The Ruggles House, designed by housewright Aaron S. Sherman of Marshfield, Massachusetts, was built 1818-1820 for Judge Thomas Ruggles, a wealthy lumber dealer, postmaster, captain of the local militia and Justice of the Court of Sessions for Washington County. This particularly lovely example of Adamesque style Federal period architecture is remarkable for its location as well as its survival.
The house is renowned for its flying staircase, which comprises almost a third of the house. Intricate woodwork, crafted by Massachusetts carver, Alvah Peterson, is especially abundant in the west parlor.
The Ruggles House was lived in for 100 years, until 1920, by three generations of the Ruggles family. By then the house was in quite a state of disrepair. Through the diligence of Ruggles descendant, Mary Ruggles Chandler, restoration efforts began in the 1920’s and were completed in 1951 when the house first opened for tours. The house museum is supported and maintained by the Ruggles House Society, a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, through voluntary contributions.
Many of the furnishings in the house are original Ruggles pieces, some that never left the house and many that have returned over the years. All other furnishings are period to when the Ruggles family was in residence.
The History of the Ruggles House
At the end of the eighteenth century, Thomas Ruggles came from Rochester, Massachusetts, to a settlement called plantation 13 in the vast, forested, northern part of the state that became, in 1820, the state of Maine. Ruggles made a fortune there, amassing thousands of acres of virgin timber and exporting the lumber in his own ships; he also achieved the status that accompanies great wealth in a new society. Head of the militia, first postmaster (the place was renamed Columbia in 1796), and chief justice of Court of Sessions in Washington County, he was able to pay the very large sum of $25,000 to buy out his younger brother Benjamin’s holdings when Benjamin decided to return to Rhode Island.
He was also able to build this house, extraordinary both for its time and ours, although he was not destined to enjoy it for long. Begun in 1818 the house was completed in 1820; Ruggles died in December of that year. (A small cemetery just outside of what is called Columbia Falls today, population 600, has his modest tombstone. Remote and utterly still, the burial ground is carpeted with low-growing wild blueberries that wreath all the markers. Part of his epitaph contains this wry phrase: “In human hearts what bolder thought can rise/Than man’s presumption on tomorrow’s dawn.”)
Today the Ruggles House, a jewel of Federal design and Adam ornament, gleams with care and attention, but it was not always so. Entwined in its history is pitiful neglect born of poverty and the vigorous efforts of a remarkable modern descendant. Mary Ruggles Chandler made its preservation a lifetime commitment, a cause in which she enlisted the attention of many people, including wealthy individuals from Bar Harbor, Maine, and the founder of the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, William Sumner Appleton.
Columbia Falls is still out of the way; it’s a good forty miles past Bar Harbor and the road to Mount Desert Island where most of the tourism peels off in coastal Maine. When Thomas Ruggles hired Aaron Sherman, a housewright for the coastal Massachusetts town of Marshfield, south of Boston, it must have been a long way to travel indeed. Sherman, and woodcarver Alvah Peterson who came up with him to work on the Ruggles House, lavished upon it sophisticated design and detail unprecedented this far north, where lumber must have clogged the rivers and the sawmills but had not yet been worked with this kind of delicacy, overlaying imported mahogany, fluted, carved, planned, and turned in true virtuoso style.
After Ruggles untimely death, the house descended in the family; as the male line died out, it underwent a long, slow decline. By the early 1900s, one grand-daughter, Lizzie Ruggles, lived in the house. She died in 1920 in her late sixties. Mary Chandler, her cousin, was a graduate pharmacist, a woman with a profession and some influence. Her efforts to save the house resulted, just after World War II, in its first restoration and in gathering of antiques to furnish it, many of the original Ruggles pieces. She died in 1955, having the satisfaction, at the age of eighty, of being its first docent and the assurance of its future as a historic home museum. Presently, the Ruggles House Society has stabilized the basic structure–the roof, new chimneys, and modern systems. The ell at the rear of the house had so deteriorated by 1938 that it was razed, and for 67 years all that remained of it was photographs. The Society’s over 50 year goal was finally realized with the rebuilding of the ell in 2005, which includes a wonderful artifact, the remains of the original basement kitchen hearth, which was uncovered in archaeological digs in 2000, 2003 and 2004.
Smaller than one would expect (a visiting architect called it seven-eighths scale) and only one room deep on each floor, there is something poignant about the house because of its riches-to-rags history. The Ruggles who had all the money in the world to build it didn’t live long enough to enjoy it, and the Ruggles who lived in it at its worst didn’t have the funds to patch it up. A member of the board that oversees the running of the house now, and takes such good care of it, tells the story of a woman who stopped by not too long ago. She had been there as a child in the early twenties or thirties with her mother, a friend of Mary Chandler’s; they had come over from Bar Harbor on a rainy afternoon, she remembered. She also remembered a musty, decayed, and dismal house. The wallpaper was gone, she said, plaster hung off the walls, some of the windows were gone. She went to the dining room door and opened it, but Miss Chandler wouldn’t let them proceed because the floor was unsafe to stand on.
Needless to say, she was enthralled with the way it looks today.