Return to grandeur

Mansion: Developer sees potential in Towson eyesore that was once stately home of 19th-century celebrity.

July 25, 1999|By Dan Thanh Dang | Dan Thanh Dang,SUN STAFF

Leo J. D'Aleo looks at the broken down four-story blot in the middle of Towson and shakes his head.

Dozens of green shingles are missing from the mansard roof, the arched windows are boarded and the paint is peeling from the weather-beaten mansion. Weeds have overtaken the manor's 3.3 acres.

Maybe he's crazy, D'Aleo says sheepishly, but he's about to fork over $500 to Baltimore County for the 131-year-old, 22-room French-style mansion, known as Aigburth Vale, and then spend hundreds of thousands to restore it.

Why?

"When you mention Aigburth to anybody, everybody gets a little smile on their face," says D'Aleo, who will use the mansion as a centerpiece for a new $5.5 million home for the elderly.

"There's something grand about the place. Something majestic," he said. "It's a gem that's about to get some much-needed polishing."

When the work is completed by fall of next year -- at a cost of about $1 million for just the historic renovations -- Aigburth Vale will emerge as a six-bedroom mansion with an addition of 64 one-bedroom apartments, says D'Aleo, who owns the architectural company D'Aleo & Associates.

One can almost hear the collective cheer from community leaders who worked for years to save the mansion. Attempts to convert the building to a country inn, office space or conference center failed.

But the best part, Aigburth supporters say, isn't that the restored mansion will serve the area's elderly population -- expected to grow by almost 50 percent in the next two decades. It's the fact that it will soon be added to the National Register of Historic Places.

Actor's villa

Aigburth Vale, situated on 300 acres, was the summer villa for one of the 19th century's best-known and wealthiest actors. Several decades ago, the land was carved up to become a sprawling web of streets, tree-dotted lawns and cul-de-sacs.

"It was not universally felt, especially as the building continued to deteriorate, that it should stay. A lot of people felt it should be razed," said Douglas B. Riley, a former county councilman who represented the Towson area and is widely credited with spearheading the efforts to rescue Aigburth.

"There's not a lot of history left in Towson," Riley said. "That's why this is important, because it really represents a different age, a different time maybe, when this was built for an actor who found rest and solace in Towson."

In February 1853, John E. Owens -- the Bob Hope of his time -- bought Rock Spring Farm and named it Aigburth Vale as a tribute to a relative's homestead in England, according to the county's Landmarks Preservation Commission.

Fifteen years later, a prominent Baltimore architectural firm owned by James Crawford Neilson and John Rudolph Niernsee built Aigburth Vale, one of a series of country houses that cropped up along York Road from Waverly to Towson. The Second Empire mansion is one of the few remaining of Neilson and Niernsee's work.

Although Owens was a gentleman farmer who knew little about farming, he spent thousands of dollars improving the land, according to historians. He also planted ornamental shrubbery throughout the yard, raised race horses and grew prized tomatoes and rare fruit, according to an 1892 memoir written by his wife, Mary S. Owens.

Owens spent much time entertaining friends and associates, D'Aleo said as he stood recently in the drawing room once filled with paintings of famous actors and authors.

"Towson practically started in this community," said Robert C. Vogelsang, D'Aleo's partner in the architectural planning company who will be responsible for tearing parts of the building away to find the mansion's original front porch.

"To get a project like this is an incredible opportunity. I like uncovering things and revealing things, and that's what this is all about."

There is much to find. Aigburth has lived many lives.

When Owens died in 1886, the 300-acre estate surrounding Aigburth Vale was sold for $28,000 at public auction.

The house served briefly as a boarding house and summer residence. The property changed hands a number of times between late 1910 and 1919 when it was sold to George F. and Cora McCabe Sargent, who turned the mansion into a private mental hospital for adults.

In 1950, the county Board of Education took over the mansion, using it as its main office until the late 1990s.

"They did a very poor job of maintaining it because any money they had went into renovating schools, which makes a lot of sense," Riley explains. "That's when we began the process of getting it out of the school department's hands."

In 1996, the county took control of the mansion. But the mansion continued to deteriorate.

D'Aleo has already spent more than $200,000 for researchers, historians and other workers. "This just needs a little bit of tender, loving care," said Christopher Robb, a lead paint removal contractor.

New caretakers

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