Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation’s latest list of America’s most endangered historic places includes four Vermont towns set to host a vast micro-housing development based of the visions of Joseph Smith.
For the last 30 years, the National Trust for Historic Preservation has put out an annual call to arms. This year’s list of the 11 most endangered historic places in America features a typical mix of at-risk buildings, historical sites, and neighborhoods. The threats they face range from neglect to development to natural devastation. One is facing a more unusual potential disruption: encroaching utopia.
The 2018 list includes, for example, the deteriorating Mary and Eliza Freeman Houses in Bridgeport, Connecticut, possibly the oldest homes built by African Americans in the state, predating the Civil War. Ship on the Desert, an early Modernist house in Guadalupe Mountains National Park in West Texas, is also at risk of neglect. The Trust has issues a broad call to save the hurricane-wracked historic fabric of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Denver’s historic Larimer Square, on the other hand, is a potential victim of its own success, as the Trust considers the development proposals for this vibrant square ”inappropriate.”
From Route 66 (the 2,451-mile long “Mother Road” that’s eligible for National Historic Trail status) to the five Los Angeles high schools involved in 1968’s East L.A. Chicano Student Walkouts (buildings slated for demolition as part of a school modernization program), the spectrum of sites on the threat list is necessarily wide. But there’s one entry this year that stands out: The Trust has tagged four villages in Vermont’s Upper Valley as a “watch” status item. That’s where a Mormon millionaire wants to build an expansive, self-contained community based on a vision from the father of the Latter-Day Saints movement.
NewVistas is a scheme to build a sustainable, high-density city in rural Vermont, one that, if built as planned, would hold about 3 percent of the state’s current population. Its developer is David Hall, a Mormon entrepreneur who claims that he discovered, in 1973, a set of design documents from Joseph Smith dating back to the 1830s. This blueprint scroll outlines a community, one square mile in size, that houses 20,000 people. (For comparison’s sake, the population density of Burlington is about 4,100 people per square mile.)
UPDATE 6/29: Hall is selling his Vermont property and abandoning his plan following the listing by the Trust, according to the Valley News. Read on about what he wanted to build and why.
According to Bloomberg Businessweek, as Hall tells it, Smith was studying an Old Testament architect named Enoch who designed a city so perfect that it was immediately ushered into heaven. (Santiago Calatrava’s tried to follow in his antediluvian footsteps ever since.) Hall means to reinterpret that community for the modern world and then—following the instructions provided on the scroll—build 999 more like it around the world. (Or maybe just around Vermont.) He’s spent $100 million so far outlining his New Urbanist-ish scheme for a dense, walkable community with its own entire economy, including farms for sustainable agriculture and facilities for industrial production.
Across four hamlets in rural Vermont (Royalton, Sharon, Trafford, and Tunbridge), Hall has bought up about 1,300 acres of farmland. (Bloomberg Businessweek reports that Hall has acquired around 5,000 acres of land in Provo, where he intends to build the first NewVistas community.) Why Vermont? While he made his name elsewhere, Smith was born in Sharon—one of the villages on the Trust’s watch list. Plus, there’s plenty of room to build there.
There’s no real question that Hall’s vision of utopia would represent a serious change of pace for the rural denizens of the area. As Bloomberg Businessweek reports, New Vista residents would be packed into tiny, automated micro-apartments:
Within the community, each person will be allotted just 200 square feet of living space, but apartments will be soundproofed, with Roomba-sized robots that rearrange furniture for different needs and times of day. Each robot, Hall says, will move quickly, “then go right back into its nest.” Furnishings and possessions not being used will be stored inside 4-by-4-foot boxes that are integrated into the apartment floors and electronically move up and down as needed. “We’re still a few years off from having that work, but it’s not Dreamsville—it’s technically feasible,” says Hall.
The robotic house-servants might be forward-thinking (and perhaps a bit micro-managing), but Hall’s scheme is more in tune with the planning of the 19th century than the 21st. Radical utopianism was commonplace in Smith’s day. As Daniel Walker Howe explains in What Hath God Wrought, an inter-war history of America (1815-1848), ambitious planned communities flourished in the expanding, post-millennial United States.
While a secular-humanitarian community launched by Robert Owen in 1825 in New Harmony, Indiana, lasted just 2 years, 18 similar communities popped up in other places around the country. (Those failed, but Owenites in Britain landed upon a more successful program in 1827: socialism.) Albert Brisbane, the founder of a movement called Associationism, built 28 “phalanxes”—pre-Marxist paradises of exactly 1,620 people each. None lasted. But another American expansionist movement—the Mormon Church—endured.
Hall’s prescriptivist vision is a throwback to the halcyon days of manifest destiny. In a way, NewVistas is itself a preservation dream, of a sort—a plan to encapsulate and perhaps insulate a people from the forces of the world around it. It’s also a sign of the times, as entrepreneurs seek to disrupt the everyday patterns of life in the gold-rush experience economy.
And it’s a site to watch, all right. Vermonters are dead-set against Hall’s plans. Some 93 percent of voters in Royalton, Sharon, Strafford, and Tunbridge registered their opposition to NewVistas in a Town Meeting vote last year. The local Valley News reports that an anti-NewVistas nonprofit called the Alliance for Vermont Communities has begun purchasing land to block Hall from acquiring the complete 5,000-acre parcel he desires. State lawmakers even adopted a resolution expressing their opposition to NewVistas and urging Hall to look elsewhere.
An Alliance map that shows where Hall has acquired parcels, and just how much more land he needs to complete his vision, makes it clear that NewVistas is going to require more than money. Building an interlocking series of robot-enabled utopian bottle cities for 20 million Mormons could maybe, potentially, possibly change the character of rural Vermont. Hall might not care, but if there’s a force stronger than the will of God, it’s a not-in-my-backyard movement.