Bunnell, Rufus (1835-1909)
Rufus William Bunnell (February 11, 1835-February 21, 1909), a native of Bridgeport, Connecticut, is best known in North Carolina as assistant architect and draftsman for the Bellamy Mansion (1859-1861) in Wilmington, one of the state’s most spectacular houses from the late antebellum era. Employed as “assistant architect” by Wilmington architect-builder James F. Post from March 1859 to July 1860, Bunnell spent much of his time in preparing the drawings and specifications for the immense wood frame house and supervising its construction. While working in Post’s office, Bunnell also provided drawings or specifications for other buildings Post had taken on, but the Bellamy project was his principal assignment.
Bunnell spent most of his life in New England. According to the finding guide to the Bunnell Family Papers (MS 1149) at Yale University Library, he was the son of woolen manufacturer William Rufus Bunnell and Sarah E. Haight Bunnell. Sarah died when Rufus was young, and the father married Cornelia Sterling, of a notable New England family. Rufus attended local schools and in 1852 entered the employment of carpenter and architect Chauncey Graham, from whom he learned drafting and surveying, and he was briefly chief draftsman in Graham’s architectural office in Trenton, New Jersey. He moved about for a time, from Trenton, New Jersey, to Toledo, Ohio, to Albany, New York, and back to Bridgeport, Connecticut. In March 1859 he accepted an offer from James F. Post to come to work in his office in Wilmington, North Carolina. He returned to Bridgeport in July 1860 and formed an architectural partnership with E. Richard Lambert. He served with the Union Army during the Civil War, then returned to Bridgeport and his association with Lambert. Bunnell continued in the practice of architecture for many years. After the death of his architectural partner Lambert in 1901, he opened his own office in his home in Stratford, Connecticut.
In 1869 Bunnell married Catharine Mary Sterling (1840-1931), a member of the same prestigious New England family as his stepmother, Cornelia. (Catharine was the daughter of Captain John William and Catharine Tomlinson Sterling of Stratford, Connecticut. Her siblings included Cordelia Sterling [d. 1931] and John William Sterling [1844-1918], a wealthy attorney and major benefactor of Yale University. Catharine’s father, Captain John William Sterling, was the brother of Cornelia Sterling Bunnell.) Rufus and Catharine Bunnell had three children, Sterling Haight Bunnell (b. 1871-1959), Frank Scott Bunnell (1872-1959) and Catharine Tomlinson Bunnell (Mitchell) (1876-1955).
For the New England architect, his sojourn in Wilmington—his introduction to the South and to a slave society—was a memorable experience. He kept a record of his impressions and experiences which he subsequently used in an unpublished autobiography, which he wrote after 1900 when he revisited Wilmington for the first time since the Civil War. (This document is in the Bunnell Family Papers at Yale; transcripts of the Wilmington portions are at the New Hanover County Public Library in Wilmington. Portions of his account are quoted in Janet K. Seapker, “James F. Post, Builder-Architect: The Legend and the Ledger,”” Lower Cape Fear Historical Society Bulletin, May 1987; and Catherine W. Bishir, The Bellamy Mansion).
James F. Post, a native of New Jersey, was an established builder in Wilmington by the late 1850s and had begun to identify himself as an architect. He had completed some of the city’s principal buildings, including the City Hall-Thalian Hall (designed by New York theater architect John M. Trimble), and he also constructed buildings from his own designs, often inspired by current architectural publications. In 1858 Post took on the commission for the large residence of Dr. John D. Bellamy and his family. Early in 1859, Post wrote to a friend in New Jersey and asked him to “find him some architect to come to him in Wilmington.” In mid-April, Post agreed to Bunnell’s desired pay of $2 a day and encouraged him to come immediately. After a two-day journey, Bunnell arrived on May 7, 1859. He soon found that he and Post had different perspectives on matters of politics and slavery, but he learned to keep his own counsel.
On May 12, Post advertised in the Wilmington Journal that “Having employed an assistant architect,” he was ready to furnish plans and specifications promptly. Post put Bunnell to work on drawings for a Presbyterian church, various stores and residences, a livery stable, and warehouses. Bunnell noted that Post turned over much of the drawing work to him, “to complete or revise as I deemed best, under some merely general direction, so leaving me a pretty independant [sic] swing. But I found him to have a considerable liking for classic designs.” (See James F. Post Building List.)
The majority of Bunnell’s time in Wilmington, as noted above, was devoted to the Bellamy project. He later appended a note to a photograph of the house, “This house was . . . the finest residence designed by me in the architectural office of Mr. Jas. F. Post.” His autobiography traces its construction over the months and mentions his interaction with the free black contractor Elvin Artis as well as his reactions to the unfamiliar presence of enslaved artisans. Bunnell made out the bill of timber for the immense frame of the house, planned the frame structure and the roof, and regularly provided drawings for the columns, louvered blinds and other components ordered from factories in northern cities. Only one of his drawings of the house is known to survive, a water color drawing of the main façade, which is likely the one he made for his own collection in March, 1860; it is held by the Bellamy Mansion Museum. Bunnell also noted that he learned several “tricks of the architectural trade” from Post, including methods of estimating the cost of buildings.
In the summer of 1860, with the Bellamy House nearing completion and sectional tensions growing more intense, Bunnell decided to make a trip back north. After collecting his “squares, instruments, colors, etc.,” he left on the early morning train on August 6. His departure proved to be permanent. For a brief time, he continued to assist Post in finishing up the Bellamy House by visiting northern manufacturers who were busily fulfilling orders for the project in anticipation of the war. Not until 1900 did Bunnell return to Wilmington for a visit, and he wrote his autobiography not long after this. Bunnell died in 1909 and was buried in Stratford, Connecticut. His widow, Catharine Sterling Bunnell, survived him as did their three children.
- Catherine W. Bishir, The Bellamy Mansion, Wilmington North Carolina: An Antebellum Architectural Treasure and Its People (2004).
- Bunnell Family Papers (MS 1149), Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University Library, New Haven, Connecticut.
- Janet K. Seapker, “James F. Post, Builder-Architect: The Legend and the Ledger,” Lower Cape Fear Historical Society Bulletin (May 1987).
- Dates:1859-1861Location:Wilmington, New Hanover CountyStreet Address:503 Market St., Wilmington, NCStatus:StandingType:ResidentialImages Puslished In:Catherine W. Bishir, North Carolina Architecture (1990).
Catherine W. Bishir and Michael T. Southern, A Guide to the Historic Architecture of Eastern North Carolina (1996).
Catherine W. Bishir, The Bellamy Mansion, Wilmington North Carolina: An Antebellum Architectural Treasure and Its People (2004).
Tony P. Wrenn, Wilmington, North Carolina: An Architectural and Historical Portrait (1984).Note:Post's ledger records "Plans and Specifications" and "Commission [on] $21,000 for Dr. John D. Bellamy for $100 and $1,050," respectively; a note at the end of the Bellamy entry states "To amount agreed upon as being due in June 1866," so apparently Post's bill was not settled until after the war. Rufus Bunnell's recollections of his time in Wilmington describes the progress of the construction in detail.