"The Sleuth of Montpelier, Vermont"
A Writer's Research Adventure
There were trap doors, like the one in the floor of the wardrobe in “The Secret of the Wooden Lady,” which also included two cleverly crafted panels that Nancy discovered with her careful fingers; in “The Sign of the Twisted Candles,” the girl sleuth examines a camouflaged back stairway, then with her boyfriend Ned begins a hunt for the dead homeowner’s treasures: “Every panel in the ceilings, walls, and floorboards was carefully examined. … Ned cried out, ‘Nancy! Come here! I think I’ve found something!” She ran to his side in the rear hall. ‘Look! The grasss cloth on this wall is a little different from the rest and a twisted candle has been worked into the design.’” There’s a safe hidden behind the significant design element.
Now that I’m writing a “Vermont Nancy Drew” series set in Montpelier, I’ve tuned in to the wide range of design trends that resulted in the many-aged downtown architecture of Vermont’s capital. If I want my sleuth, Felicity “Lucky” Franklin, to discover a hidden room or secret panel, what structure will she explore? In this case, it has to be (for plot reasons) both the State House and the Blanchard Opera Block, now home to the bookstore that belongs to Lucky’s mom (the real store owner is collaborating) and once host to grand performances in the early 1900s, including the arrival of young elephants with the touring circus!
A behind-the-scenes exploration of the State House with ardent conservation curator David Schütz convinced me that the structure’s major idiosyncrasies lie in its dome, which sits atop the legislative “box” but is a unit unto itself. “My” sleuth will find clues there, among the oddly positioned timbers and scrawled graffiti. In the Blanchard Opera House, though, she’ll discover an actual hiding place.
Could Montpelier architect and sometime mayor George Guernsey, who designed the Blanchard Opera House, actually have ensured a concealed area in the building? Norwich University student Megan Morse and Putney preservation pro Lyssa Papazian tracked Guernsey’s work and life (1839-1900) in detail. The era fits that of Lambert Packard, St. Johnsbury’s major architect (1832-1906), and at least one of Packard’s buildings has a hidden panel next to a fireplace. Guernsey himself favored intricacy and Italianate detail. Although none of his documented structures in Montpelier show false walls, hidden doors, or secret panels, the grace of fiction allows me to insert one with a relative amount of believability.
But that’s not quite enough for the kind of fiction I’m writing, which always hinges on some aspect of Vermont history, as well as a puzzle rooted in the life stages of teenagers. So I have two more components of Guernsey’s real life to weave in: his local nickname of “King George,” and his death of tuberculosis.
[Photos of details of a George Guernsey building, the Edward Dewey house, courtesy of Don Shall.]