Remembering Martin Tierney

Martin Tierney was the Farm’s architect from the early 1980s until his retirement in 2003. He played a key role in all of the early capital building projects at Shelburne Farms, working closely with Farm staff, Board members, consultants, contractors, government agencies and partner organizations.   His work started with designing the Welcome Center, which opened in 1986, and was followed by rehabilitation of Shelburne House, which opened as the Inn at Shelburne Farms in 1987. Martin went on to oversee  the rehabilitation of the Coach Barn and Farm Barn, and emergency stabilization of the Breeding Barn.   

After his retirement in 2003, Martin handed the Farm’s architecture baton to Steve Smith and Bren Alvarez of SAS Architects, but continued to generously and joyfully volunteer his time at the Farm by leading behind-the-scenes architectural tours of the Inn, Breeding Barn, and Farm Barn — to the delight of many guests.

Martin loved every aspect of Shelburne Farms. He was great to work with and became a close personal friend — a wonderful human being with an amazing and inspiring life story.  He was an important part of so many lives. Martin helped us see that: 

  • Life is a mystery to enjoy and be grateful for.
  • You can be a great architect and still take a back seat to a beautiful old building.
  • The more love you put out into the world, the more will come back to you.  

We’ll be forever grateful to him. 

— Alec Webb and Megan Camp

Below are a few more tributes/remembrances from current and former Shelburne Farms staff and colleagues who worked with Martin. 


“Martin Tierney had the skill to preserve the historic fabric of buildings while satisfying requirements and standards. But it was Martin’s humility, humor and heart that made him so unforgettable.

He poured his big heart into Shelburne Farms, and into the people too. That’s why he was, is, and will always be loved.”

— Marilyn Webb Neagley
Shelburne Farms President, 1976 to 1988


“Martin Tierney was an enlightened soul, whose passion for the historical fabric of Shelburne Farms radiated from his being. Martin was the right person, in the right spot, at the perfect time to support the extraordinary rebirth of Shelburne Farms. He brought skill, joy, excitement and a sense of timelessness to his work and to all those with whom he worked. A better man I’ve never known.”

— Mark Neagley
Centennial Capital Campaign Construction Manager, 1986 to 2003
Neagley & Chase Construction Co.


“Martin was a beautiful man, thoughtful, kind and always full of humor. He approached life with a twinkle in his eye. His skill and his heart are evident in the buildings at Shelburne Farms he so passionately restored. We’ll miss him.”

— Marshall Webb
Director of Special Projects, Shelburne Farms


“Martin’s tours of the Inn began on the South Porch, where he held court with his group arrayed around him in wicker chairs and sofas and leaning against brick walls. He began each tour with the same words, “The rules of the tour are that there are no rules.” From there, it was an unscripted stroll through back hallways and first floor rooms, accompanied by Martin’s narrative of his work as a young architect selected to manage a one-of-a-kind project. Guests would always feel the pull of the mesmerizing weave of Martin’s storytelling. The tour highlight was invariably the basement since all the secrets were there–bricked in doorways, long dormant electrical boxes, knobs and panels from another time. It was all fresh and exciting in the retelling, even after more than 25 years.  He was reverential of the experience and its lifelong hold on his imagination. 

“Many guests reflected on their time with Martin in room journals and comment cards. It was the best part of their stay, they’d write. I’d make a point of telling Martin how much people loved it, that he had groupies. That he was really special.  He never let all that stuff change his humility and grace.

“He loved his friends and his family and loved his life and passed that on to whomever he met. I certainly will miss him and I know I’ll think of him whenever I wander into the basement or a back hallway and remember the joy he brought me and many people from all over the globe so fortunate to spend time with him.”

— Janice Heilmann 
Concierge, Inn at Shelburne Farms


“Just seeing Martin’s little two-seater car in the Inn parking lot would make me feel joyful — to know I would see his face that always had a smile and hear his words that always made me feel happy,  along with every other person in the building.  I learned so much from him about the historic buildings on the property, especially the Inn, because every tour he gave was different and equally interesting.  I became a better person for having known him and for sharing in his wonderful outlook on life.

“I look forward to feeling his presence in so many places in the Inn and throughout the Farm — that’s what will make me smile now.”

— Karen Polihronakis
Former Director, the Inn at Shelburne Farms


“I met Martin Tierney in 2002 prior to embarking on a Save America’s Treasures grant project at the Inn. He was full of wisdom that I appreciated as I got to know the barns and buildings at Shelburne Farms. He always talked of the importance of an architect not having an ego because sometimes the ego would get in the way of a good project. That was clearly the way he operated at Shelburne Farms. With his work on any farm-related endeavor, assistance on a grant, or talk to the public, I always loved and appreciated his calm demeanor, positive attitude, and his foresight in not just preserving Shelburne Farms’ past, but safeguarding its future. I will miss Martin immensely.”

