SWAN’S ISLAND — Fresh out of college and full of energy, Jane Goodrich set out to rebuild one of the finest and most elegant homes she’d ever laid eyes on. Nearly 40 years later, long after completing a replica of that magnificent home on Swan’s Island in Maine, Goodrich has written a novel about the home’s original occupant, a mysterious Boston philanthropist named George Nixon Black.

He built the home, named Kragsyde, at Lobster Cove in Manchester-by-the-Sea, Massachusetts, in the late 1800s as a summer retreat.

Growing up in Vermont, Goodrich fell in love with the shingle-style house as a little girl, drawn in by photographs of its willowy lines, odd angles and fanciful windows that she longed to peer from. Years later, while working in her college library, she came across a familiar photo of Kragsyde on the cover of the book, “The Shingle Style and the Stick Style” by Vincent Scully.

Maine writer Jane Goodrich. Photo courtesy of the author

She went to see for herself in the late 1970s and discovered it had been torn down generations before. Devastated, she and her then-fiance and now-husband, James Beyor, a builder, decided to recreate it themselves.

They did so in Maine, on land they purchased on Swan’s Island, which is home to lobstermen and summer folk, mostly. Over two decades, they labored together, doing all the work themselves, mostly on nights and weekends, while recreating a masterpiece.

Along the way, Goodrich got to know Black very well. She not only had his architectural plans, but she developed an innate sense of who he was, how he lived and the way he thought. As she and her husband rebuilt his home and began living there, Black became a presence. He was a ghost in every corner, she said.

“You begin to imagine him after a while. I felt like he was here with us,” she said. “He doesn’t haunt the place, but he’s there in the back of your mind all the time.”

Published by Massachusetts-based Benna Books, the novel is a fictional retelling of Black’s life, though it’s all mostly true. She changed no names and created only one character, because Goodrich believed Black needed a strong female presence in his life. She thought about writing a biography, but a novel gave her more latitude and suited her style and imagination.

Writing a novel is like making a painting, she said. Writing a biography is like taking a photograph. She prefers painting.

She also thinks that Black would rather his life be told as fiction instead of fact. He was a private man, she said. And besides, “Who wouldn’t want to be the subject of a novel instead of biography?”

Goodrich researched her book like a biography, spending 10 years sifting through public records, learning his family’s genealogy, reading his will and diaries and copying photographs. Her research took her from Ellsworth, where Black was born in 1842, to Boston, where he died in 1928. He’s buried in Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

When he died, Black left his family’s federal-style brick mansion and 180-acre estate in Ellsworth, now known as the Woodlawn Museum, to the Hancock County Trustees of Public Reservations.

“The House at Lobster Cove” is Goodrich’s tribute to Black, whom she greatly admires for his philanthropy and good taste, as well as the way he lived.

Despite the outward expression of his taste in art and architecture, he lived quietly and modestly, and was generous with his money, Goodrich said.

“When you begin delving into Mr. Black, you realize he was truly a mysterious, romantic character,” she said. “I couldn’t find a bad thing to say about the guy. I like him better now than I ever did.”

He was a model man, dignified and loving and with a curious blend of humility and fierceness, who lived as he wanted. Goodrich outs Black as gay in the novel. Black kept his sexuality private in life.

It took Goodrich about five years to write the book. With it, she weaves a story of Boston’s largest taxpayer in the late 1800s, who joined no clubs and entertained few guests.

He grew rare plants and collected antiques and paintings, and liked to take ocean cruises with a much younger man.

Like the subject of her novel, Goodrich lives a quiet life on Swan’s Island. Using design skills that she learned in college, Goodrich cofounded Saturn Press on the island in 1986 and produces letterpress-printed craft cards on antique presses.

She printed the cover of “The House at Lobster Cove” at Saturn, reproducing a drawing of Kragsyde by its architect, Robert Swain Peabody, on cotton paper.

Between the house and the book, Black has occupied Goodrich’s mind for most of 40 years.

She’s done with him for now and thinks about him much less, she said, “although I do push the vacuum cleaner and say, ‘George, send me a servant.’ ”

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

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