Sellers Mansion may become apartments

WAY BACK WHEN

September 22, 2001|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

The long abandoned Sellers Mansion at the southeast corner of Lafayette Square looks like the model for a Charles Addams cartoon or a movie set for a Hitchcock thriller. But there is hope for the old mansion, the first house to be built in Lafayette Square in 1869.

Judson B. Wood, president of the St. James Development Corp., which owns the Sellers Mansion, said recently that the historic house (a designate to the National Register of Historic Places) will most likely be converted to senior citizen apartments to augment the St. James Terrace Apartments next door.

"Right now we're conducting a feasibility study," said Wood, who plans to devote the first floor of the old home to community services. He said the work should take about a year-and a-half to complete.

The mansion takes its name from its owner and builder, Matthew Bacon Sellers, a former Louisiana plantation and slave owner who had placed his money in Philadelphia banks during the Civil War. After selling the plantation in 1868 for $50,000, he moved to Baltimore.

Lafayette Square was given to the city in 1857 by developers Hoffman, Knell Rice and Associates. After the Civil War, great houses and churches began to be erected facing the square. Streetcar lines gave residents of Lafayette Square and Harlem Park easy access to downtown Baltimore. Buses that serve the neighborhood today follow the old trolley paths.

As interesting as the story of a wonderful 19th-century neighborhood's struggle to survive is the tale of the Sellers family, a combination of greatness, accomplishment and eccentricity.

Matthew Bacon Sellers built a 40-foot "spite wall" to shield himself from his neighbor's back yard, which he found objectionable, and to maintain the privacy of his north porch.

His son, also named Matthew Bacon Sellers, was an inventor and pioneer in aerodynamics. He was born and raised in the home and privately educated. As a child, he built kites and large hot air balloons. He earned a law degree from Harvard University in 1892 and continued scientific studies at Harvard and Drexel Institute in Philadelphia.

With the advent of flight, Sellers conducted research in aerodynamics and worked as a consulting aeronautical engineer. He was appointed to the Aerodynamic Laboratory Commission by President William Howard Taft in 1912. He outfitted a plane of his own design that made history on its initial flight in 1908 as the first with retracting wheels. In 1915, he was named to the Navy Consulting Board, a position he held until his death in 1932 at his home in Ardsley-on-Hudson, N.Y.

Another brother, Samuel, attended Harvard and Harvard Law School, returned to the Lafayette Square mansion and stayed. A sister, Annabelle, was born in the house shortly after the death of her father in 1880. She and her brother Samuel took a world tour in the 1920s, then never left the house after 1930.

"Its era began in 1869 - and really didn't end until last September, when Matthew's son Samuel, a recluse who was virtually unknown in Baltimore despite his considerable wealth, died of old age among a jumble and tangle of old relics," said an article in The Sun Magazine in 1955.

Matthew Bacon Sellers, then 34, the son and grandson, found his uncle dead in the dusty, dimly lit, high-ceilinged parlor. "He was lying there in the suit he always wore," Sellers said. "It was a twenty-year-old suit, one of his better ones; he owned a dozen suits and some of them were very old. He never threw anything away; none of the family ever did," he said.

Exploring the mansion, Sellers realized that it was a place almost frozen in amber. Slowly and deliberately, he saw, his aunt and uncle had shut themselves off from the world.

In a dark corner, he discovered a tin strong box jammed with Confederate bills and bonds. Small caches of diamonds were tucked inside trunks of curtains and sheets.

His father's room, which he last used in 1917 before his marriage, was virtually unchanged. His clothes remained there as well as a piece of soap in his bathroom soap dish. There were stacks of sheet music and six gramophones that played ancient Caruso recordings, piles of old magazines and corporate reports of the Northern Central Railroad, of which the original Sellers had been a director.

In Annabelle's wake were the detective stories she loved and letters which she'd dutifully copied over and filed after mailing the original. Her baby room contained her decorated crib, pictures from her childhood on the wall and a trunk of dolls from Europe that no child had played with for decades. Trunks in the attic stored gowns purchased in Paris that had cost $500 to $700 but had never been worn.

Servants had been dispensed with. A neighborhood woman had brought in meals on a tray when Samuel signaled her by closing a shutter on the facade of the house. The only trips Samuel made from the house were to banks to inspect the contents of his safe deposit boxes.

"But the real world never got into that house. No one ever came in, except the man who checked the meter," said the grandson. "The house is cold and there's an old smell that gets you - a smell of the past and not such a happy past at that," said the grandson, who eventually disposed of its contents and sold the home.

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