A name change for Stowe’s Helen Day Art Center — part of an ongoing rebranding of the organization that includes a new strategic plan and expanded educational offerings — has led to a larger discussion about the history of the woman behind the building’s name and attitudes that in some ways shaped the Stowe community’s past.
So, who was Helen Day Montanari? Was she the ahead-of-her-time modern woman as some claim, or an anti-Semite who helped foster hatred and discrimination?
The answer may be both.
While some say Montanari’s actions — she and her partner ran an “Aryans-only” Stowe inn in the 1940s — were a reflection of the society in which she lived, others believe that’s no excuse for prejudice and exclusion. Rachel Moore, the art center’s executive director — and the center’s board of directors — see the name change “as an opportunity to make clear our continued belief in inclusivity, diversity and equity for all.”
“It is not always easy to stand up and speak up, especially in this small town in which our staff and families live, and as part of an institution that serves all people with many different viewpoints, but this is also exactly why it is so important to do so,” Moore said.
The art center has hired a consultant to help with the rebrand and renaming, and Moore added that new name options could come to light later this month with a final vote happening in March.
“We want to reflect who we are as an organization,” Moore said. “We are open and accessible to all regardless of age, gender identity, race, religion, nationality, physical or mental ability, or economic background; we are an organization that believes in contemporary art presentation and education as a catalyst for engagement, understanding, and inspiration. Our current name doesn’t reflect who we are, or who we’ve been.”
Montanari and her partner, Dr. Marguerite Lichtenthaeler, operated an inn, the Attic & Barn, in Stowe in the 1940s.
It was restricted, meaning no Jewish people were allowed. For the better part of two decades in Stowe, lodging brochures detailed which properties excluded people of the Jewish faith.
“Almost every business on those brochures was restricted,” said Lyndall Heyer, whose father Larry operated the former Ski Inn on Stowe’s Mountain Road, another restricted establishment.
Heyer said she knew of at least one document that dates back to the late 1930s that said nine of 11 hotels, inns and guesthouses restricted their clientele.
When her father opened his business in 1941 he was strongly encouraged by the local business association — Barbara Baraw of the Stowe Historical Society said it was called the Stowe Mansfield Association at the time — to exclude Jews.
“If you want business, you need to be restricted,” was the message, Heyer said. Her father sank everything he had into his fledgling business and couldn’t take the chance of losing money by going against the norm. So, his inn became restricted, too.
“He wasn’t racist at all,” Heyer said, but “he wasn’t about to rock the boat. I believe quite a few businesses were in the same boat.”
While it does appear that a sizeable number of innkeepers at that time either felt pressured to restrict their establishments or actually held racist beliefs, at least one felt she had a clear choice.
Helen Beckerhoff, who died in 2020, shared her own memories of opening a lodging facility during that time with writer Elinor Earle in a story she wrote, “Restricted: Despite shaky start, Stowe’s Jewish community flourishes,” for the winter-spring 2005-2006 edition of the Stowe Guide & Magazine.
“When my husband and I first moved here to open a guesthouse in 1947, I was looking at the Stowe list of lodgings and saw the word ‘restricted’ at several establishments. I had absolutely no idea what it meant and my husband explained it meant Jews were not welcome. Well, I said, this would not do for us. My husband, who had escaped from Nazi Germany, expressed concern we might get in trouble with the authorities. I didn’t care. We opened our doors to everyone.”
From the same article, Earle reported: “In a 1944-1945 promotional winter brochure, ‘Where to Stay – Mount Mansfield, Stowe, Vermont,’ 12 of the 15 hotels, inns and ski lodges were restricted; two out of the seven farmhouses were restricted, and four of the 17 guest homes did not accept Jews. It was well known that when a bus filled with tourists looking for rooms pulled up in front of Barnes Camp, which bore a sign saying ‘Restricted Clientele, Gentiles Only,’ owner Chelsea Lyons would put his head inside and bellow, ‘If you’re a Jew, don’t bother to get out here!’
“Another oft-repeated Barnes Camp story entails a party of 12 arriving late one night during the Christmas holiday. When one guest signed in with what appeared to be a Jewish name, the entire group immediately was escorted out the door. Beckerhoff confirms the story and adds, ‘The only thing to admire about Lyons was his consistency. Others would change their restricted policy and permit Jews when they needed the income.’ ”
Beckerhoff’s example shows that not all lodging establishments were restricted in the 1940s, and that the people running them could make a choice.
Other historical documents from the time period support that idea; according to records compiled by Baraw of the historical society, about half of the town’s lodging places, a list that included hotels, inns, ski lodges and farmhouses with rooms to let out, were restricted at any one given time. More specifically:
• 1944-1945: 22 of 42 were restricted.
• 1945-1946: 16 of 35 were restricted.
• 1946-1947: 25 of 45 — 55 percent — were listed as restricted.
• 1947-1948: 26 of 51 sought to exclude Jews.
Montanari and Lichtenthaeler’s Attic & Barn was listed as a restricted business on brochures until that feature was no longer advertised, in 1950.
There is also other evidence that suggest Lichtenthaeler and Montanari made a choice to run a restricted facility. As reported in the Earle’s magazine piece, Lichtenthaeler’s business card, like Chelsea Lyons, put as fine a point on it as possible — it read, “Aryans Only” — and advertised the Attic & Barn as having churches nearby, a less-than-subtle warning for non-Christians.
