Dowling and the Carolands, a National Historic Site in Hillsborogh, helped revive each other. "I was so excited to have that chance I couldn't sleep at night." Dowling recounts "I was working on treasures at every turn."

Photo By Donna Kempner

ithin several months, his fortunes turned dramatically with an opportunity to work on the Carolands Estate, a National Historic Site in Hillsborough. Behind the guarded gates of the Carolands Estate stands one of the nation's most unique homes. At 65,000 square feet, it is the largest single family residence west of the Mississippi. Since the collapse of the Caroland/Pullman union that built the estate in 1914, there have been a half dozen owners, but few have slept in the place. These days the house is occupied, but on the market again.

In early 1991, the Coyote Point Museum Auxiliary, after long negotiations, won the prized right to open the Carolands to the public for a designer showcase. Designers rushed to be involved in the project. A long-fascinated public flocked to a month-long open house. But the building had been in desperate need of basic improvements before the designers could work their magic.

Dowling and the Carolands helped revive each other. "I was so excited to have that chance, I couldn't sleep at night. I had the keys to the place, so I would go to work at 5 a.m. or 6 a.m. I was working on treasures at every turn."

The scope of the work at the Carolands was far reaching. Dowling went through mounds of mouldings, knobs, handles, frames, and a thousand odd decorative pieces. Marking them, cataloguing them, and putting them back where they belonged, one-by-one. He had to match his knowledge of what was missing around the 100-room house with the heaps of cast off materials. Often there wasn't a whole piece, but only part of a piece to be refashioned. And so he reinstalled the oval windows on the famous western facade. He prepared a ram's head at the end of an obscure railing to receive new gold leafing. In months of work, he milled and installed countless pieces of wood trim and hardware, patched ceilings and walls, and got the place breathing.

"What most impressed me about the house was the consistent level of excellence that everything once had," he marvels. For example, there was an ornately carved panel that had fallen off a 19th Century Rococo vanity. It took Dowling half a day to find a way to fit the panel back in position without dismantling the entire vanity. "It was such an exact fit it was like pulling a sword from a stone. Many people had tried before unsuccessfully. The owner had lost hope that it could be repaired."