By XANDER LANDEN, VTDIGGER
Paul Bruhn, who preserved hundreds of historic sites throughout Vermont and led a movement to fortify downtowns across the state, died this past Thursday at 72.
Bruhn, who co-founded the Preservation Trust of Vermont in 1980, was a modest but visionary steward of countless developments, from country store rehabilitations to Burlington’s Church Street Marketplace.
He also worked as a top aide to Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. serving as his campaign manager in 1974, and his first chief of staff in Washington.
Bruhn died of cardiac arrest Thursday evening after living with heart complications for years.
Bruhn has been widely credited for preserving hundreds of historic buildings in Vermont, conserving land and revitalizing downtowns. Over the years, he funneled funding and shepherded the political will to preserve Vermont’s 18th and 19th century architectural gems — from opera houses to churches and hotels.
“Everybody agrees, nobody worked so hard to preserve the best of Vermont,” Leahy said of Bruhn on Friday.
As part of his efforts to protect both Vermont downtowns and rural spaces, Bruhn opposed developers who planned to set up sprawling malls and stores outside of town centers.
In the 1990s, he successfully pushed Wal-Mart to develop in downtown Rutland, after they had planned on setting up shop on the outskirts of town. In 2017, Bruhn led an effort to raise $1 million needed to conserve 22 acres of the land bordering I-89 in Randolph. The land, far from Randolph’s center, had been eyed for a major commercial development.
“He very much didn’t want to see development that would weaken the core of a community, the downtown of a community,” said Gus Seelig, director of the Vermont Housing Conservation Board, an organization Bruhn pushed state officials to establish in the 1980s.
Seelig and others who knew Bruhn closely said there are few towns in Vermont that his preservation efforts did not reach.
“There’s just no place in the state I think you can be that Paul hasn’t touched within 10 or 15 miles of where you’re standing,” Seelig said.
Paul Alan Bruhn was born and raised in Burlington, where he graduated from Burlington High School in 1965. He unenthusiastically studied at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey and the University of Vermont.
“I learned in a different way than most people,” Bruhn told Seven Days in a 2001 profile. “I didn’t find college very stimulating and I wasn’t very good at it.”
He briefly worked as a journalist in his twenties, launching Chittenden Magazine and staffing it with “friends from around the city, young, energetic, irreverent types like himself,” according to the biography Senator Leahy, by Philip Baruth, a state senator and English professor at UVM.
The publication lasted just four years. “But during those four years, Chittenden Magazine became the meeting place and proving ground for an impressively talented staff,” Baruth writes, a group that would help launch Leahy’s statewide political career.
“When the Chittenden Magazine folded in 1973, Leahy and Bruhn waited a decent interval and then simply renamed it the Leahy for Senate Campaign of 1974,” Baruth writes. During this time, Bruhn briefly worked under Leahy at the Chittenden County State’s Attorney’s Office.
Leahy’s run against Republican Richard Mallary was widely viewed as a long shot. Leahy was only 34 and Vermonters had never sent a Democrat to Congress.
Leahy said that while his campaign at the time was out-raised, Bruhn was able to mobilize volunteers across the state.
“He knew Vermont. He has a way of sensing how people think and what they think,” Leahy said. “If it had not been for Paul I could not have won that first time.”
Bruhn served as Leahy’s chief of staff between 1974 and 1978. During his time in Washington, Bruhn helped secure a federal grant to turn Burlington’s Church Street into a pedestrian district.
But eventually, Bruhn wanted to return to Vermont to work in preservation.
Pat Robins, who helped lead the effort in Burlington to establish the Church Street Marketplace, called his long-time friend the “godfather” of the movement to revitalize Vermont towns.
“Could be a hardware store, could be a drug store, could be a church, but every town had to have one or more places where people could gather and share ideas,” Robins said. “That really became his driving force.”
Richard Saunders, the director of the Middlebury College Museum of Art, said that Bruhn’s legacy was ever present in his home state.
“Some people have one single monument or one thing that they believed in that you can look at that,” Saunders said. “But I think the wonderful thing about Paul was that it was like spreading something through the bloodstream of Vermont.”
Since it was founded in 1980, the Preservation Trust has spearheaded more than 1,500 preservation and community projects including the Latchis Theater and Hotel in Brattleboro, North Hero’s town hall and the Putney General Store.
Bruhn won countless awards for his work and served on a staggering number of non-profit boards. He is survived by his partner, Colleen O’Neill, among many other family members and friends.
“If you spent a minute with Paul you would know that his love of Vermont was through to his very core,” said Neale Lunderville, the president the Preservation Trust’s board.
“He believed that Vermont was truly special and his life’s work was protecting what was special about it.”