Restoration Piece

Over the past 110 years, H.J. LeBoeuf & Son Inc. has helped build the smallest city in the country — and rebuild it.

by Julia Lynam

Photos: Jeff Clarke

If you’re going to stay in the same place for more than a hundred years, in the same business, you might just end up having to do the same job over again ... and again!

That’s how it seems sometimes to designer and contractor Norman LeBoeuf of Vergennes. His family firm was founded in 1888 and has, over the past century, built, remodeled or renovated countless homes and commercial buildings in Vermont and neighboring states — many of them more than once.

Case in point: the handsome brick Chittenden Bank building on Vergennes’ Main Street. “Back in the 1930s my grandfather converted it from a residence into a bank,” LeBoeuf explains. “Then in the 1950s my father renovated it, and in the 1970s we added an extension. Working on older properties we sometimes have no idea that the company has been there before until we find ‘LeBoeuf’ mill stamps on the back of old moldings.”

Norman LeBoeuf

H.J. LeBoeuf & Son Inc. of Vergennes was heavily involved in restoration of the city’s 100-year-old opera house. Norman LeBoeuf, pictured on the opera house staircase, is the third-generation owner of the contracting company.

The company has played a continuing role in the development of the city: “It’s hard to separate the LeBoeufs from the city,” says Vergennes Mayor Dick Adams. “As a family they have traditionally been involved with many projects and they have contributed extensively to the long-range architectural plans for our parks, historic buildings and the entrance to the city at the Falls on Otter Creek. It would take a long time to list everything they’ve done!”

It was in 1888 that Norman’s great-grandfather, C.J. LeBoeuf, set up his company in Vergennes. It’s now known as H.J. LeBoeuf & Son Inc., but Howard has retired and his younger son Lee moved to St. Louis in 1994, leaving just one LeBoeuf son, Norman, to run the company. Lee, a licensed architect, is, however, still active with the business in a way that typifies the flexibility that has enabled this family company to flow with the changes the unfolding century has brought.

At present, LeBoeuf has one full-time employee: office manager Paula Roeloffs, who has been with the company nearly five years. Her role extends well beyond taking care of the bookkeeping and client appointments into helping with drawings, computer-aided design work and site visits.

LeBoeuf explains why the company no longer directly employs construction staff: “When my brother went back to straight architecture in St. Louis,” he says, “I had to deal with construction management, design responsibility and the management of the company. So I made the decision to streamline and act more as a traditional general contractor, hiring subcontractors to work on specific projects; but as we’ve been in business so long, many of the fellows who subcontract for us were on our payroll at one time so we know each other well. We have a nucleus of about six foreman-carpenters and we build crews around them as the jobs require, so at any one time we can have from four to 15 people working for us. Everything is so competitive it was the best way for me to get lean and mean and streamlined and to have the flexibility we needed to bring people in and out as we want.”

The flexibility isn’t just on the construction side. As well as his brother, LeBoeuf has arranged to call in Dover architect Keith Dewey to supplement the design workload when necessary. “The project administration is all done here, but Lee or Keith can focus on specific design issues,” he says.

Norman and Lee were the first generation of the company to offer qualified architectural services as well as contracting and building. Although based and working mainly in Addison County, the LeBoeufs have ranged into New York, New Hampshire and Massachusetts as well as other parts of Vermont.

Kevin Puls & Gary Rodes

H.J. LeBoeuf & Son Inc. hires subcontractors instead of directly employing construction staff. “Many of the fellows who sub-contract for us were on our payroll at one time,” says Norman LeBoeuf, “so we know each other well.” From left: Kevin Puls and Gary Rodes.

LeBoeuf’s house in New Haven is a passive solar construction he designed to take advantage of a southern exposure without compromising the architecture. A keen vintage car racer, he owns a 1980 Ferrari purchased from a local car restoration business. “There’s quite a nucleus of enthusiasts here,” he says, “and we travel all over the East Coast to race.”

The company’s had to move swiftly, too, to keep up with changing times for the construction industry. “We’ve been computerized since the mid-1980s when we designed our own cost-control system for project administration,” says LeBoeuf. “At that time the off-the- shelf software just didn’t exist, but Mike O’Daniel was just starting his computer consultancy, Vermont Computer Software, in Vergennes, and we went to him for help. Since then, of course, a variety of software programs designed specially for small construction companies have come on the market.”

The balance among design, consulting and construction work varies, LeBoeuf says, with approximately 99.9 percent of their work coming through repeat business and referrals. Client loyalty is high: “For example, we’re renovating a cottage on Thompson’s Point in Charlotte,” he says. “It wasn’t built by LeBoeufs, but the people who own it live in a house that was, so they called us in to do the cottage.”

Along with computerization, the 1980s brought another important innovation into LeBoeuf’s work, when he joined the board of a company that purchased the historic Stevens House and secured funds from the Vermont Division of Historic Preservation to renovate it.

The Stevens House is an elegant, late-18th century former inn in the center of Vergennes. Legend has it that abolitionist John Brown’s body was lodged there overnight on its final journey from Harper’s Ferry, Va., to its burial place in upstate New York.

