Booth homestead on the block

Bel Air house has ties to Civil War history, Shakespeare in U.S.

August 12, 1999|By Lisa Respers | Lisa Respers,SUN STAFF

For years, people have just wanted to ignore the Gothic-style house at the end of a country road outside Bel Air.

Tudor Hall, after all, had always occupied a dubious place in American history: at one time home to both world-renowned Shakespearean actor Edwin Booth and his brother, John Wilkes Booth, who assassinated President Abraham Lincoln.

But now, the four-bedroom brick dwelling is attracting national interest, with an Oct. 16 auction prompting a desperate rush by everyone from history buffs to actors to preserve it.

"There would be a huge public outcry if it were bulldozed," said Gary Sloan, executive director of the Preservation Association for Tudor Hall (PATH) Inc. "It has become more than John Wilkes Booth's house. It's become the legacy of the Booth family."

While many believe that the destruction of the house is unlikely, there is no historical easement on the property to prevent its demolition even though it's listed on the national and state registers of historic places.

Its proximity to housing developments makes the tract a prime candidate for rezoning.

"In Harford County there has always been some reluctance to promote the house because it was the home of Lincoln's assassin," said Kris Thomson, who conducted tours of the house and was a close friend of the most recent owners, Howard and Dorothy Fox.

"We kind of feel like he was just a part of the house and we think the house is just fascinating."

Tudor Hall changed owners three times before the Foxes purchased it in 1968. Dorothy Fox died in February and her husband died six weeks later. The couple left no will.

The heirs live out of state and decided to auction the house, said their attorney, Robert G. Cassilly.

Earlier this year, they negotiated with Harford Community College, but the deal fell through after the college was able to offer only $200,000, Cassilly said. County officials have expressed no interest in buying the site but are supporting the college's efforts.

According to Claudia E. Chiesi, president of HCC, the college's board of trustees authorized that amount after they received an appraisal of $225,000.

"It seemed to be an opportunity to develop a museum for both a study of the Civil War era because of John Wilkes Booth and a wonderful theater experience for the history of Shakespeare in America," she said.

Friends say the Foxes reveled in their house's history, operating a bed-and-breakfast and welcoming visitors eager to tour Tudor Hall.

"Most of all what they liked was the people," said Carol Sawyers, a friend of the Foxes. "Every year they would throw a huge Christmas party and decorate the house so beautifully."

Gary Sloan, a California-based actor and director of PATH, said he befriended the Foxes after visiting Tudor Hall in the 1980s.

Now Sloan and PATH are leading efforts to raise money to help HCC purchase Tudor Hall. Their efforts have captured the attention of such actors as Hal Holbrook and Stacy Keach, who in 1995 presented excerpts from "Macbeth" at a Tudor Hall fund-raiser.

"Since that time I have continued to nurture my desire to help save Tudor Hall and I want you to know that you have my full support in that regard," Keach wrote in a recent letter to Chiesi.

"As the birthplace of Shakespeare in America, it is my strong conviction that Tudor Hall deserves no less than that and I feel that Harford Community College is the perfect institution to undertake such a commitment."

The house was built as a country retreat for Junius Brutus Booth, an acclaimed Shakespearean actor who moved to Baltimore from England in 1821 with Mary Ann Holmes.

Booth left behind a wife named Adelaide and several children in England. That did not, however, prevent him from having 10 children with Holmes.

The elder Booth purchased 150 acres of property just outside Bel Air and moved a log house onto it. It was there that Edwin was born in 1833 and John Wilkes in 1838. Their father began building Tudor Hall on the property about 1850 but died two years later, and construction was finished by Holmes. Over the years, much of the property was sold off, with only 8 acres remaining today.

Several of the Booth sons followed their father into acting, and Edwin Booth went on to become one of the most highly respected and famous actors of his time. John Wilkes Booth also won acclaim on the stage, but that was overshadowed at Ford Theatre in Washington on April 14, 1865.

But to Sloan and others, Tudor Hall is still the "birthplace of Shakespeare in America."

Aimee O'Neill, whose company is conducting the auction, said the sale will be advertised nationally, hoping to attract history buffs interested in the Civil War as well as Shakespeare.

"If it's not the most historic property in the county, it's one of the top 10," O'Neill said. "It certainly has national and international acclaim."

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