19
Jul-2016

Woodlawn shows off 19th century high-life

Behind the Black House is a garden enclosed by a clipped lilac hedge. Built in 1903, the garden later supplied cut flowers for Woodlawn’s afternoon teas. PHOTO BY DAVID ROZA

American history fans need look no further than Ellsworth’s Woodlawn Museum to get their fix. The heart of the estate, which covers 180 acres, is The Black House, built by Col. John Black between 1824 and 1827.

Flowing fields surround the Federal-style brick mansion constructed during the river city’s booming lumber trade in the early 19th century. The house is full of furnishings and decorations that trace the history of the United States from the Puritan settlers to the Roaring ’20s.

“Woodlawn is a treasure trove, certainly in Maine if not in New England” said Joshua Torrance, the museum’s executive director.

The American Revolution is built into the house’s architecture. The bricks in its walls and chimneys were imported from Philadelphia, where the Declaration of Independence was written and where the U.S. Constitution was signed. The marble in its nine fireplaces was quarried in Valley Forge, where George Washington’s army kindled the resolve to win the Revolutionary War during the winter of 1777.

Portraits of Revolutionary War generals Henry Knox, David Cobb and George Washington flank the Black House’s spiral staircase, below portraits of Marianne Black, George Nixon Black Jr.’s sister, and Francis Wood Black, Colonel Black’s second wife. PHOTO BY DAVID ROZA

Portraits of Revolutionary War generals Henry Knox, David Cobb and George Washington flank the Black House’s spiral staircase, below portraits of Marianne Black, George Nixon Black Jr.’s sister, and Francis Wood Black, Colonel Black’s second wife.
PHOTO BY DAVID ROZA

Though the revolutionary theme probably was not intended, the last Black family member to live in the house, George Nixon Black Jr., was quite the patriot. Along the walls of the house’s spiral staircase, Black hung up portraits of George Washington, Washington’s chief artillery officer Henry Knox and Black’s great-grandfather-in-law, Gen. David Cobb.

“Nixon was very proud of his heritage,” said Phyllis Young, the museum’s marketing and development coordinator.

The house’s library, named The Cobb Room, has a 1672 copy of “The Laws and Liberties of Massachusetts,” which was one of the first constitutions in America (Maine was once a part of Massachusetts, so the laws applied here, too).

As the Black family’s wealth expanded with the lumber industry, they began to travel the world and — as any wealthy Victorian-era family would do —they brought quite a few treasures back with them.

“One of these days I’m going to count the number of animals in this house,” Young said. It will be a daunting task. First, there are the actual animals — or parts of animals — scattered throughout the house. A preserved peacock from the 1930s stands in one corner of the Blacks’ office, eyeing Col. John Black’s business records and inkwells. Peacocks roaming the grounds added an exotic flair to the house, but the non-native birds had a hard time surviving the Maine winters.

Better prepared were the elk, whose massive antlers hang above the portraits on the staircase wall. But there are still more animals in sculptures and paintings. In the parlor sits an Italian lamp holder that features sculptures of owls, rams and a serpent. A bull sits in a Buddhist tapestry, one that Nixon probably brought back from East Asia following the growth of trade there in the late 19th century.

One of the Blacks’ many inkwells. “One of these days I’m going to count the number of animals in this house,” Phyllis Young, the museum’s marketing and development coordinator, pledged. PHOTO BY DAVID ROZA

One of the Blacks’ many inkwells. “One of these days I’m going to count the number of animals in this house,” Phyllis Young, the museum’s marketing and development coordinator, pledged.
PHOTO BY DAVID ROZA

From the Caribbean to Asia, Nixon’s collecting habits reflect the economic and imperial ambitions of the rest of the country. But the Blacks had a habit of spreading their wealth through donations to art studios in Boston, the horticulture program at Harvard University, and by donating the building that is now the Ellsworth Public Library to the city of Ellsworth.

The house “really connects local people to their roots,” Young said.

Not that the Blacks lacked comfort. “Downton Abbey” fans will recognize the ceiling-mounted system of ropes and bells that summoned servants to the different rooms of the house. One of the Blacks’ most extravagant purchases was the bed in Col. Black’s room.

“They called it the ‘Best Bed’ because it was the best bed they could find in Boston,” Torrance said.

The 189-year-old bed still has its 21-piece silk curtain, its original mattress and the invoice and instructions from the upholsterer on how to put it all together. All that makes it one of the best documented historic bedsteads in the country. The bed also is the best example of what George Nixon Black Jr. wanted the house to look like when he left it to the Hancock County Trustees of Public Reservations in 1928.

“In my mind, it almost feels like Nixon’s downtown and he said, ‘Go into the house, I’ll be up in a few minutes,’” Young said. “It really presents a family and how they lived in this house.”

Woodlawn Museum

Where: Black House Drive (off Route 172), Ellsworth

Hours (June-Sept.): 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, 1 to 4 p.m. Sundays.

How much: $10 per adult, $3 per child

Contact: 667-8671, www.woodlawnmuseum.com

Related Posts

David grew up in Washington County, Maryland, has reported in Washington County, Oregon, and now covers news in Hancock County and Washington County, Maine for The American and Out & About.