School's out for Winans conversion

ARCHITECTURE

Publishing firm decides to keep mansion rather than sell it to UB

May 17, 2004|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

An ambitious plan to convert Baltimore's historic Winans mansion to a conference facility for the University of Baltimore has fallen through.

The 46-room mansion at 1217 St. Paul St. will now be restored by its current owner, Agora Inc., to accommodate its growing workforce.

The 1882 landmark is the only residence in Baltimore designed from start to finish by the noted architect Stanford White, of McKim, Mead & White, and was featured in a recent symposium on Baltimore's 19th-century art and architecture. Grieves, Worrall, Wright & O'Hatnick of Baltimore would have been the restoration architect.

Agora, a publishing company that bought the building for $300,000 in 1995, notified university president Robert Bogomolny this spring about the change in plans.

"It is with mixed feelings that I am writing to inform you that we have decided to retain ownership," Agora's director of facilities, Jean Hankey, wrote on April 27.

"Our company has experienced enormous growth and our plans are to once again utilize 1217 St. Paul St. for office space. We feel that the University of Baltimore campus is an asset to the community and we wish you the best with future growth endeavors."

The mansion was built for Ross R. Winans, an early director of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. With 18,600 square feet of space on four levels, oak paneling, leaded glass windows and a spacious courtyard, it is one of Baltimore's grandest residences.

Winans hired White to design it for himself and his wife (and first cousin), Neva Whistler, a relative of the artist James McNeill Whistler. An example of the Chateau style popular in the United States between 1860 and 1890, it cost $500,000 to build.

Agora, which has restored half a dozen historic properties in the Mount Vernon historic district, had employees there from 1995 to 2001. In April of that year, it moved the employees who were in 1217 St. Paul St. to 808 St. Paul St. and put the Winans mansion up for sale for $750,000. The building has been vacant ever since.

Hankey said Agora vacated the building because it was several blocks away from its other properties, which are mostly clustered around Mount Vernon Place, and the company didn't want employeees to have such a long walk from one Agora address to another. In addition, she said, the staff decreased in size and Agora didn't need as much space.

Agora took the building off the market by early 2002 and began negotiations with a group that expressed interest in renovating the mansion and donating it to the university, whose main campus is several blocks to the west. Plans called for a complete restoration of the mansion and its grounds before the sale would be final.

The idea appealed to Agora, Hankey said at the time, because company officials wanted to be sure the building would be used appropriately and cared for after the sale.

But negotiations took longer than expected among Agora, the university and the donor, the T. Rowe Price Program for Charitable Giving.

In the meantime, Agora's staff started to grow again and the company needed space to house them. With real estate prices on the rise, Agora wasn't able to find the sorts of bargains it could in the past.

Finally, "we ran out of space," Hankey said. "We have over 250 employees and we're still hiring. Then it dawned on us, we still have [No.] 117."

Hankey said Agora plans to begin work by mid-year and finish by year's end. Plans include installation of new mechanical systems, repair of stonework and the back porch, and cosmetic improvements. She said the work is estimated to cost $300,000 to $350,000, and the company is eligible for tax credits for historic preservation.

Hankey said Agora's decision was not influenced by the university's protracted dispute with local preservationists over the fate of the Odorite building, the former car showroom on Mount Royal Avenue that Bogomolny has wanted to tear down to make way for a student center. Demolition began over the weekend.

Chris Hart, a university spokesman, said the administration is grateful to Agora for its efforts.

"Everybody worked very hard on it," he said. "We've very appreciative of the owner's attempt to make it work. It didn't come together the way that would have been productive for everybody."

Mansion mystery

A five-level mansion at 13 W. Mount Vernon Place sold at auction last week for $440,000 ($462,000 including the 5 percent buyer's premium charged by Alex Cooper Auctioneers.)

The seller was the Engineering Society of Baltimore. The buyer was John Walton Jr., a student at nearby Peabody Institute. Walton declined to discuss his plans for the building, which dates from the mid-1800s, but it's zoned for residential use. That's one way to get out of the dorms.

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