Mansion is all fixed up, with no one to entertain

Roadblock: Towson University could be sued if it holds events in a vacant Guilford house it bought for such functions.

October 06, 2002|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

The costly new house for the Towson University president was supposed to help the college collect big gifts from wealthy guests. But all the house is collecting right now is dust.

It's not that campus officials have turned shy. It's that throwing a cocktail party could land them in court.

While the university looks for a new president, the house in Baltimore's Guilford neighborhood is vacant. And under neighborhood association rules, that means no parties: Homes must have residents to be used for entertaining.

When Towson officials announced their intention to hold events at the house this fall, the president of the Guilford Association threatened to sue.

So the house - bought and refurbished for nearly $2 million - sits unused, like a polished sports car languishing on a dealer's floor.

"We're under strictures that we can't move ahead until we have a body in the house," said Towson spokeswoman Susanna Craine. "And right now, we're looking for that body."

The house has been vacant since April, when Mark L. Perkins resigned the presidency amid turmoil over Towson's spending on the house. The interim president, Provost Dan L. Jones, chose not to move in for his brief tenure.

Guilford Association President Howard Friedel told school officials that the group would seek an injunction in Circuit Court if the university held events at the house this fall. Guilford's covenants forbid homes from being used as function halls, he said.

"Our covenant provides all properties be used only as single-family residences," said Friedel. "We told them we'd do the same thing if someone else built an addition or painted their house without our approval: We'd go to court."

After discussions with Friedel, university officials have agreed to refrain from scheduling any events, while holding out hope that the association could make concessions in future meetings. The mansion won't be occupied until January at the earliest, when Towson hopes to have a new president in place.

Stumbling block

The inability to entertain university guests at the house is the latest stumbling block Towson has encountered since buying the property in July last year. The university had decided that it needed an official presidential residence to provide Perkins with an elegant venue where he could hold parties to raise Towson's meager endowment and low public profile - priorities he had been given when he was hired in spring last year.

Towson officials told the state university system's Board of Regents at the time that the 1926 house in the 3900 block of Greenway was worth the $850,000 purchase price because it was in excellent condition. The Sun later reported that the university had spent another $600,000 on, among other things, asbestos and lead abatement, wall repairs and new air conditioning.

The university had also spent $25,000 on a home entertainment center, $70,000 on an elevator and $73,000 on rugs - all needed, officials said, to ready the house for the many events to be held there.

A subsequent audit by the Board of Regents found that the cost of improvements was almost $1 million. The regents forced Perkins to resign, later giving him a severance package worth nearly $400,000.

The regents ultimately decided it was best for Towson to keep the house for its intended purpose, partly because it was highly unlikely that the house would fetch the nearly $2 million invested in it.

The $79,000 in furniture that Perkins had ordered arrived over the summer and the house was finally ready, more than a year after its purchase, to be put to use. But then came the Guilford Association's warning.

At first, Towson officials considered challenging the association - the university is eager to hold events to restore its image after Perkins' resignation. Last month, Jones told the campus newspaper that Towson was putting together a schedule of events for the house.

"I'm not being uppity here, but we're really not totally bound to their association rules, and there is reason for the proper conduct of a state agency - Towson is a state agency - to use that house," Jones told the paper. "And that will have to take precedence over their rules."

Wrong, said Friedel. The covenants take precedence, he said, which the university should have taken into account when it selected a house five miles from its campus. "We've never had the state own a house here, but the fact that the state owns the house doesn't make a difference," he said.

`Good dialogue'

After what Friedel called a "good dialogue," Towson dropped plans for any immediate entertaining. Instead, it is holding events on campus and at other off-campus locations for alumni and trustees, if not for the kind of high-profile outsiders it was hoping to court at the mansion, officials said.

"We're still looking at what would be appropriate" at the house, said Gary Rubin, vice president for university relations. "But we're seeing lots of people and not missing a beat."

Even if the house were available, Towson might not be able to do much entertaining before the new president arrives, said former Towson President James L. Fisher.

"Dr. Perkins was new to town, and was an enthusiastic and energetic presence. Without him, things are bound to be at some kind of ebb," said Fisher. "Hopefully, the new president will re-ignite it."

For others, though, the sight of an 8,900-square-foot house with all the trappings sitting unused for months is painful. Even Friedel expressed sympathy: "They got caught in a bad deal."

Every day, someone from Towson's facilities staff checks on the house, where the blinds are drawn and sheets cover the porch furniture.

"We're just trying to keep it up until the new president gets here, whoever that may be," said a facilities worker who answered the door last week, as housekeepers dusted behind him.

"I wish I could let you in and show you around," he said to a visitor. "It's something to see."

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