|Coolmore Plantation, Tarboro|
Just outside Tarboro sits one of North Carolina's finest antebellum complexes. Coolmore Plantation, built 1858–60, is a splendid Italianate villa designed by Baltimore architect E. G. Lind for J.J.W. and Martha Powell. The main house contains room after room of original furniture and exhibits elaborate plasterwork and a comprehensive scheme of decorative painting. A suite of picturesque outbuildings mirror the Italianate style of the main house. Extensive documentation of the construction and furnishing of the house survives.
Coolmore has been designated as one of North Carolina's 38 National Historic Landmarks and is one of just 20 prestigious Save America's Treasures projects in the state.
Powell was a wealthy physician and cotton planter who looked North to find a fashionable architect to design his plantation home. Lind sent builder N.A. Sherman from Baltimore to supervise construction. He ordered most of the building materials from there as well—not only glass, hardware, and paint, but also lumber, brackets, ornaments, and the spiral stair rail. He also had a lithograph of the residence printed. Steamboats churning up the Tar River delivered most of the goods to the site.
The spacious house has a central-passage plan, with the passage divided into a vestibule, a skylit stair hall, and a back hall. A full array of goods from Baltimore—sets of furniture, carpets, oil floorcloths, wallpaper, curtains, pictures, decorations and a large set of imported dishes—fill the rooms with exuberant pattern and color. The entry vestibule is a small, spectacular chamber painted cream and chalky blue crowned with gilded moldings. The flanking parlors are rich with floral painting and paper, gilding and molding—the ladies’ parlor in pastels, the gentlemen’s in darker hues. The pièce de résistance is the stair hall rising to the cupola: the spiral stair and the curving walls are frescoed in a grandly conceived and subtly rendered program of trompe-l’oeil paneling and niches creating an effect that transports the visitor to thoughts of the Po River rather than the Tar. This work was executed by Ernst Dreyer, originally of St. Petersburg, Russia, who came to Baltimore about 1840. Coolmore is said to be Dreyer’s masterpiece. The house abounds with original surfaces and accessories left very much untouched by three generations of long-lived Powells who chose to leave things as they were.
The support outbuildings are grouped neatly around the house, each one a miniature villa fitted out with cross-gabled or hipped roof and a cupola to match the residence: the dairy, the smokehouse, a servants building, the gas house that provided light for the dwelling, and the stable. Years ago the kitchen was moved across the highway and adapted into a residence.
Coolmore Plantation was donated to Preservation NC through three separate transactions in 1994 and 1995 (one bequest, one deed of gift, and one transfer of an interest by the National Trust for Historic Preservation). In consultation with the National Trust and the State Historic Preservation Office, Preservation NC determined that the property was too valuable historically to sell with protective covenants, and yet opening Coolmore to the general public at this time was not realistic for several reasons. So the property has been leased long-term to Joe and Janet Spiers, direct descendants of the original builder who have agreed to live in the house, open it periodically by appointment and take care of routine operating and capital needs. Preservation NC has taken responsibility for developing a conservation plan for the property and for dealing with the extensive artwork in the main house. An endowment for the property has been started at the North Carolina Community Foundation to help with Coolmore’s long-term care.
In 1997, Preservation North Carolina received a Project Identification Grant from the Getty Institute to take steps to ensure the preservation of Coolmore. This grant provided the necessary funds to have the house photographically recorded by a first-rate architectural photographer. Tim Buchman of Charlotte, who photographed the house and outbuildings in 1988 for Preservation NC’s North Carolina Architecture, fully recorded the interior and exterior of the house and outbuildings, using rectified photography and color registration.
The grant also provided for a conditions report undertaken by the restoration architecture firm of Phillips & Oppermann, PA. The study addressed some deferred maintenance problems at Coolmore and included research and evaluation of some modest alterations that had taken place through the generations. Several pieces of architectural ornament (shown in the 1860 lithograph) had been found in the basement or in outbuildings and needed to be identified. Additional excellent documentation includes Carl Lounsbury’s site plan for the outbuildings, extensive historical research and a recent inventory of the house’s contents by an antiques appraiser. The Getty grant also funded a preliminary plan for the conservation of Coolmore’s interior decorative paint. The paint has obviously faded during the past 135 years, and is in fragile condition. Preservation NC’s goal is to conserve, not to restore, the paint.
Preservation NC is currently in the midst of a $85,000 campaign to raise the funds needed to paint Coolmore’s exterior, doing necessary carpentry repairs and restoring original paint colors. Coolmore’s last paint job was more than twenty years ago, so the exterior painting is critical at this time. It will protect Coolmore from deterioration (this region has weathered numerous hurricanes in the past decade) and secure the property for at least a decade during which interior conservation efforts can take place. Coolmore’s beauty will be restored and it will continue to serve as a source of national pride for North Carolina.