Wineka column: Slumbering Blackmer House awakens, revealing mysteries of past
SALISBURY — The Blackmer House is Salisbury’s very own Rip Van Winkle. After almost 30 years in a deep slumber, the historic residence has slowly been coming back to life, shedding its long beard of neglect.
Because visitors will be able to walk the grounds and see inside the 1820 structure for the first time in decades, the Fulton-Mock-Blackmer House promises to be a top draw for this year’s OctoberTour next Saturday and Sunday.
Most people know the house’s connection to Salisbury’s most famous film and stage star, actor Sidney Blackmer and his actress wife, Suzanne. The Blackmer family owned this residence from 1931 to 2012.
If you’ve lived at least a little while in Salisbury, you’ve probably heard of the Dec. 1, 1984 fire that severely damaged the house and led to its being a shuttered nuisance to its neighbors — charred on the inside, an overgrown, varmint-infested mess on the outside.
But the house had some guardian angels who after the fire did enough to stabilize the house, and despite several close calls over the years, prevent it from being torn down.
The house’s awakening started last summer with the ultimate save — Historic Salisbury Foundation’s purchase of the house July 2, 2012.
Since then, the transformation led mostly by volunteers has occurred from top to bottom. They’ve uprooted vegetation, removed debris, followed through on some of nature’s demolition and, with the help of grants and a contractor, started on a new back porch.
HSF will listen to an offer for the house today, if one comes. The foundation hasn’t established an asking price, but it probably would start at the $110,000 paid for the house in 2012, plus whatever other expenses the foundation has in stabilizing the structure.
Brian M. Davis, executive director of HSF, says his organization’s goal is to stabilize, outline a preservation plan and market the house for its return to a single-family residence.
A buyer could take advantage of $225,000 worth of historic preservation tax credits during a restoration, but those credits are set to sunset (expire) at the end of 2014.
“It’s really a key to the success of this project,” Davis says.
From the 100 block of South Fulton Street, the original Federalist-style of the 1820 house — one of Salisbury’s oldest — is now clearly evident. A wide center walkway has returned. From here, you can see the house’s promise.
The inside is more of a laboratory, on many levels. It’s a remarkable journey into the belly of a fire, especially on the second floor. Whole walls and stairways are charred. In a few places only remnants of walls remain.
Floors in some rooms are spongy in places. You only want to walk along designated paths. Davis’ foot has gone through a floor a couple of times.
From the inside, you can see sunshine seeping in between gaps in the siding. When volunteers first spent days going upstairs to clean things out, they emerged looking like coal miners from all the soot.
At first blush, you ask whether the 5,000-square-foot Blackmer House could ever be restored to a modern residence again.
Preservationists are confident it can be, but it would be as much re-creation as restoration in wide expanses of the home.
“Absolutely, it can be restored,” Davis says, and as he told his foundation board so many times, “it’s too important to let it go.”
The encouraging part is, the house is full of clues.
Historic Salisbury Foundation keeps uncovering details and finding evidence of original wallpaper, paint colors, windows, siding, interior woodwork and the ghost lines of where things such as mantels and chair rails were.
The discoveries have been exhilarating to everybody who has been laboring on the house.
One of the most exciting finds — a rare one, for sure — has been an original, custom-made blue wallpaper in the front parlor.
The tribute wallpaper carries the repeated portrait of Commodore Stephen Decatur, a renowned U.S. naval officer of his day. At least 15 cities and towns in the United States are named for Decatur, including Decatur, Ill., Ala., and Ga.
Decatur built a hero’s reputation in the Tripolitan War, the War of 1812 and in battles against Barbary pirates. He is still known for the famous country-right-or-wrong toast he made in April 1816, which became the expression of American patriotism:
“Our Country! In her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be in the right; but our country right or wrong.”
Decatur was challenged to a duel in Bladensburg, Md., March 22, 1820, and died from his wounds. The Fulton-Mock-Blackmer House in Salisbury was being built during 1820.
In several places in the parlor, the images of Decatur in his high naval collar with ships at battle in the background are clearly evident. Foundation officials first thought the faded images were that of George Washington, until seeing Decatur’s name inscribed below his portrait.
Davis says the house’s original owner, John Fulton, was a sales agent in his day and would have wanted to showcase the finer items such as this wallpaper, which he expects came from Baltimore.
“Nobody we’re connected with — no one has ever seen this pattern before,” Davis says.
Workers found and reattached second-floor balconies, which were stored in the garage and probably added when the A.J. Mock family owned the house.
