MANCHESTER -- A hive of activity thrums by the roundabout. Stoneworkers suction white slices of marble with construction equipment and position them for placement; landscapers busily plant shrubs; pedestrians pause and take photographs, and the artist on a ladder wields a blowtorch to mend a weld on his Thomas Jefferson sculpture.
The new "Reader’s Park," a patio taking shape outside the Northshire Bookstore (jointly owned with Hand Motors) is abuzz. Cameron Chalmers of Landgrove’s Ogden & Chalmers explains that the Danby marble will be softened by the greenery that Carrie Morrow and the horticulture crew are installing. And if something is familiar to Manchester residents and longtime visitors, it’s the mixed-metal sculpture that has taken its place here. It’s a collage of symbolic elements that includes a depiction of a portrait of Thomas Jefferson, which was primarily created to house 45 of his quotations. The piece once stood in front of the once-beloved Jelly Mill that was owned by Clint Lewis. Commissioned in the 1970s by the Lewis, the work commemorated the nation’s bicentennial and one of Lewis’ heroes. New Haven (Vt.) artist and friend Dennis Sparling was chosen for the job, which was joyfully undertaken.
"Everything is a story," says Sparling, whose works include "The Leapfrogger" on Church Street in Burlington, the clock in Vergennes, the catamount at the UVM campus. ("The eyes are cloisonné," he says of the cat.
"I knew I’d got it right when the dogs walking by would freak out!") The Jefferson monument is replete with metaphor: The wheels suggest America on the move; the arms, which move in the wind, weigh the balance between a church on one outstretched hand and a courthouse on the other. It’s a literal representation of Jefferson’s role in writing the right to religious freedom into the Constitution, while codifying the separation of church and state.
When the Jelly Mill’s time was up and went bankrupt, Northshire Bookstore ow--ner Ed Morrow purchased the sculpture. "It was a Manchester artifact. It’s been here for so long, and we had the space. We knew there was going to be a big void by the store when the roundabout came and we’d have to create an attractive place for the whole town to share," he said.
With the Morrow family being in the book business, he says, Thomas Jefferson’s presence outside the Northshire has added significance. "Jefferson’s library became the foundation for the Library of Congress," Morrow said. "He was a great proponent of education and books." The piece was intended to be walked around, with opportunity to read Jefferson’s words etched on metal pages on all sides, but it stood backed up by the side of the bookstore building for a number of years.
"Reader’s Park gives it a more prominent home," Morrow said. "It had weathered considerably and we asked Dennis to refurbish it -- he moved it up to his studio to work on it."
His studio is on the site of an old quarry, where he’s lived and worked for 40 years. The artist has been inspired to conceive of a new educational model, an "ambulatory park" a walk through human history that could be experienced through sculptures. His other area of expertise is creating elaborate "utilitarian" lighting installations meticulous handcrafted replicas of intricate chandeliers for Squam Lake millionaires, as well as more modest, but no less unusual, Deco-inspired lighting elements.
"These are what keep me alive," he says, ruing the dearth of funding sources for his ambitious educational imaginings. A less adventurous soul might be thrilled to be able to create these sometimes classical, sometimes whimsical, other times enchanting works. Indeed, Dennis Sparling himself is an original.
Ed Morrow and son Chris, who runs the Northshire Bookstore in Manchester as well as the new store in Saratoga Springs, share the same vision for the Reader’s Park.
It’s a generational transition that is further evidence of the family’s durable community commitment.
"I don’t really consider that we own the property -- it’s the town’s property, and you’ve got to be protective of the sensibility of the town and care for the heritage of the place," says Ed Morrow. "I lobbied for the roundabout for years, making countless trips up to Montpelier. I’m really gratified that it seems universally approved now, and every aesthetic addition to it reinforces the beauty of our town. This is such a central piece of land, but turning it into a little jewel made sense."
Perhaps it won’t be too much longer before the words "Malfunction Junction" will disappear from the local vernacular, even as Jeffersonian greatness is preserved in a small, elegant area in the heart of town. It’s easy to imagine visitors and locals alike saying, "I’ll meet you at the Jefferson statue" for a long time to come. And while they’re waiting, they’ll have something to read -- be it either a newly purchased book, or the words of a great president who included among his famous declarations, "I cannot live without books."