Story by Benjamin Lerner
Photography Courtesy Park McCullough
Walking through the spacious halls of the Park McCullough Historic Governor’s Mansion, the intricate decorative details on the woodwork and ornamental plaster seamlessly blend together in impeccable aesthetic harmony. Elegant gas chandeliers hang from high, majestic ceilings, shining down on lavish marble fireplaces and opulent custom-made furniture. Designed by famed 19th century architect Henry Dudley, the house is a brilliantly-imagined architectural mélange of Victorian, Gothic, and Italian traditions, with the prevalent Second-Empire Victorian influence clearly evident in features such as its classic mansard roof. Staring out of its bay windows at a vast expanse of pristine and unspoiled Vermont farmland, hills and forests, one would be hard pressed to find a more peaceful and revitalizing view.
Although a trip to the fabled Park McCullough estate is certainly an exceptional visual experience in every sense, it would be a grave mistake to overlook the undeniable cultural significance that lies beneath its superficial beauty. Commissioned at the behest of Woodford, Vermont-born rags-to-riches industrialist Trenor Park in 1865, the majestic home has housed two of Vermont’s governors, Hiland Hall and John McCullough, hosted a dinner with President Benjamin Harrison in 1891, and served as a luxurious multigenerational homestead for one of Vermont’s most distinguished and celebrated families.
Over the course of a century, the philanthropic contributions of the Park-McCullough clan made a sizable difference in the lives of countless local Southern Vermont residents. Nearby schools and libraries bear the names of the Park-McCullough family’s politically-ambitious patriarchs, and local institutions and utility infrastructure projects owe their existence to the magnanimous donations and oversight of the Park-McCullough women.
Over fifty years after the last family member to live in the house passed away in 1965, the Park-McCullough estate still stands as a symbolic representation of their enduring cultural legacy. Moving forward, the Park-McCullough House Association Inc. intends to ensure the preservation of the property for future generations through a series of ambitious and comprehensive restoration campaigns. Thanks to their loving and dedicated efforts – as well as continued community support – one of North Bennington’s most beloved landmarks will continue to flourish as a cherished cultural hub and bring people together by hosting unforgettable weddings, uplifting performances, and delightful community events.
For the Park-McCullough House Association’s Executive Director Christopher Oldham, the house is much more than a magnificent historical property – it is the site of many of his life’s most cherished moments. Christopher says that ever since he first visited the treasured home as a young boy, it has become permanently engrained in his formative memories. “I was born and raised in North Bennington, and my first experience at the mansion was when I was in fourth grade. I went to North Bennington Grade School, which is just across the street from the mansion – and also happens to be the school that the Park-McCullloughs helped build. I went to the Park-McCullough House for a field trip at Christmastime. When I walked through the doors, I was instantly enamored. It was a feast for the senses. The mansion was gloriously decked out for the holidays with a giant Christmas tree, and the smell of cloves, pine, and oranges will never escape me. I fell in love with the Park-McCullough house then and there, and it’s been a lifelong love affair ever since.”
Christopher reveals that as he grew older, the Park McCullough house ended up playing an even larger role in his life. “30 years after I first visited the Park-McCullough estate in fourth grade, I had my first date on the property with my now fiancée Amanda. I actually also proposed to her inside of the mansion. We’ll be getting married there this year. I feel so grateful to have been able to experience those moments here at all of the different stages of my life. I feel like I’m more than just the Executive Director of the Park-McCullough Historic Governor’s Mansion – it has really become an integral part of my life story.”
As Executive Director, Christopher has heard comparable stories from many other Southern Vermont residents and visiting tourists, who express similar feelings of connection to the Park-McCullough estate. “There are so many people who, like me, have intimate life stories that involve the mansion. They come from all different generations and backgrounds. One person shared fond memories of playing with the McCullough kids when they were growing up. Another woman told me that she was a nurse who took care of the last Park-McCulllough family member to live at the property, Bess McCullough. One couple came in and told me that they got married here in 1982. They had so many beautiful memories that they shared with me about the ceremony.”
Christopher says that one of the things that sets the Park-McCullough estate apart from other historic properties is the abundance of original authentic artifacts that were left over from the Park-McCullough family’s collection. “Nearly everything in the house once belonged to the family. All of the artifacts in the house were accrued over multiple generations. From the couches, to the china, to the furniture and books, there are about 100,000 items in that house. It’s almost like they left for a Sunday drive and forgot to come back. If you go into the billiard room on the bottom floor of the mansion, you’ll see a set of playing cards that have John McCullough’s monogram on them, as well as a cribbage board set and an ashtray. You really get some unique insight into what life was like for them back then. It’s truly a sight to see.”
According to Christopher, in order to preserve the Park-McCullough estate’s authentic ambience, beautiful architecture, and marvelously detailed interior for future generations, the Park-McCullough House Association has embarked on an epic and ongoing restorative campaign. “The Park McCullough Historic Governor’s Mansion is a beautiful property, but it is a 155-year-old mansion that requires extensive care and maintenance. When I first stepped into the position of Executive Director in September 2019, the Association had operated without an Executive Director for an entire decade. I had to hit the ground running and come up with concrete plans to effectively seek out grants. We don’t just want to fix what needs fixing now, we also want to devise a long-term strategy that addresses all aspects of restoration and preservation. In the time that I’ve been working here, the biggest focus has been on restoring the historic carriage barn. A sizable percentage of our revenue comes from renting out the carriage barn for parties, retreats, and weddings, as well as other events. We want to make some crucial improvements to that space in order to be able to rent it out as often as possible – including in the wintertime. We also have been starting projects that are centered on updating the electrical system in the mansion, as well as preventing the veranda from sinking. At the end of the day, it’s all part of creating a beautiful experience for everyone that comes here.”
Although a great deal of restoration work still remains, Christopher is optimistic about the future of the Park-McCullough Historic Governor’s Mansion. “Last season, we introduced a lot of functions and events that have drawn people to the mansion. I have heard from a lot of people that regularly visit the Park-McCullough estate that they have spent more time at the mansion over the past year than they ever have before in their lives. We’ve been doing a great job on generating community excitement and involvement. Community activities include outdoor movies on the lawn, yoga in the garden, wine tastings on the veranda, and a whole host of concerts and lectures. A lot is happening right now in terms of community engagement. There’s so much untapped potential here at the mansion. It’s been underutilized for so long, and now we’re finally in a place where we can begin to take advantage of it and capitalize on it. Our continual aim is to make sure that future generations can experience even more magical life-changing moments here. The story of the Park-McCullough Historic Governor’s Mansion is continually unfolding, and we’re incredibly excited to see what tomorrow brings.”