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A view from Depot Park in downtown Rutland, VT. Photo by Donna Wilkins.

Exploring the New Corners of Vermont

We came to Downtown Rutland for a concert, but found so much more

By Annie Lucie

I grew up in a small town in Vermont. It was a happy, all-American childhood—but like countless small-town kids, I couldn’t wait to graduate from high school and get the heck out. I attended college in Boston, married my husband (a classmate) and built a successful career in architecture in the city.

But after our two daughters were born (they’re 10 and 6 years old now), I found myself missing the rolling hills, peaceful villages and friendly people of Vermont. My husband and I want our girls to appreciate this landscape and lifestyle, which is so different from the crowded streets and hectic pace of Boston. Since my parents still live in my childhood home, we get our Green Mountain fix by planning long weekends in Vermont several times a year. We visit my folks—they dote on their granddaughters—and plan mini-adventures along the way. Over the years, our family of four has explored most of Vermont, from ski vacations in the Mad River Valley and Stowe to camping on the peaceful shores of Lake Champlain. These Vermont countryside excursions encourage us to explore and discover as a family.

Intrigued by a reborn theater

I’ll be honest: Downtown Rutland wasn’t initially on my radar. But while I was preparing for our latest visit with my parents, I started researching fall activities and stumbled across an upcoming concert by one of my favorite folk musicians at the historic Paramount Theatre. It was a show I knew my husband and daughters would enjoy, and as an architect, I was intrigued by the building’s history.

I read that when it opened in January 1914 as the Playhouse Theatre, it was considered to be one of the finest theaters in the United States. Its classical exterior was inspired by the “City Beautiful” movement—an urban-reform philosophy that promoted beauty and monumental grandeur as a foundation for civic and moral virtue—while the ornate interior likened to a Victorian opera house. After a mid-1980s campaign to restore the theater succeeded, it was better than ever. The Paramount has become the cultural, artistic and educational hub of Rutland.

I booked tickets for a Saturday night show and packed up the Subaru—the four of us headed to Vermont on a sunny Friday morning. We spent the day driving through the countryside, stopping to pick apples and admire the blazing tapestry of red, orange and yellow foliage, arriving in Rutland just after sunset. The girls were excited for our latest mini-adventure, and of course, looking forward to being spoiled.

Downtown: an unexpected gift

We decided to stay two nights in Rutland instead of going all the way to my parents’ house then back for the concert then back to my parents’ again. In the morning, we headed to Downtown Rutland to grab a late breakfast. From my trip-planning research, I’d learned that much of downtown is listed in the National Register of Historic Places, with most buildings built between 1850 and 1880. As we drove slowly down Merchants Row, one of the streets that defines the historic district, I pointed out the many landmark buildings that are either built from, or trimmed with, the marble that first made the city prosperous. Accustomed to my impromptu “through-the-car-window” architecture tours, my daughters nodded like little professors—and then asked whether we could have pancakes with Vermont maple syrup for breakfast.

Using a handy brochure and map, we parked the car and walked a few blocks to The Coffee Exchange, a welcoming spot at the heart of downtown—the intersection of Merchants Row and Center Street. With its sturdy brick exterior, soaring ceilings and brightly painted columns and crown molding, this elegant building has a long history—as witnessed by the massive bank-vault door, standing open in a corner. Once fortified with vegetarian breakfast burritos, croissants with jam and Vermont cheddar-cheese omelettes, we decided to kill time by exploring Downtown Rutland until the show started later that evening.

See and do

The first thing we spotted up the street was the Energy Innovation Center. Sponsored by a leading utility company, the center is an educational hub for local residents to learn about energy innovation, energy efficiency and clean energy sources like wind, water and solar. With a science fair coming up next month (and a project idea due on Monday), my older daughter wasn’t going to pass this opportunity up. With her dad in tow, she took notes and watched Electra, the talking cow, explain how Green Mountain Power (GMP) converts cow manure to electricity. She also learned that Rutland is the solar capital of New England—generating more solar power per capita than any other city in the region.

As my oldest was doing her homework with dad, my younger daughter and I walked around the corner to the Wonderfeet Kids' Museum. The community-based nonprofit offers fun activities for kids, especially toddlers through age eight, with a focus on fostering curiosity, exploration and imagination. My daughter was absolutely in her element as she clambered around a brightly painted wooden train engine (vaguely reminiscent of Thomas the Train, without the cartoon face), created crazy drawings at the spinning chalkboard and built a sandcastle with moldable “Kinetic Sand.” Meanwhile, I took a few minutes to admire the engaging interior space with its stamped-tin ceiling, colorful wooden columns and 20-foot windows that look out on the passers-by.

When we regrouped with the other half of our family, we spent another hour strolling downtown together. Each of the girls got $20 to spend at Frogs & Lily Pads, a charming store jam-packed with games, educational toys and kids’ clothing. We browsed for the next great novel at Phoenix Books (an independent, family-owned store) and checked out PURE.original, which bills itself as a “one-stop sercy shop.” I used my phone to quickly Google the word “sercy,” which is Southern slang for a small, unexpected gift. I laughed at the apt definition, which also described our experience in Downtown Rutland, which continued to offer one small, pleasant surprise after another.

Dinner and a show

By the time we’d finished shopping, it was afternoon and we returned to the heart of downtown to find a farmers market in full swing. The intersection had been blocked off and booths bursting with fruits, vegetables, baked goods, cheeses and other tasty treats lined the streets. I snacked on a handmade empanada from Ana’s while the girls scarfed down a gooey brownie, and my husband loaded up on enough Vermont maple syrup and jam to last us all winter.

As we headed back to our car to stash the bounty, I checked my watch and realized we’d better hustle back to the hotel to shower and change before our pre-concert dinner reservation at Table 24, Rutland Herald’s “Best of the Best” Reader’s Choice award winner since 2010. Over my entrée of maple-cured pork tenderloin, (and a few stolen bites of seafood stew and lobster macaroni and cheese from my husband and daughters), I asked my daughters if they’d had a good day.

“You know, mom,” my oldest said, putting her fork down. “Maybe Nana and Papa could come here tomorrow morning instead of us going there. I want to show Papa that talking cow.”

“Let’s ask if they can,” I said. “And if not, we can always come back.”

As the sun set, we wandered slowly—stuffed and satisfied—a few blocks to the Paramount, where the lights twinkled on the marquee and a line of concertgoers was forming along the sidewalk. I’d call my parents tomorrow to see if they could hop over to Rutland. We’d only explored a few blocks—what else was there to find? With no plans beyond concert tickets, we had discovered a charming historic downtown that kept us entertained all day.

Shop, eat and be entertained in Downtown Rutland.