July 12, 2021
Written by 
Steven G. W. Walk

A Tenderness Recalled: Remembering Celeste Revillon Winans

Baltimore’s Irish community arrived en masse during the years of the Great Hunger, and were attracted to the city due to its vibrant workplaces and religious communities. Thousands settled in the parishes that surrounded the inner harbor, while others ventured westward to the rapidly growing neighborhoods surrounding the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad’s Mount Clare Shops.

These Irish often arrived unskilled, and the railroad was a perfect fit for those who had strong backs and street smarts. Working men worked both for the railroad and support industries that had the good sense to set up shop just south of W. Pratt Street, a boundary line between industry and the residential neighborhoods just above and below. These neighborhoods were not just for modest families. Residents included those who led them at work, and employed them in various ways. Upper management, physicians, engineers and police detectives lived on the nicer blocks north of Mount Clare Station, and had larger rowhouses than the laborers just a few blocks away.

There was a reciprocal relationship between the well-to-do and the simple Irish families that lived nearby. Unskilled immigrants were offered work by those who were a generation or two ahead of them in gaining literacy and learning the trades and professions that required it. An example was the relationship between Irish washerwomen and those who could afford to hire out for that type of work: typically the first task a woman would want to defer to others...so labor intensive.

Among those offering domestic work to Irish immigrants was the Winans family, who lived right in the neighborhood. Their home was one of the most exquisite in Baltimore.

Not all the Irish who arrived became suddenly self-sufficient, and charitable individuals and organizations stepped up to help the most destitute. Among them was the “woman of the house” of the most significant home in West Baltimore: the Alexandroffsky Estate. It was owned by the Winans family, and was just on the other side of the wall that bordered St. Peter the Apostle Catholic Church (see the stereograph photo below, taken from the church bell tower).

We thank Steven G. W. Walk (right of photo below, during a tour of the Museum led by Board member Jack McNulty) for sharing this compelling story. He is a direct descendant of Thomas and Celeste Revillon Winans, and a dear friend of the Museum. We admire a family who not only cared for others, but did so just across the street from their own home; that’s just not done these days!


By Stephen G.W. Walk

This is the story of a devout Catholic who lived near the Irish Railroad Workers Museum and had a wonderful impact on the neighborhood. Her name was Celeste Revillon Winans. She was married to Thomas Winans and together they lived at Alexandroffsky, a vast mansion they built on Hollins Street just up from St. Peter the Apostle Catholic Church. The Winans name is well known in Baltimore but Celeste is often overlooked; yet her life and achievements deserve as much attention as the family she married into.

Celeste Louise Revillon was born of French and Italian heritage in Russia in 1828. Her father was a prominent businessman and diplomat in St. Petersburg. Celeste was a beauty, with dark hair and a slender figure (See Photo). This was not surprising as she came from a family where good looks were endemic: a Revillon family album with an elegantly carved wooden cover shows a parade of maddeningly attractive people. Celeste’s father, in addition to his diplomatic work, was an accomplished artist, his sweeping beach and ocean scenes evoking the work of Eugene Boudin.

In mid-1845 Celeste attended a diplomatic reception in St. Petersburg with her parents where she met a young American railroad builder named Thomas Winans. Tom had been sent by his father Ross to Russia in 1843 at the age of twenty-two where he won a contract to build 162 locomotives and more than 2600 cars for Tsar Nicholas’ Moscow to St. Petersburg Railroad. The two young people talked all evening, quickly learning that they shared an interest in art and sculpture. They fell deeply in love, and correspondence between them revealed both romance and a sense of familiarity.

On August 23, 1847 they married at a gala ceremony in the extensive gardens behind Thomas’ mansion at the St. Petersburg factory ‘Alexandroffsky”, where the engines and rolling stock were built. The couple left Russia for the move back to Baltimore in September of 1850. Not long after a triumphant arrival in Baltimore the Winans built their in-town home which they appropriately named Alexandroffsky.

Despite her youth, Celeste’s health was frail, and doctors’ visits to the estate would be frequent. Tom worried about her constantly and used all his influence and growing wealth to help her. Pregnancies were difficult for her but in 1855 she successfully gave birth to a daughter who they named Celeste.

The doctors had applied leeches in hopes their secretions would improve her blood flow. Perhaps it had worked, as she was up and about not long after the treatment.

What was remarkable about Celeste is that despite constant ill health, her new life in Baltimore was one devoted to helping those less fortunate than herself. She believed the most direct way to do this was to provide food, water and clothes to those in need. To that end in January 1858 she opened a soup kitchen on nearby Baltimore Street (the neighborhood is pictured, from Sachses’ Map (1869).