— Julie Eldridge Edwards 
Curator of Collections, Shelburne Farms


Tino, bugiardo mio.

Imagine, I was fresh out of design school and barely back from Italy when Martin hired me for the summer.  Normally, a two-line resumé like mine would have been a double red flag for most architectural firms looking to hire, but not for the Office of Martin S. Tierney.  Martin was completely unfazed by the challenge of working with a young inexperienced intern who was much more familiar with Italian design than with the Vermont vernacular.   In retrospect, I think he liked the challenge and it was clear that we shared a love of design, architecture, stories, more stories, and all things Italian, especially the language. 

At the time, Martin didn’t have a lot of Italian words in his toolbox, but his absolute hands down favorite word was bugiardo.  I can’t remember exactly why he loved that word so much, but he did.  He may have heard it in a Fellini film or in a piazza in Cisternino during his travels to southern Italy.  Bugiardo ~ Liar~  is a  throw down the gauntlet kind of word that often appears in ordinary insult-hurling Italian street drama;  fists clenched, faces red, wild posturing and arm waving until suddenly the involved parties hug, injury and insult forgotten instantly.   I had actually witnessed this odd ritual a few times in the streets of Rome.   There was no cultural equivalent that was quite as exciting here in Burlington and the knowledge of that bonded us in a weird and wonderful way. 

Day One at Martin’s office was unforgettable because Martin was hellbent on practicing his street Italian, devoting a fair amount of time to rolling the R in bugiardo, perfecting his accent, choreographing the respective gestures.  Maybe he was showing off a little, maybe I encouraged him a little too much, and then, in retrospect, maybe not, because after all it was a perfect first day at work.

Before the week’s end, he was satisfied that he achieved fluency, at least with that one word.  This was cause for great happiness, however irrelevant the accomplishment was to the business of restoration architecture.   In the spirit of celebration, we both assumed the name bugiardo (bugiarda for me) and never had use for our given names after that.

At the time, this seemed perfectly normal, particularly as a fundamental principle in The Office was “the more drama the better”.  An  uneventful day was enough reason for him to resist with stories, antics,  more Italian improvisation.  He had a huge mischievous streak; a particular glint in his eye warned when he was looking for a monkey wrench to throw into the works.   The truth was that I was always ready to help him find it.   Plus, he was the boss and I was completely happy to follow his lead.  Not that he ever pulled rank ~  on me or on anyone.  His enormously open collaborative nature was not at all moderate, just the opposite, it was fiery, passionate, yet entirely egalitarian.    He was generous to a fault, a free thinker, creative and carpe diem was what he did naturally, long before that movie came out.

We did settle into a routine that summer.  Mornings, I’d climb the creaky staircase, fling open the door and shout, buon giorno, bugiardo! at him. He would look up from his work, acting surprised and insulted, jumping  to his feet yelling bugiarda back at me, looking angry and indignant.  Then we’d drop the act so we could get to the good morning hug and on to business.   The rest of the day was spent drawing, planning, sketching, in between the story telling, mostly Italian stories, but there were his classic Tierney Irish stories, too.  And then the summer just flew by, just like that. And then a lifetime flew by.   Our paths rarely crossed, but, I am so fortunate that they did that summer.

It must be over a decade since I last saw Martin,  and that was probably at The Farm.  We  immediately fell into our ridiculous ritual greeting, as if it had just been just yesterday.   There is joy and sadness both as  I can hear Martin answering me when I bid him farewell  for this last time,  arrivaderci,  bugiardo, until we meet again.  I can see he is feigning surprise and indignation, and he leaps up, yelling, bugiarda, arrivederci, see you around and don’t forget the monkey wrench.   I won’t, either.  

—  Bren Alvarez
Architect for Shelburne Farms


Thanks to an anonymous gift, Shelburne Farms has set up the Martin Tierney Endowment Fund in his memory.

Comments

I was one of the visitors that found Martin's tour of Shelburne House a highlight of my stay. I remember how knowledgeable, humble, and delightful Martin was. My daughter was with me and we agreed that the tour was one of the finest we had ever experienced in years of touring historical homes, parks, and museums. Martin was a treasure. I sympathize with the loss of those who knew him well.
Thank you for sharing that, Alice! It means a lot, just as Martin meant a lot to so many.

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