Preserving architectural history

June 19, 2005|By Cassandra A. Fortin | Cassandra A. Fortin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Five decades after purchasing Brooklandwood, St. Paul's School is upgrading the historic mansion while preserving its architectural character and history.

Brooklandwood is a Georgian mansion built on a hill on the west side of Falls Road, on the St. Paul's campus in Brooklandville.

In 1793, Charles Carroll, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, built the estate as a summer residence for his daughter, Mary, and her husband, Richard Caton.

Carroll was known for living and entertaining in grand style and wanted his children to have a place in which to do the same. Mary's husband didn't have the means to build such a home, so Carroll funded it for the couple.

When St. Paul's purchased the mansion in 1952, it was intended to be used as the headmaster's residence.

"This house has always been used as a welcoming place," said Ann Reid, associate director of admissions. "It's a place where people were entertained in style. We want to use it as a place to welcome people again, as it was in its early days. Two of our headmasters lived here, but now it houses our administrative offices, and it's used to meet and greet new families."

According to documents kept at the Maryland Historical Trust, the house was a magnet for Baltimore's wealthiest and most prominent families.

Richard Caton wrote a tax assessment of the house in 1798, describing it as "57 feet in the front, with a 27-by-10 foot portico, a roof supported by a colonnade, and 30-foot-long wings on either side. The main building has a 39-by-16-foot hall, two parlors, a library, butler's room, and 14 bed chambers."

The five-bay central building was constructed of stone and stuccoed.

The house has 35 rooms and 10 fireplaces today. At one time there were 20 working fireplaces.

Extensive remodeling has somewhat altered the house from its original design. In 1970, a screened porch was removed, returning the front of the house closer to its original design.

The Catons owned the residence until 1846, shortly before Mary's death. Mary sold the estate to George Brown, head of the banking house of Alex. Brown & Sons, the oldest private banking house in North America, which was known for financing the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad.

The Brown family owned the house until 1911. Fannie Winchester Brown, wife of George Brown Jr., made extensive alterations. The interior, already lavish by antebellum standards, was made even more luxurious.

The current decor, a mixture of new and old, includes crystal chandeliers that dominate the commodious first level. Fine woven gold fabric wallpaper added by the Browns still hangs in the first-floor parlor. A grand staircase leads to the second floor.

Finely chiseled mantels grace the house's fireplaces.

"Mrs. Brown had the fabric wallpaper installed in the parlor," Reid said. "She made several improvements that are still seen throughout the house. We're doing what we can to preserve and maintain these things."

The Browns sold the house in 1916 to Isaac Emerson, the inventor of Bromo-Seltzer. The house had several other owners after Emerson until the school purchased it.

Since then, the house has been renovated and upgraded.

"We're wiring it for a sound system," Reid said. "We're putting the wires in the walls so they aren't noticeable. We have to deal with the functioning of the house versus its age. We don't want to modernize it as far as the decor, but we have to modernize it some for 21st- century technology."

In addition to the upgrades, Reid said, the school has renovated the dining room.

School officials held a luncheon and tour of the property recently. Reid said the school might hold more events there for the families of its students and staff.

"We have our offices in this building, but we realize the importance of Brooklandwood in Maryland history, and we want to ensure that isn't forgotten," Reid said.

"We did luncheons and will come up with other ways to make sure our families know about the history of the house. After more than 200 years, it still serves as a welcoming place."

The history of the house includes stories of a ghostly apparition.

Annie, the first daughter of the Catons, reportedly died in the house when she was 1. Since then, people have reported unexplained events, which they attribute to the little girl.

"People have said they've seen a young girl on the grand staircase," Reid said. "The girl appears on the stairs, dressed in a long white dress and a white bonnet. She doesn't harm or even scare anyone. She merely appears. People assume it's Annie, because she died in the house. Other people have seen someone dressed in white walk across the porch in front of the windows during storms."

Reid said she has experienced events in the house that she can't explain.

"The chandelier shakes and rattles in the parlor," Reid said. "I've heard it. I don't know what I do believe, but I wouldn't disbelieve there's a ghost in here. I just know I've heard the chandelier move and no one is upstairs or in the parlor. It's definitely something. It's a friendly ghost, or so it seems. No one has ever really been afraid of it.

"Sometimes when people are working late, they sense a presence in the room with them," Reid said. "They don't see anything, they just get the feeling someone is there in the room with them."

Reid said they share the ghost stories with the pupils, who think the tales are great.

"Everyone who lived in the house was happy," Reid said. "It was always a grand home. So no one comes here and gets a feeling of it being haunted. The kids love hearing the stories. Everyone who comes to Brooklandwood feels very comfortable and welcome."

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