That project led to LeBoeuf’s drawing up a revitalization plan for Vergennes’ historic Main Street; many of the city’s central historic buildings were renovated during the subsequent 10 years. The plan is being rewritten on a much more comprehensive basis to include economic development as well as historic restoration.

“The Stevens House project got us involved on the entry level of restoration projects when they were new to the state,” LeBoeuf says.

Other projects followed, including a renovation of the Hotel Putnam Pennysaver complex in Bennington, then owned by George and Marie Hadwen. It was a 55,000-square- foot complex with no existing plans, so LeBoeuf’s had to start by documenting the entire building in order to apply for a federal historic preservation grant.

The company was brought in by Vermont historian Ralph Nading Hill to help with the restoration of the Ethan Allen Homestead farmhouse in Burlington’s Intervale. “We worked closely on that project with Bob Francis who was then head carpenter of the Shelburne Museum,” LeBoeuf recalls.

Other projects have included an 1812 tavern in Charlotte; the 1796 building on U.S. 7 in New Haven, which houses “Roland’s Place” restaurant; and the Hawley House at Kingsland Bay State Park in Ferrisburgh.

When called in to restore the Bridport Masonic Hall, ironically devastated by fire during a restoration project in the early 1990s, they discovered that the original hall was the work of none other than C.J. LeBoeuf.

Ron Highter & Peter Bicknell

Although focused on Addison County, H.J. LeBoeuf & Son Inc. has done work in New York, New Hampshire and Massachusetts. From left: Ron Highter and Peter Bicknell.

The most dramatic manifestation of the interest in historic preservation in Vergennes has been the revival of the 100-year-old opera house. This was closed in 1974 for failure to meet building codes and continued to deteriorate for nearly 20 years until, in 1993, a group of people began working to restore it. H.J. LeBoeuf and Son has been closely involved with this project since the outset. “I’m chief cook and bottle washer of all construction, preservation, restoration and renovation,” LeBoeuf chuckles. “We do all the design-related work and project administration but not the actual construction.

“It’s a community-based project and the set-up gives me maximum flexibility to involve as many local tradespeople as possible. Six years ago when this project started from ground zero it was obvious that we needed to involve the community at all levels, in every aspect — whether the physical building, the events, the fund raising or community relations.

“In the construction work we’ve used local people wherever possible and everyone who’s had a chance to work on the opera house has been more than willing to do so. In fact, it’s hard to estimate how much in-kind service we’ve received. It’s proved to be a very good way for individuals who may not be able to make a financial donation to contribute to the project.”

Although the project has another two or three years to go to completion, the opera house proudly opened its doors in 1997 and has enjoyed a string of public performances and private events, generating “ever increasing interest” from the community.

Gerianne Smart, president of the Vergennes Opera House committee, says, “LeBoeuf’s has basically been general contractor for the project since 1993. One of the things Norman’s meticulous — almost religious — about is historic accuracy; he’s extremely knowledgeable and he’s kept us on the straight and narrow!”

Although important, historic preservation projects are still just part of the company’s operations. “H.J. LeBoeuf’s strength lies in having expertise in various types of work,” LeBoeuf points out: “We work in new residential, remodeling and specialized light commercial building projects as well.

Paula Roeloffs

Office manager Paula Roeloffs takes care of bookkeeping and client appointments, and helps with drawings, computer-aided design work and site visits.

“This wide range allows us to be very flexible. Maybe in Chittenden County one might be able to specialize and be just a homebuilder, but here, given the level of quality we try to maintain, it’s pretty hard to hang your hat on one single thing. It’s important to maintain quality in construction and architecture. The more diverse you are, the more capability you have to accommodate an ever-changing list of clients and projects.”

In the environmentally conscious ’90s, clients are expressing more interest in energy- efficient and environmentally kind design, he says.

“In any high-end residential or commercial project it’s standard procedure to employ the best energy conservation techniques that the budget will stand,” he continues. “The desire to do that is not necessarily new, but knowledge of energy conservation is a lot more sophisticated than it was 10 or 15 years ago and a lot more is available, for example in terms of high-tech controls.

“In one current project, a residential and barn construction in Ferrisburgh, we’re working with an energy consultant, Leigh Seddon of SolarWorks in Montpelier. With his help, as the design unfolds we’re taking advantage of the best techniques for orientation of the buildings and specifying materials. This project will probably also incorporate some form of active energy use, such as solar heating for hot water.

“Clients are more concerned about energy conservation than they used to be,” he continues. “The interest used to be in minimizing operating costs but now includes an increased awareness of environmental issues calling for the use of recycled materials and using less new- growth lumber.”

The future looks busy for H.J. LeBoeuf & Son, with the continuation of historic restorations in Vergennes and a steady stream of private clients. Whether the next generation will come forward to carry on the family tradition isn’t clear: “I have no children myself,” says LeBoeuf. “Lee has five. But as they’re in St. Louis, not Vermont, they don’t have the opportunity to participate in the family business with summer jobs, and we’re unable to predict the future!”

Julia Lynam is a free-lance writer living in Burlington. Her work has appeared in business publications in the United States and England since 1982.