The Old Booth Place Is Calmer, Happier

COMMENT

February 07, 1993|By MIKE BURNS

The neighbors have calmed down and apparently so have the restive spirits of Tudor Hall, the Gothic Revival brick home built for the theatrical Booth family (including black sheep John Wilkes) just outside Bel Air.

Howard and Dorothy Fox had about 500 people into their home for cider and cookies over three nights of candlelight Christmas tours, with nary a protesting picket along the short country lane that leads to the two-story white-painted brick home.

None of the yuletide ornaments or glassware was mysteriously broken by a mischievous wraith, either, though the bulbs on Christmas trees spread around the eight-acre estate burned out with maddening frequency, Mr. Fox reported.

Ever since the Foxes bought the rundown 12-room dwelling in 1968, they have worked to restore the home to meet their needs and the demands of history. He's replaced the leaking tin roof, replastered the brick walls, installed a new heating system, and reworked the plumbing in the 150-year-old structure.

The project is not complete and may never be in his lifetime, says Mr. Fox, 70, a retired contractor who specialized in restoration work. There's still work to be done on repairing and painting the walls, some floors need to be refinished.

"The yard is a never-ending chore," he said, and the garden/orchard requires lots of care to produce the fruits and vegetables and nuts -- all organically grown -- enjoyed by the Foxes and their bed-and-breakfast guests.

As he tells it, the couple decided to buy the home without knowing of its historic origin. They were just looking for a 19th century farmhouse to restore, similar to the one Mr. Fox had earlier renovated for his home in Carroll County.

But the couple's efforts to restore the home found a host of theater buffs and Civil War historians flocking to it, just off Route 22 near Fountain Green, to explore the Booth family history.

That encouraged the Foxes to expand their plans for the house to include an inn and museum and other events to highlight the structure's history. They got a state historical marker on the highway.

Those commercial plans brought down the communal wrath of neighbors, whose modern houses were situated on what they thought was a quiet cul-de-sac nestled in farmland. They didn't want tour buses and a constant stream of traffic from visitors and paying guests of the house.

After four years of fighting with the county over proper zoning for the property to be open to the public, Tudor Hall is now approved for three bed-and-breakfast rooms, for weekend tours and for special events, such as the audience participation murder mystery drama presented this month on weekends by the Edwin Booth Theater thespians.

"We both enjoy having company in the house and this seemed to be a good idea for us and for other people," Mr. Fox said. "I had no idea that trying to preserve American history would have stirred up such a fuss."

Aside from the neighbors, there was a remarkable opposition to publicizing the century-old local shame of Johns Wilkes Booth, the assassin of Abraham Lincoln, he said.

Even today, extremely few of the visitors to Tudor Hall events are from Harford County "unless they are recent arrivals who don't know" about local resentment, Mr. Fox said. (But there's a Harford historical society sign marking the site.)

When he tried to get a state grant to restore the house, Mr. Fox was surprised to find himself castigated by legislators for trying to profit from glorifying villainy. "Some even compared it to restoring Hitler's bunker, or Lee Harvey Oswald's home."

The Foxes formed a non-profit group called PATH (Preservation Association of Tudor Hall Inc.) in 1984 and leased the property to that group of about 300 members. The group, mostly devotees of American theatrical history, will eventually inherit the property from the Foxes, he said.

Before the couple bought it, the house had been hidden from public view for a generation and allowed to deteriorate by a long-absent owner. Historic items in the old Booth museum had been sold off in the 1940s, the surrounding acres sold for housing development. A captain's chair donated by a supporter of PATH is the only original Booth furnishing in the house today. Tudor Hall was built in the 1830s by Junius Brutus Booth, an actor who emigrated from England and bought the land in 1824. His children were born there; Edwin Booth used to practice his Shakespearean soliloquies from a second-floor balcony. The house passed from the Booth family more than a century ago.

But somewhere along the line, Mr. Fox believes, mysterious spirits found a home in the dining room of Tudor Hall.

He tells of a birthday party when a layer of cake suddenly floated in the air and plopped onto a guest's plate. And the time an antique mirror jumped off the wall, sliding into a one-inch crack between the wood stove and buffet.

"I never believed in such things as spirits, but these things convinced me they are there," Mr. Fox said. Their last appearance, however, was several years ago, he added.

Rumors of ghosts might attract more tourists to the troubled mansion, but Mr. Fox says the couple has more than enough visitors to keep them busy these days. However, he still keeps careful count of guests, in the hope that their numbers may someday qualify the landmark for a "historic attraction" turnoff sign along Interstate 95.

Mike Burns is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Harford County.

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