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Designing Vermont’s first solar house

1946 passive design is still innovative

Exterior views of Ruth Reynolds Freeman’s Vermont solar house circa 1946. This original drawing, by Reynolds Freeman, appeared in the groundbreaking book, “Your Solar House”.  (Photo courtesy of Simon & Schuster)

Exterior views of Ruth Reynolds Freeman’s Vermont solar house circa 1946. This original drawing, by Reynolds Freeman, appeared in the groundbreaking book, “Your Solar House”. (Photo courtesy of Simon & Schuster)

— Anticipating today’s solar-energy movement, a talented Vermont architect tackled the technical problems of designing the first, passive-solar residence especially suited for Vermont’s variable climate.

The state’s first step into the world of solar-house design was spearheaded by modern architect Ruth Reynolds Freeman (1913-1969), a talented partner of Freeman, French and Freeman Architects. Much of Vermont’s extant modernist architecture was created by Freeman as well as her partners.

During the 1940s, Ruth—Vermont’s first female architect—worked with a variety of architectural styles, notably modernist, at her office and studio located at 138 Church St. in Burlington.

The firm, founded in 1937 by William Freeman, Ruth, and John French, is still going strong today, with offices today on Maple Street. Ruth and William met while studying architecture at Cornell University and became husband and wife.

According to Vermontmodern.com, a website devoted to modern architecture in the state, “after forming their partnership in Burlington, each member assumed a different role: William running the business, Ruth overseeing design, and John supervising project specifications.”

In 1946, Simon and Schuster book publishers and executives at Libbey-Owens-Ford Glass Company—under the guidance of editor Marion J. Simon and Columbia University architectural maven Talbot Hamlin—challenged the best American architects from the then 48 states and the District of Columbia, to design practical, affordable passive solar houses to be built specifically for the unique climates of their home states.

Freeman, honored by the publisher’s invitation, was asked to create the first, modernist post-World War II residence for vermonters that would include energy efficient building materials with natural solar energy as primary winter heating source.

Simon and Schuster book designer Gobin Stair wanted to create a groundbreaking coffee-table book that would inspire homebuilders to consider the future promise of sun power.

The book showcased 49 solar-house plans. Stair and others at the New York publishing giant anticipated a world of rising energy cost where sunlight might play an increasingly important role in helping heat American homes.

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