New owners for Booth home

Preservation: Fears that Tudor Hall might be razed are eased as a Harford couple purchases the property.

October 17, 1999|By Lisa Respers | Lisa Respers,SUN STAFF

The crowd's relief was almost palpable yesterday, as Robert Baker signed a set of contracts spread on the hood of an old, gray Ford Escort.

With his signature, the fate of Tudor Hall -- the former Harford County home of Shakespearean actor Edwin Booth and presidential assassin John Wilkes Booth -- seemed assured.

Baker, 29, and his wife, Elizabeth, offered the winning bid of $415,000 at the auction of the Gothic-style house, whose sale had prompted concerns among Harford County residents and history buffs nationwide that the structure might be razed.

In the end, Elizabeth Baker, 28, uttered the words many wanted to hear: "We would like to live here and restore it. It's a great house, right here close to town."

The crowd surrounding the couple erupted into applause.

Dozens of people -- from parents toting youngsters to an Abraham Lincoln look-alike -- gathered for the auction of the four-bedroom, slightly dilapidated cottage on 8 acres outside Bel Air.

Cars snaked around the Tudor Lane cul-de-sac, and people streamed down the long country road leading to it to tour the historic house and inspect nearly 550 personal items also up for auction from the estate of the most recent owners, Howard and Dorothy Fox.

Merrill Fox, who traveled from her home in Tampa, Fla., for the auction, said she believed her father would have been pleased with the new owners of the home, which he and his wife often opened up to visitors.

"We were hoping it would be purchased by someone who wanted to fix it up," said Fox, whose father died six weeks after his wife's death in February. "We think the house has a lot of charm."

The 152-year-old dwelling has held a dubious place in history. Built by renowned Shakespearean actor Junius Brutus Booth, it had been both embraced for its connection to the famous acting family and shunned because of John Wilkes Booth's assassination of President Abraham Lincoln in 1865.

The Bakers, part-owners of Ivy Hill Nursery Company Inc. in nearby Perryman, seemed overwhelmed yesterday by the attention, as the media and curious onlookers crowded around them after the bidding.

The transaction, scheduled to be made final in the next 60 days, took place on the hood of the car, parked outside Tudor Hall's kitchen door.

"I especially like the architecture and the history behind it," said Elizabeth Baker, who along with her husband, is a native of Harford County. "We didn't just buy it because it was the Booth house. We bought it because it's a great house."

The pair said they haven't decided whether they will allow public access to the home, as the Foxes had with their Christmas parties and weekend tours.

Negotiations broke down earlier this year between the Fox heirs and Harford Community College, which had sought to develop a joint history and theater center at the site.

Despite support from actors Hal Holbrook and Stacy Keach, college officials were unable to raise enough money to purchase Tudor Hall.

Neighbors Tom Lyon and Bill and Nancy Fox (no relation to the former owners) welcomed the Bakers to the community yesterday.

"It's such a peaceful street, and we just didn't want it to change," Nancy Fox said. "We were worried that a developer or someone like that would buy it and tear the house down."

Ann Phillips, past president of the Preservation Association for Tudor Hall, watched the auction with teary-eyed friends of the former owners. While she had hoped the college would get Tudor Hall, Phillips said she was happy for the Bakers and hoped they would consent to opening the house to occasional visitors.

"I am glad to see a young family who is planning to live in it have it," Phillips said. "I guess everything happens for a reason, and maybe they will have the resources to put this place back to the way it should be."

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