Cleanup day at the Blackmer house

Published 12:00 am Saturday, July 7, 2012

By Mark Wineka
SALISBURY — As sweaty, energized workers lopped off limbs and felled entire trees or pulled at vines and dug up weeds Saturday morning, they kept finding clues.
The long-neglected 1820 Fulton-Blackmer House at 112 S. Fulton St. was revealing some of its secrets.
Ed Clement cut and yanked at volunteer trees so he could have an unobstructed view of the original fieldstone foundation on the southwest corner of the house.
It doesn’t exist elsewhere around the structure, but having this hand-laid section informs a future restoration.
Brian Davis tugged away the vegetation covering a base to one of the four huge columns that used to be out front.
It’s the only base left, but it will help considerably if Historic Salisbury Foundation decides to return columns to the front facade.
“We only need one,” Clement said.
Charles Lane used his chain saw to fell a diseased cherry tree, and only steps away, poking from the ground, was the boundary to the central walkway that once led from Fulton Street to the front door.
“That’s the edge of the brick,” Davis noted.
“Oh, yeah,” Clement said. “It’s very visible.”
Clement has a notebook of old photographs of the house, and front views show how the path was as wide or wider than the expansive door frame of the front entrance.
Clement also was impressed with the wide slats on the shutters, their pegged construction and the ironwork.
“They’re pretty old,” said Clement, the longtime preservationist and leading force behind the founding of Historic Salisbury Foundation 40 years ago.
When much of the vegetation was cleared around the caved-in back porch, six iron balcony brackets were revealed within the mess.
Jim Carli lifted one off the ground and judged its weight at about 50 pounds.
“There are a lot of little clues,” said Davis, executive director of the Historic Salisbury Foundation, which purchased the house this past Monday for its tax value — $109,611.
Saturday morning’s exterior cleanup was quickly scheduled after the purchase. To beat the heat, HSF staffers, officers and volunteers — about 20 were involved — started at 8 a.m. and within a few hours built a mountain of vegetation near the front corner gate.
The city of Salisbury will haul the debris away.
Davis said the cleanup day was important in showing the community the foundation was serious and starting.
“You can see the house now,” HSF President Susan Sides said by mid morning. “… We’re going to make changes here, as timely as we can.”
Sides described the Fulton-Blackmer House as one of the most important projects the foundation has taken on in its 40 years.
“And it’s never been one person,” she said of the nonprofit organization.
John Fulton, for whom Fulton Street is named, built this home as a boarding house for out-of-town girls attending a Salisbury girls academy.
It later became a private residence, with four columns added to the original Federal design sometime between 1863 and 1907. Clement said he has seen two published reports about the origin of the columns which are at odds with each other.
“Anyway, the columns are well over 100 years old,” he said.
Those columns are saved and lying inside the boarded up house, along with their capitals (the top part of columns).
Whether the columns will be returned as part of the eventual restoration will be up to the foundation’s preservation plan.
To help with that plan, Davis said, the foundation will be consulting with nationally known preservation architect Joe Oppermann of Winston-Salem.
For more than 80 years, the house belonged to the Blackmer family, including celebrated actors Sidney and Suzanne Blackmer.
After Suzanne’s death in 2004, the house’s ownership fell to one of the late couple’s sons, Jonathan, who sold it to the foundation last Monday.
Just prior to the closing, Blackmer held a three-day yard sale to clear out some of the final, salvageable things from the house and garage.
A Dec. 1, 1984, fire seriously damaged the home, and through the years, as it deteriorated, calls came from certain quarters for its razing.
The foundation’s purchase came pretty much at the property’s eleventh hour, though it had seen many eleventh hours over the past 28 years.
Davis thinks the foundation’s assistance in providing for a new roof not long after the fire probably saved the house.
The fire damage inside was extensive, especially on the second floor.
Sides said she looks forward to the day, hopefully in the not-too-distant future, when the plywood can come off the windows to allow light inside the structure.
Right now, she noted, it’s “as dark as a tomb.”
Clement noted that just the house’s doors reflect many different architectural periods, such as Federal, Greek Revival and turn-of-the-century.
“That’s a Greek Revival door right there, Susan,” Clement told Sides as he motioned toward a back section of the house where an outside roof had fallen in.
The side yard on the south side includes an unusual cucumber magnolia tree. Two large deodara pines (or cedars) dominate the front. Clement said the Blackmers probably planted them.
Old photographs show that two large oaks once stood on each side of the central walkway, but they are gone. A tall holly tree, whose trunk still has several carvings left behind by the Blackmers, remains in the front, though dead limbs at the top are worrisome.
Saturday morning, the foundation took down a large volunteer magnolia, besides the hefty cherry tree in front.
A chain-link fence remains in place around the property. Russ Stevens and Barb Sorel were among the volunteers pulling out weeds and ivy from the street side of the fence with sweat pouring down their faces as they worked.
“It’s looking better already,” Sorel said, glad that things are finally happening with the house. “… I’ve been waiting 12 years for this.”
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263.