April 23, 2018
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Ellsworth’s Jewel

Colonel Black’s House, or Woodlawn, standing majestically on a hill on Ellsworth’s Surry Road, differs from most other historic houses. Others mostly offer tours, especially at Christmastime. The Black House does that, too, with a “Victorian Christmas,” including multiple events starting Nov. 30. But it also offers 90 programs and activities including craft classes, workshops, croquet, a year-round weekly farmers market, and hiking and dog walking on its two miles of trails.

Lumber baron Col. John Black built the mansion in the 1820s. His grandson George Nixon Black died in 1928 and willed it to the same trust that founded Acadia National Park.

The trustees operated it for many years with a caretaker and volunteer docents, or guides, for visitors’ tours. By 2000, they could see that more was needed. For the first time they hired a full-time executive director, Joshua Torrance, then completing his studies at Cooperstown Graduate Program for Museum Studies.

After arranging for an inventory of all the furnishings the Black family had accumulated in the century they lived there and insuring them, Mr. Torrance began supervising a 10-year restoration or “preservation” of the beautiful Georgian mansion.

Basic repairs were overdue. The huge, 8-by-12-inch “plate” that topped the brick walls was completely rotted out. So were the lower 3 feet of the rafters. Five of the 11 Ionic columns along the front showed serious rot. A southern Maine supplier made them to order. When the truck arrived, Mr. Torrance complained that the “capitals” or bases did not quite match the sample he had sent. “But they are just like the ones we made for the White House,” the company responded. Mr. Torrance replied that this wasn’t the White House but the Black House and sent them back for replacement.

The new roof and other work was finished this spring. Next must come rebuilding of the barn to house a collection of carriages and the offices now in the main house. One more nagging task remains: The swelling roots of the tall pines and maples and spruces had broken up sections of the mile and a half of stone walls that Col. Black ordered built in the late 1820s. Repairs cost $40,000, paid for by a private visitor and contributed labor by a local firm, as well as minor fees changed for a workshop on stone wall building.

Financing that wall job was typical of the new management. Fees for seminars and other activities now help pay for operations, instead of just the smaller revenue from tours. Gifts and grants also have kept the nonprofit Woodlawn Museum, Gardens & Park in the black every year for the decade.

With that record of restoration and community involvement, the Black House stands as a model for other historic houses. The National Trust for Historic Preservation described it in May as being “in the forefront of sites pursuing a broader vision of their role in preservation.”

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