SEVERNA PARK -- Great houses, like great ideas, often outlive their creators -- and so it is with Wroxeter-on-Severn, a turn-of-the-century Normandy mansion built by a wealthy Edwardian industrialist and being offered for sale Tuesday at an absolute auction.
The house has survived almost a century of shifting owners and changing fortunes, said owner Jim Bowersox, who rescued it from a wrecking ball in 1992 and has spent five years restoring it to its original elegance.
"By the time we got around to it, it was really on its last legs," Bowersox said of the 33-room mansion he and his wife, Linda, share with their two children. Today, it is restored and fully modernized -- and the family is ready to take on something else.
"We're ready to move on to the next challenge, I guess," said Bowersox, a 49-year-old sales representative for electronic components. Whatever and wherever that challenge is -- and so far, he hasn't found it -- it may look easy after Wroxeter-on-Severn, he said.
He acknowledges some sadness at selling the house he and his family have enjoyed bringing back to life -- and some nervousness about the auction, which will be handled by the Alabama-based National Auction Group Inc. "I haven't slept since Labor Day!" when he decided to sell, he said with a grin.
The auction is absolute, meaning there will be no minimum bid, although bidders are required to put up a $100,000 certified check as deposit. (Unsuccessful bidders get their checks back.) The auction will begin Tuesday at 4 p.m., and after the house is sold, an adjacent waterfront will also be auctioned off -- a property Bowersox hopes will be purchased by the buyer of the mansion.
Bowersox said the house had been listed with area real estate agents for a while, priced at $3 million. Although he had some "heavy lookers," it didn't sell, so he decided to go with the National Auction Group.
The auction group, which has sold several large homes in Maryland in recent years, specializes in "trophy" properties -- houses that are unusual and expensive. Wroxeter-on-Severn is both.
When Edwin Pugh Baugh, a Florida businessman who made his money in fertilizer, chemicals and land deals, built his expansive copy of a French seaside chateau in 1909, he named it Uchllyn On The Severn. It was an ample, elegant estate where Baugh and his wife could hold the house parties that were typical of the time -- entertaining made easier by four live-in servants and 10 bedrooms.
For a few years at least, the Baughs enjoyed a lot of company. A leather-bound guest book used by the Baughs in 1911 and 1912 that Bowersox found and purchased a few years ago holds page after page of faded signatures and photographs that provide a vivid picture of wealthy Edwardians at play: Guests gathered on the mansion's forecourt in starched tennis whites, frolicking on the mansion's sweeping river-front lawn and posing before the front door, smiling with their hosts.
Hundreds of visitors recorded their names, their dates of stay and their thanks in the Baughs' guest book. Some even wrote poems or doggerel in ornate and careful copperplate -- and one very frequent visitor, Lily Lee, wrote beside her name (in an apparent reference to the frequency of her visits) "Almost home!"
But the parties ended when Baugh died about 12 years after the house was built. His widow remarried and the house was leased to a family who turned it into a hotel and renamed it the Inn at Rugby Hall.
The owners sold off most of the house's original 500 acres over the years in an effort to keep the inn going, but the inn folded a few years after World War II, Bowersox said. A retired military man bought it, turned it into a boys' school and renamed it Wroxeter-on-Severn after a town on the Severn River in England where he had been stationed during the war, Bowersox said.
The school closed in 1979, and the house was sold and resold through the 1980s but remained unoccupied -- deteriorating finally into a boarded-up ruin where area residents walked their dogs and drove their cars across the yard for picnics on the river.
When Bowersox first looked at it in 1992, it was hard to see the elegance under the mess.
"It's boarded up, it's desolate" is how he remembers his first visit to Wroxeter. "Everything was boarded up. I came back with a Realtor and my wife, and we looked at it with a flashlight!" They had to -- the house was dark because the electricity had long been turned off and the windows boarded over to discourage vandals.
Nonetheless, Bowersox wanted the house. A native of Baltimore, he had wanted to live on the water as long as he could remember. His sister lived in Severna Park, and she first mentioned Wroxeter to him, he said, when he told her he was looking for a property to buy and improve.