Rumors have also swirled for years that, when their house sold, anti-Jewish décor — including pillows bearing swastikas, the symbol of the Nazi party — was part of the decorating scheme. Attempts by Stowe Reporter staff to confirm or deny those rumors with first-hand accounts were unsuccessful, although several sources with knowledge of the subject claimed they are true.
Anti-Semitism did not die with the Nazis
The Nazi regime persecuted the Jewish population in their country during their rise to power in the 1930s before killing more than 6 million Jews as part of the Holocaust — what they called the Final Solution — as it brought much of Europe under their control.
Whether it be restricted lodging establishments or the genocide that killed millions during the Holocaust, the root of the issue is the same to some members of the Jewish community.
“We at the Vermont Holocaust Memorial have a personal connection to the dangers of prejudice and its consequences, and of what can occur if it is left unchecked,” Debora Steinerman, the president and co-founder of the Vermont Holocaust Memorial, wrote on behalf of her board of directors. “Six million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust because of anti-Semitism, but unfortunately anti-Semitism did not die with them.”
Subtle? Not so much
Even years after use of the restricted label ceased in the early 1950s, the sentiments remained.
Nancy Stead, who worked at the Mount Mansfield Company in 1964, told writer Elinor Earle, “When I worked at the Lodge, they weren’t excluding Jews, but simply shaping their peak season with preferred guests. Pre-Christmas, maybe 50 percent of the clientele was Jewish, but after Christmas, it was virtually 100 percent Christian.
“The Lodge still kept guest cards with a code that would indicate, among other things, how well a guest tipped, how much money they spent and what was their religious persuasion.”
Federal legislation eventually brought a legal end to the restrictions. President Truman’s controversial Executive Order 9981, signed in July of 1948, proclaimed equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion or national origin. Some lodging establishments in Stowe began dropping the restricted label around that time, and in 1955 Vermont Attorney General Robert Stafford blasted discrimination and said “it is illegal to bar a person from a public establishment in Vermont because of race, color or creed,” while noting that the state had no specific anti-discrimination law.
But it wasn’t until the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that discrimination on the grounds of race, color, religion or national origin was outlawed in hotels, motels, restaurants, theaters and all other public accommodations engaged in interstate commerce, with the exception of private clubs.
Stowe native John Lord recalled: “Restrictions stopped around 1948 once Truman passed a federal law banning discrimination in the armed services. But up until that time, no innkeeper I know of who ran a restricted lodge voluntarily changed his or her policy.”
And Beckerhoff noted, “The laws didn’t necessarily change the attitude, but they certainly changed the advertising. If someone didn’t want you to stay at their lodge, they’d simply say they were full. Economics played a larger role in ending restrictions than any law.”
Who was Helen Day?
Montanari was born to a wealthy family in Massachusetts, educated at Radcliffe College in Cambridge, Mass., and spent a good deal of time in Italy. She married an Italian naval officer during World War I and they had three children.
Her husband died and, in 1920, she returned to Massachusetts, settling in Newton.
There she met Lichtenthaeler, a medical doctor who’d recently completed her studies, and saw Montanari for an appointment; their relationship grew from there.
Lichtenthaeler had earlier come to Stowe and by the mid 1930s she purchased her first piece of property. Montanari followed her to Stowe a few years later and the pair purchased several other land parcels and buildings.
Montanari lived in town until she died in 1955, leaving a $40,000 trust — about $400,000 in today’s dollars — to start a library and art center. Lichtenthaeler practiced medicine into her 80s and remained in Stowe until her death in 1974.
A not-so-secret rumor, which has also never been confirmed, in the community was that the couple performed abortions, which were illegal in Vermont at the time. The details were never made clear, but their get-away cabin just outside of town was home to summer retreats for women for many years.
In terms of how the pair operated their various business ventures, Baraw reiterated they were a team.
“I think Helen stayed in the background, and the doctor was out front,” Baraw said. “She was a popular doctor with some and disliked by others. She was a strong woman.”
Echoing the sentiments of others with ties to the development of the art center, which opened in 1981, Baraw said that despite the fact that the Montanari and Lichtentaeler did operate a restricted lodging facility, she also saw them as women who left indelible marks on Stowe, who were, in many ways, both products of their time and ahead of their time in what they were able to accomplish.
“I wish I had known them,” she said.
As Rabbi David Fainsilber, spiritual leader of the Jewish Community of Greater Stowe, wrote in a letter to the Stowe Reporter, “History holds power. While the art center is a welcoming place for so many, it also has a namesake who committed anti-Semitic actions. It is quite true the art center is inclusive and does not engage in anti-Semitism; that is precisely why the name is being changed to reflect those values.”
The Vermont Holocaust Memorial has also weighed in on the name change, and why it is important.
“It is comforting that the art center is taking this issue into consideration in their rebranding. But this is not just a Jewish issue. It’s an American issue. This is an issue of setting history right by not honoring those who discriminate. Racism, bigotry and hatred have no place in our community, state or country,” Steinerman said.
Moore, too, acknowledged that the women were progressive for their time and fought for arts and culture in Stowe, but despite their “forward-thinking, the women espoused deeply held anti-Semitic and racist beliefs,” and that it was the art center’s responsibility to “better reflect who we are as an organization. This is an important movement to acknowledge this troubling past, and face it with action to stand for a future devoid of hate or prejudice.”
“If we are really going to make change, we are not going to do it by standing by, being complacent, or staying silent,” Moore said. “We need to use our voices, especially in places of power and privilege, to be leaders; to show that doing nothing is causing harm.”
Publisher Greg Popa is a board member of the Helen Day Art Center.