Future of shabby Aigburth in doubt Neglected: The Towson property, owned by the Board of Education, decays as officials decide what to do with it.

January 31, 1996|By Suzanne Loudermilk | Suzanne Loudermilk,SUN STAFF

Aigburth Vale, a Towson mansion once owned by one of the nation's premier actors, has fallen victim to "demolition by neglect" -- at the hands of Baltimore County's school board, county officials and preservationists charge.

The green mansard roof leaks, ceilings are caving in, exterior boards are falling off and the paint is largely chipped away from the 1868 mansion, which is designated a historic property. And many are demanding that the school system, which has some offices there, make repairs or move out.

"The Board of Education deserves damnation," said John W. McGrain, executive secretary of the county Landmarks Preservation Commission. For years, it has tried to pressure school officials into making repairs, he said, calling a stack of letters on the issue a "chronology of shame."

"No privately owned building would be allowed to continue to suffer from 'demolition by neglect' without being censured and fined by the Landmarks Commission," Towson Republican Councilman Douglas B. Riley wrote this week to the school superintendent. Citing community concerns and limited school money for repairs, he called for the building near Towson High School to be turned over to the county for disposal.

Aigburth was the home of John Owens, one of the 19th century's most renowned comedic actors, called the Bob Hope of his era.

He bought a 300-acre Towson farm in 1850 and built the 22-room mansion he used to entertain theatrical, literary and political figures.

After his death in 1886, his wife, Mary Owens, lost the estate, which was divided and sold. In time, the mansion was converted into a summer boarding home, then a sanitarium.

The school system has owned Aigburth, including a smaller cottage and barn, since 1950, when it located its central offices there. But those offices have gradually been relocated; only the Office of Adult Education remains.

Today, Aigburth is a decrepit reminder of its glory days, and restoration could cost millions.

The first floor captures some of the grandeur of the past with a high-ceilinged dining room -- now a conference room -- that includes an elegant crystal chandelier.

But some rooms on upper floors are shut because of sagging ceilings, the grand staircase has a noticeable tilt and the rooftop widow's walk has been closed.

"There are places I wouldn't want to walk," said Faith C. Hermann, the school system's executive director of facilities.

At one time, the school board earmarked $239,000 to begin repairs, but that money was redirected to fixing a school roof.

And that is how school money should be spent, Mr. Riley said. "The place needs so much renovation. We don't want to use precious dollars -- which should go to the education of our youth -- to go into that building."

James Wollen, a preservation architect hired a few years ago by the school board to assess Aigburth's condition, says the building is "not in a state of collapse."

He wouldn't disclose a cost for reviving the mansion, which was designed by prominent architects John R. Niernsee and J. Crawford Neilson. But others involved in discussions have said the cost could be as high as $4 million.

Aigburth's neglect has left many community groups puzzled.

"We are terribly upset by this egregious situation," said Carol Allen, executive director of Historic Towson Inc., a volunteer group. "The county should do something about it."

"It looks terrible," said Justin King, president of the Greater Towson Council of Community Associations. "It's not good for the community."

Also at issue, Mr. Riley said, is why the landmarks commission could not halt the mansion's deterioration.

Commission members say they are well aware of the problems and have urged the Board of Education to do something about the property. But the group usually doesn't fine those in noncompliance, Mr. McGrain said, adding, "We manage to jolly them into fixing their property."

Yesterday, acting school Superintendent Anthony G. Marchione had not seen the councilman's letter, said school spokesman Donald I. Mohler, but "his instinct is to work with Councilman Riley for the best interests of the county."

If the building is handed to the county, officials can begin looking for occupants to refurbish the property, Mr. Riley said. "Hopefully, we can get it back on track."

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