Lincoln assassin's early residence available for about $1 million

Family home of J.W. Booth too pricey for preservationists

March 02, 2006|By JUSTIN FENTON | JUSTIN FENTON,SUN REPORTER

When the family home of Abraham Lincoln's assassin was put up for auction in 1999, preservationists and prospective buyers found that the Gothic home had an appearance to match its ill-fated past: The porch was falling apart. The paint was peeling from the cracking walls. The property was in disarray.

The fate of the home, many feared, was also in danger. Historians, actors and local officials teamed up to make a play for Tudor Hall, an 8-acre property between Bel Air and Churchville, only to be trumped by a young couple who saw it as their dream house.

After spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in renovations, Robert and Beth Baker quietly put the childhood home of John Wilkes Booth and his acting kin on the market last week for $925,000. Six years later, still beaten down from their losing battle and hopelessly out-priced, preservationists said the revamped home continues to hold historic value and hope it can be reopened to the public.

"A lot of ill will has moved on and gone away," said Gary Sloan, an actor who led the push to help the public claim the property. "In the end, they might've been just the right family and right spark. It could be a great bridge to what's coming."

The two-story, four-bedroom cottage was built in the mid-1800s by acclaimed English-born actor Junius Brutus Booth as a country retreat from Baltimore. After his death, it was where his widow raised their 10 children, several of whom would go on to successful stage careers. Among them was Edwin Thomas Booth, considered one of America's greatest Shakespearean actors.

But when John Wilkes Booth, a handsome and popular performer in his own right, fired a .41-caliber bullet into Lincoln's head at Ford's Theatre in 1865, he not only changed the course of history but also sullied his famous family's name.

"In the county, there are a lot of ambivalent feelings about John Wilkes Booth and Harford County being known as the home of Lincoln's assassin," said Dinah Faber, a volunteer at the Historical Society of Harford County. "But it's important to emphasize that the house was built by one of the most prominent actors of his time. And Edwin was the superstar of his day as well, equivalent to, say, Johnny Depp or Tom Cruise."

In 1999, Tudor Hall's owners -- Howard and Dorothy Fox -- both died over a short span of time and without a will. Though the Foxes had hosted tourists and staged theatrical productions there for 30 years, the property was unkempt and deteriorating.

With an auction approaching, many were fearful that the home could be razed. Though listed on the national and state historic registries, there was no historic easement for the property to prevent its demolition. Those concerns were realized when developer Alvis Gords entered the bidding process. When asked by CNN whether he intended to make a profit by selling the home piece by piece to collectors, Gords responded, "That's the only thing I work for."

More than 100 people, including an Abraham Lincoln lookalike and a throng of national media, flocked to the auction. A 31-year-old landscaping business owner named Robert Baker walked away with the house after placing the $415,000 winning bid.

After much hoopla, interest in the home virtually dried up in the six years since the Bakers moved in.

The family chose not to offer tours, and people stopped coming. The group that led much of the preservation effort for two decades -- the Preservation Association for Tudor Hall -- dismantled. The Harford historical society, which claimed many of the historic artifacts to display in a "Booth Room," instead has them spread among its collection.

In the meantime, the Bakers went to work on making their new home livable. Though they claimed to be less interested in their new property's history than in its size, the couple were soon enchanted by the lore.

"The nice thing about the property is that when the current owners purchased it for a home and restored it, they restored it with an appreciation for its architectural integrity," said Aimee C. O'Neill, an auctioneer who is handling the sale.

The decrepit porch was torn down -- "One nail was holding the whole thing together," said Becky Baker, 34 -- and rebuilt in the same style. The floors were refinished and walls painted with a mix of warm and vibrant colors.

The diamond-shaped window where John Wilkes Booth scrawled his initials remains. After stepping over the toys in 5-year-old Robbie's bedroom, a visitor can stand on the small balcony where Booth is said to have recited Shakespeare.

"It's a really neat house," said Robert Baker, 35. "We love the place, but we just decided we wanted more land."

The price tag this time around is well out of reach of most nonprofits and government entities. Yet Sloan, one of the leaders of that failed movement six years ago, said he hopes for a plot twist in the saga of Tudor Hall.

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