The Mocks also added Italianate brackets above the front windows. Those six brackets were uncovered under back-yard debris. They have been powder-coated and reattached.
Davis says the most notable people associated with the house in modern times are the Blackmers. For that reason, the house probably will be restored to match the photographs that exist of its Greek Revival style in the Blackmers’ time.
The house’s four Ionic columns from that era had been lying in the front hallway all these years. The columns only recently have been moved to the garage for safer keeping, but they will return, with a new front porch fashioned after the one added by the Mock family in the early 1900s.
When the columns were removed after the fire, contractor Al Wilson intentionally left the base of one of the columns in place to serve as a road map for others.
Wilson also built the temporary roof on the house after the fire, which in hindsight, saved the structure from falling in on itself. Davis says the original roof was higher and will be re-created, re-establishing another half story or full attic to the house.
A back southwest corner to the home still shows the original foundation of field stone. On the southern end next to a chimney, one also sees an original Federal-style window, higher and narrower than replacement windows the Mocks installed later.
The southern side reveals a much wider siding indicative of the 1820 era. Davis says three-quarters of the siding had to be replaced after the fire.
Portions of a brick path in the back have been discovered. The path will be studied to see whether it once linked the house to a detached kitchen.
Timbers salvaged from this year’s Grimes Mill fire already are being incorporated into some of the restoration and rebuilding of the back porch and kitchen.
As you enter the front hallway, you realize how similar the Blackmer House’s floor plan is to the Hall House museum, also owned by HSF. Only the staircase is reversed.
Davis says the first floor of the Blackmer House will be the only one open for inspection during OctoberTour.
While much is known about the Blackmers’ ownership of the house, the foundation also has learned more of its connection to the original owner John Fulton.
Fulton Street and the Fulton Masonic Lodge bear his name. Fulton built the house to serve as his family’s residence and also as a boarding house for young women attending the female academy at the Hall House.
A male academy was located at Kerr and Fulton streets in the Shober House, which was demolished in the 1970s.
An advertisement from Fulton that appeared in the Jan. 1, 1821, edition of the Western Carolinian newspaper mentioned his new house:
“The subscriber is now finishing a large and commodious house in this place, on the western side of the town, situated between the Male and Female Academies, which he intends as a boarding-house for young ladies.”
Fulton goes on to say his charge for room and board will be $75 a year. Using a conversion table, Davis says $75 in 1821 would have the same buying power as $1,543.38 today.
Historian Susan Sides also found an interesting link between the Fulton family and President Andrew Jackson, who studied law in Salisbury as a young adult.
John Fulton had a brother David who lived in Baltimore. That ties into evidence Sides found that John Fulton received furniture shipped from Baltimore and Philadelphia to sell in Salisbury.
But the intriguing part for Sides is David Fulton’s son, William Savin Fulton. In 1815, William Fulton traveled to Florida to serve as private secretary to a family friend (probably from his days in Salisbury), Gen. Andrew Jackson, who was fighting the Seminole Wars.
Later as president, Jackson appointed William Fulton governor of Arkansas in 1835.
Sides also located a copy of a letter from William Fulton to his uncle, John Fulton.
“So we have connections to a nationally prominent Fulton,” Sides says.
These days, few communities have buildings dating back to 1820.
Fulton didn’t live long in his new house. He died in 1827, and the property passed on to his stepson, Maxwell Chambers.
At one time, before its purchase by A.J. Mock, the property was deeded to Davidson College.
Most of the tall cedars, holly tree and cucumber magnolia noticeable from Fulton Street were planted by Sidney Blackmer.
This past week, in the yard in front of the Blackmer House, several HSF volunteers were hunched down around a test pit, conducting an archaeological dig of sorts.
The “pit crew” included Ray Barber, Carol Rathbun, Jon Taylor and Gary Horne.
Meanwhile, Doug Black and Gene Krueger painted the temporary porch, erected to accommodate workers and OctoberTour crowds. Inside, Don Conner was trying to stabilize flooring in the front living room.
In the living room, HSF has set up a mini-exhibit displaying items and pieces of artifacts found in and around the house. They include gin bottles, buttons, dishes, even a hand grenade.
Horne has considerable experience digging for artifacts in Italy and was glad to pitch in. By finding things such as brass buttons and chards of ceramics and glass in the ground, preservationists might be able to take the patterns and connect them to dates and places of origin.
It all will go toward telling a little bit more about the people who lived here.
“I think this house has a lot more surprises for us,” Horne says.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or firstname.lastname@example.org.