House's poetic history is known to few

Jacques Kelly

October 28, 1991|By Jacques Kelly

Imagine a Towson address where novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald dined with poet T.S. Eliot.

On separate occasions, poets Robert Frost, Archibald MacLeish, Auden, Marianne Moore and Walter de La Mare were guests in the brown-shingled house of Baltimore architect Bayard Turnbull house that is off York Road.

The literary associations of the Turnbull residence are not well known. The major Baltimore County histories make no mention of the house and the string of literary giants who visited there from the 1920s through the 1950s.

Now the days are numbered for the house that is on the grounds of St. JosephHospital. A spokesman said the hospital needs the land where the residence stands for "redevelopment options."

The hospital today calls the house its La Paix Center and uses it for offices for its public relations staff. The house, partially shaded by mature trees, sits on a small hill. A large parking garage is nearby.

The generously-proportioned frame house with extending porches was constructed in the 1920s by Turnbull who named it "Trimbush." The home was one of several Turnbull houses on a tract of land between Rodgers Forge and what is now Towson State University. This particular property was sold to St. Joseph Hospital when the hospital moved from Caroline Street in East Baltimore.

Trimbush, the house of writers and poets, should not be confused with La Paix, a rambling 1885 summer house, which novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald rented in 1932-1933. It was in La Paix (also owned by the Turnbulls) that the novelist wrote portions of "Tender Is the Night." La Paix, razed in 1961, stood on the site of the hospital's power plant.

"Fitzgerald was a frequent guest of ours, but he was by no means the most famous person. There was a long string of them," said Frances Turnbull Kidder, the daughter of the man who built Trimbush.

Her family gave funds to establish a Johns Hopkins University lectureship named after a relative, Graeme Percy Turnbull. These talks, which began in 1891, drew the leading academic and literary lights to Baltimore. The family entertained and quartered the poets, scholars and novelists who gave the annual lecture series.

"I still have the book that Walter de La Mare inscribed to me. It has a few pieces of English money in it," Kidder said. The English poet stayed at Trimbush in 1924 while giving six lectures at Hopkins.

"I can remember AE Russell staying at our house. He got a strawberry lodged in his beard at breakfast. I wrote a composition about it when I was a student at Bryn Mawr School," Kidder said of the Irish poet and journalist whose real name was George William Russell and used the initials AE with no periods.

She recalled that some of the guests were eccentric. T.S. Eliot was one of the very different people. He was a Turnbull guest in 1933 who was joined one night for supper by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Poet Archibald McLeish, on the other hand, was a "very attractive, human man."

Kidder said the literary guests stayed in the house alongside her parents, brother, sister and the servants. The writers stayed various lengths of time, depending upon their speaking schedule at Hopkins.

The house was lovingly built by her father, an architect who specialized in designing private homes in affluent parts of North Baltimore. She described the care her father focused on the paneling in the main drawing room, which cabinetmakers fashioned to his specification.

"My father, being an architect, wanted it perfect," Kidder recalled.

She also said her father had the woodwork and walls painted with seven coats of paint to achieve "a marvelous luminosity." In the decades the family resided there, the walls were never repainted.

"I can remember driving Robert Frost out Greenmount Avenue to the Turnbulls . . . He was crusty and I can imagine he was a very tough house guest," said Richard A. Macksey, professor of comparative literature at Hopkins.

Macksey said the house possesses a "very nice, old comfortable style."

"Mother gave receptions for the lecturers and invited faculty members and other people in town . . . When you're living through it, you don't realize how privileged you are," Kidder said.

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