John Black was an Englishman, who had been recommended for the position of secretary to one of Washington’s Generals, David Cobb, who after the Revolution had come Down East as agent for the Bingham family, who had recently purchased 2,000,000 acres of Maine with an eye to development. Black had been recommended to Cobb by the Barings of Barings bank, who also had a stake in the Maine lands. He did well in his job, in due course married Cobb’s daughter, and succeeded his father-in-law as the Bingham’s agent. Black became the leading citizen of the area, and in 1827, his fortune secure, he set about to build a house on a hill outside Ellsworth.
An architect could have been summoned from the city, given Black’s cosmopolitanism and wealth, but instead, he chose a local builder with talent for design, Seth Tisdale, and together, they created an elegant, and for the time, modern, house with a revolutionary side hall plan. And how did they do this? They took a plate from the 1816 edition of Asher Benjamin’s American Builder’s companion, customized it with details from the book, ordered brick from Philadelphia, and some time later, they had built what was in those times the then grandest house in eastern Maine, elegant, gracefully proportioned, with one of the loveliest curved stairs to survive from that era—all using the helpful instructions of Asher Benjamin. In fact, with the graceful semicircular stair, they did Benjamin one better, replacing the straight upper landing with an s-curve that neatly completes the circle. I don’t have a picture available, but the transition of the scrolled stair bracket decoration to the upper landing facing is virtuosic.
Most of Woodlawn’s lovely details, railings, door casings, mantels, balustrades, interior shutters, can all be traced to designs chosen from Benjamin’s book, and the finished result shows just how far a talented builder could go, with a set of rules to follow in gauging proportion and detail. In copying Benjamin’s design, the floorplan was followed exactly, but the elevation was tweaked, with triple hung windows reaching to the floor from the drawing rooms, and portico along the front of the central block. What a huge difference from today’s builder houses, with their ‘one of everything’ from the window catalog. What we have lost from average building in recent years is proportion and grace, whatever architectural style is being essayed.
I can think of a dozen other houses around here from the early 19th century with surprisingly lovely and sophisticated staircases—the Ruggles House at Columbia falls is a particularly fine example—and so it remains until the 1940’s. And from then on, I cannot think of a house, no matter how well designed, or expensive, that has a really worthy stair. It’s a mystery to me.
John Black’s grandson, George Nixon Black, who used the house only in the spring and fall, died in 1927, leaving Woodlawn, its expansive park-like grounds, and three generations of family furnishings to the Hancock County Trustees of Public Reservations, who administer it as a house museum and park. The house’s lovely furnishings are as Mr. Black left them in 1927. For more information, visit the Woodlawn website http://www.woodlawnmuseum.com/ It is one of half a dozen exceptional historic houses to be visited in this region.
Incidentally, the last Mr. Black, in addition to his munificent gift of Woodlawn to down east Maine, was also a major benefactor of the American collections at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, has also achieved immortality in architectural history for having commissioned one of the most admired houses of the shingle style, his summer home at Manchester Massachusetts, designed by Peabody & Stearns. This is definitely not a house out of the pattern books, and is a virtuoso performance by young architects at the beginning of their successful practice. Kragsyde was demolished in 1929, two years after Black’s death, but interestingly, a copy has been built, reversed from the original plans, on Swan’s Island, not 25 miles from Woodlawn.
Photo Credits: Color Photos by Dilettante or from Woodlawn website, black & white photos of Woodlawn from Historic American Buildings Survey. Staircase 1 from Sotheby’s Realty