Rainbow Hall saga has ending in sight

Failed buyer search leads to Oct. auction of 1917 mansion

September 15, 2001|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,SUN STAFF

Rainbow Hall's history has long been one of star-crossed lovers, of matches and rematches, and unexpected ironies.

Why should its present be much different?

The 1917 mansion, which was briefly the home of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, will be auctioned Oct. 11. That arrangement was reached after two prospective buyers backed out of plans to purchase the Green Spring Valley property from Baptist Home of Maryland/Delaware Inc., which operated a nursing home there.

Yet one of those buyers, Stanley Keyser of Keyser Development Corp., plans to be among the bidders at the auction. Keyser, a prominent developer in Baltimore, said he still wants to buy the house; he just doesn't want to pay the $1.9 million he offered in June. He thinks the house should command a lower price, although he won't say why, or what he considers a fair price.

"My group still has an interest," Keyser said. "We have spent many hours and tens of thousands of dollars on this, and we have a pretty good feel about what can be accomplished there."

"This property has never really been on the market," said Paul Cooper, who will conduct the auction for Alex Cooper Auctioneers Inc. The Towson-based company was hired after the Baptist Home board considered selling Rainbow Hall through three real estate firms, then chose to sell it at auction instead.

The decision to auction the house and its 19 acres of prime Baltimore County real estate is the latest twist in a saga that stretches back to the beginning of this year. That was when Baptist Home announced to its 43 elderly residents that it would have to close the nursing home because it was defaulting on a $1.6 million bank loan.

The first buyer to step forward was the family of Crown Petroleum Corp. Chairman Henry A. Rosenberg, which had sold the house to Baptist Home in 1963, after living there for two decades. An offer of $1.8 million was tendered but withdrawn without explanation.

Keyser made his offer in June, but said he decided to cancel the contract because of restrictive "covenants," which he declined to specify. The property has a complicated zoning classification, according to documents posted at www.alexcooper.com. The nursing home was allowed to operate there under an agreement made in 1988 and modified in 1991. But that agreement, which expires in 2023, would not be applicable to the new owner.

The property also has two ranch houses, which sit north of the Irish-Georgian-style mansion on Park Heights Avenue, and it is unclear whether these could be partitioned after purchase.

"I wouldn't want to say you can't do this or you can't do that," said Cooper. "The bottom line is that [prospective buyers] need a lawyer to review those documents."

The mansion is a proposed addition to the county's landmarks list, which means that demolition is prohibited and exterior alterations - such as removing the modern additions made by the Baptist Home - are subject to approval by the landmarks commission. But Keyser, who specializes in rehabilitating historic buildings, said this aspect didn't bother him.

For Cooper, who has auctioned several historic homes in the area, Rainbow Hall is a dream property. A successful bidder - who will pay, by Cooper's estimate, $1.5 million to $2 million - will get not only the mansion, complete with many of its original details, but a love story as well, albeit one with a less than happy ending. It even has a historically significant ming tree.

The mansion was built as a wedding gift for a Philadelphia socialite, Henriette Louise Cromwell. Her father gave her the house, and 150 acres, when she married Baltimore contractor Walter Brooks.

"That marriage ended in 1919," Sun staff writer Ed Brandt wrote in an undated article, "just before Henriette - she disliked that name and preferred Louise - discovered bobbed hair, short skirts, and the joys of the Roaring Twenties."

She also discovered MacArthur, a brigadier general and a World War I hero, renowned for his command of the 42nd, or Rainbow Division, in France. He was superintendent at West Point when he met Mrs. Brooks at a party in 1921.

In William Manchester's biography of MacArthur, American Caesar, the meeting is described as an old-fashioned case of love at first sight. The pair, Manchester wrote, were "betrothed before the night was out." They married Valentine's Day, 1922.

But there was a glitch, Gen. John J. "Black Jack" Pershing, a celebrated war hero in his own right and MacArthur's boss. Unfortunately for MacArthur, he also fancied the Clara Bow look-alike, who had acted as his official hostess. MacArthur was soon posted to the Philippines.

In 1925, MacArthur was promoted and given a post in Baltimore. The couple returned to the home that Mrs. MacArthur had shared with her first husband, naming it Rainbow Hill in MacArthur's honor. (The Baptist Home changed the name to Rainbow Hall when it bought the property.) In 1926, Emperor Hirihito presented MacArthur with a gift of twin ming trees, one of which survives today.

But there was yet another irony at Rainbow Hall: It was Mrs. MacArthur who quickly tired of Baltimore society, while her husband seemed content there. After two years, she moved to New York, leaving her husband behind - along with her portrait, a coquettish study that hung in the house until this summer, when the Baptist Home auctioned the contents. The MacArthurs divorced in 1929; she married two more times. The painting sold for $770.

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