast.

Take a closer look at the lampposts, now garlanded with festive holiday greenery. Twenty historical panels were recently installed on those posts by the Bennington Museum in an effort to enable townspeople and visitors to experience downtown in four dimensions: the fourth one being time.

Each panel shows a photograph of the scene located directly across the street taken at a former time in Bennington’s history. A scannable QR code on each panel links to information about that particular location: just hold up your smartphone to be transported to explanatory texts from the Bennington Museum website – and even further into the past.

The invention of photography in the 19th century coincided with the development of downtown
Bennington into a prosperous town center, and several photographers were active in capturing the streetscapes and businesses of the day, mostly on large, glass-plate negatives.

Most of the photos date from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In one of the panels, a trolley winds up Main Street under the blaze of newly installed electric lights. In another, a herd of sheep makes use of the same thoroughfare (“a familiar sight every spring” in the time before the street was paved in 1916).

You may view a panel showing the Bennington Opera House, pictured in all its glory – look across the street, though, and you won’t find it standing there. It burned in 1959, one of a number of now-vanished structures claimed by fire.

Bennington Opera House, 1892-99
Glass plate negative, Madison E. Watson (1863-1949)
Bennington Museum Collection, Weichert-Isselhardt Collection, Gift of Tordis llg Isselhardt and Museum Purchase

Other fine buildings remain. From the panel near the northeastermost of the Four Corners, direct your gaze diagonally across at the curving brick façade of the present structure, then compare it with the tinted photographic image of the elegant former Hotel Putnam on the panel and you’ll see that only the latter’s double-decker porch has been lost. The old hotel is now the centerpiece of a major rehabilitation project currently underway in the town center.

The panels themselves represent the synergy of the Bennington Museum’s archival collections
and historical scholarship, design by the Better Bennington Corporation Design Committee, and
high-tech printing by Bennington’s own GVH Studio.

The vertical panels are made of lightweight brushed curved metal and discreetly hug the lampposts at eye height. A Restart Vermont Stimulus Grant received by the Town enabled permanent installation of the panels. The result is that pedestrians can now visit the past as easily as step into the establishments that line the streets of the present town.

If you want to add armchair travel to time travel, the entire exhibit and explanatory texts may
be accessed on the Bennington Museum website.

– Phil Holland, a resident of Pownal, is the author of Robert Frost in Bennington County.