From its doorstep she could see the rooftops of Alexandroffsky across the street. She would buy supplies at the open-air Hollins Market and have them taken over to the soup kitchen. Given her fragile health she brought two younger sisters, Mathilda and Marie Revillon, over from Europe to help.  

The need for such a charity became obvious as the soup kitchen was mobbed from the day it opened, logging 600 people per day. In order to minimize lines, Celeste had tickets produced that indicated the time of day people in need should visit the soup kitchen. Anna Whistler (pictured) was impressed: “I saw Mrs. Winans there several times regulating the distribution of 150 gallons (of soup) and bread in proportion, her system is very admirable, the poor bring her (their) own tickets to the outside of the casement (through) which they receive their kettles of excellent soup and bags of bread... they throng the soup house.”

Anna Whistler (pictured below) was a long-time friend of Celeste and Tom, going back to the Russia days. She has been immortalized in the oil painting “Portrait of the Artist’s Mother”, a masterpiece painted by her son, James Abbott McNeill Whistler.

The soup kitchen was but one outlet for Celeste. She strongly believed in women’s rights and directed considerable funds to women’s groups. Celeste was also adamant about the abolition of slavery and did what she could to support the cause. She was very proud that her father-in-law Ross, at one time one of Baltimore’s largest employers, had never owned a slave.

In the mid 1850’s Celeste and Tom had begun construction of a country retreat- nearly a thousand acres- in the far western reaches of Baltimore. They called it the Crimea, after the peninsula in Russia where they had spent their honeymoon. When Celeste and Tom visited the Crimea while under construction, she had no interest in design or decoration. All she cared about were the dozens of workers, mostly Irish Catholics, who were building the estate and working in its fields.

Devoutly religious, she initiated construction of a chapel on the grounds for their use and comfort. Its architect is not known, but it may have been Crawford Neilson, partner to John Neirnsee, a good friend of Tom Winans. The chapel still exists in Baltimore's Leakin Park and is a Baltimore City Historic Landmark (see Photo).

Celeste kept working for others less fortunate than her, and was adored by them in return. She gave clothes and fuel to those in need in addition to food.

In 1860 she was pregnant again, a state that always put her fragile health at risk. By the end of 1860 she was confined to her bed at Alexandroffsky. Her spirits remained strong, but physically she continued to weaken. In early March, she summoned family and staff to her bedside, one by one, to bid them farewell and wish them a happy life. On March 19, 1861, Celeste Winans died, aged 33. The child, a son, was stillborn.

Celeste’s good works had made her so beloved in her adopted home of Baltimore that the city came to a halt during her funeral. Before dawn, people began collecting at the entrance to Alexandroffsky.

The Baltimore Sun, which ran her obituary on its front page—the first time a woman had been so honored—wrote that, “Among the throngs assembled at the mansion, the Cathedral, and at the grave were many of the poor, the recipients of the benevolent charities of the deceased, whose relieving hand was now withdrawn by death.” A caravan of more than 50 carriages followed the hearse to the cathedral and then, after the service, to Green Mount Cemetery.

Though long accustomed to the perilous state of Celeste’s health, Thomas was devastated. He took it “much harder than husbands usually do and shut himself closer than ever from his fellow man”. Thomas never fully recovered from losing her. One need only look at portraits and photographs of him as a widower: the unruly shock of hair, the languid eyes. He no longer showed the discipline and acuity that brought him such success in Russia. He would never remarry. With heavy heart he completed the oceanfront villa in Newport, Rhode Island where the couple had so looked forward to spending their summers. He named it Bleak House.  

As a memorial to his wife, he acquired the Fourth Presbyterian Church on West Baltimore Street, across from Alexandroffsky. Its congregation had outgrown the small church, and put it on the market. Thomas used it to expand the soup kitchen, and with the help of Isabella Brown, widow of Ross Winans’ old friend George Brown, Celeste’s charity grew to the point where it required 800 gallons of water per day for soup (Winans unsuccessfully applied to the city to help with the cost of the water), and fed up to 4,000 people per day as the Civil War began to tighten its grip on the city.

According to Winans records at the Maryland Historical Society, 1,264,002 total meals were served. Anna Whistler wrote her son James: “It is like Mr. Winans to think of the poor starving for work... and it is a most appropriate monument to his wife’s memory.”

In 2016, nearly 160 years after her death, Celeste would be nominated to the Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame as Baltimore’s first and greatest female philanthropist.

Many thanks to Steve G. W. Walk for sharing this narration with us, and you. We also thank:
Library of Congress (Sachses Map)
New York Public Library (Alexandroffsky Photograph)
Tom Nichols (Image of Celeste Revillon Winans)
Walk Family Estate

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