A house where history lives

Group plans to reopen Booth home for guided tours

August 17, 2008|By Cassandra A. Fortin | Cassandra A. Fortin,Special to The Sun

Since the days when Junius Brutus Booth had Tudor Hall built in 1847, people have journeyed to the property for a glimpse into the lives of its famous first owners and their dream digs.

Some people want to know about the Booths, the first family of American theater, while others are drawn to the architecture of the house that was built by James Gifford, the same man who built Ford's Theater.

"Tudor Hall is a place that makes history come alive for people," said Dinah Faber, a Booth historian.

Faber and a group of county residents want to make sure it stays that way.

The group founded a volunteer organization called Spirits of Tudor Hall that was established to create a docent program and reopen Tudor Hall for guided tours.

Faber named the group because the word "spirits" is far-reaching, she said.

"The name of our group applies to Tudor Hall," she said. "For one thing, people often ask if Tudor Hall is haunted. Then there are many people who have come to the house and gone, or passed away, who carried a love of Tudor Hall with them."

Members of Spirits of Tudor Hall are seeking volunteers to lead tours, and research Civil War-era costumes; women's, African-American and agricultural history; 19th-century home furnishings and housewares; and the architecture of the house.

The group's first meeting is being held Sept. 17 at Tudor Hall to recruit help.

The tour of the house, which was named in 1973 to the National Register of Historic Places, will offer something for most visitors - history buffs, ghost hunters, actors, authors, professors and students of architecture. Included in the tour, which will begin in the fall, will be a brief history of the Booths, the farm, Tudor Hall, and the building's architecture.

The tour will include facts about subsequent owners of Tudor Hall and details on how it changed hands after Mary Ann Booth sold it in 1878 to Samuel Kyle and his wife, Ella.

Samuel Kyle passed away in 1893. Ella Kyle remarried in 1928 and remained at the house with her second husband until her death in 1948. During more than 70 years in the house, she opened Tudor Hall to visitors, and then turned it into a museum. Now 60 years after her death, her great-grandson, James Wollen, a historic architect, is researching the architecture of Tudor Hall.

Most of the personal information available about the Booth family was written by Asia Booth Clark, Junius and Mary Ann's daughter, who was the family historian. During her lifetime, she wrote a book about Junius and a second book about Junius and Edwin, both renowned Shakespearean actors. After she died, her third book, about the time that she and John Wilkes lived at Tudor Hall, was published.

In addition to researching the lives of the Booth family and their homes, the docents will don 19th-century attire as they lead the tours through the house that has served as a home, a museum, an inn and a bed and breakfast, Faber said.

Ann Phillips, who first became involved with the property in 1985 when she served as president of the preservation association for Tudor Hall, said she plans to offer assistance from behind the scenes. She wants to help ensure that the tours are accurate and authentic, she said.

Although tours were given at the property throughout the 1980s and 1990s, more information has cropped up since then, she said.

"As interest in the property grows, it's important to give tours with the most updated information," said Phillips, who lives in Fallston.

Jill Redding, an actress from Bel Air, became involved with the property in 1977 as a member of the Edwin Booth Theater group. She has directed murder mysteries at Tudor Hall and helped with fundraisers for upkeep on the house, she said.

Redding said she plans to help docents become comfortable with being tour guides. Redding, who appeared on 10 episodes of the television series The Wire, is a member of Otter Productions Murder Mystery group.

The guided tours are a good way to help people see Tudor Hall as more than just the home of an assassin, she said.

"Many people can't see beyond John Wilkes Booth's assassination of President Abraham Lincoln," she said. "But there is so much more to it than just that one aspect."

The docent program is the first of many things Eric Richardson wants to see happen at the house, he said. A self-proclaimed pack rat, Richardson wants to see the house and the history that lies within its walls preserved.

The county, which purchased the house in August 2006 for $810,000, is doing its part to ensure the structure is maintained. In a recent County Council meeting, County Executive David R. Craig requested a transfer of $225,000 for needed repairs to the main house.

But there's more to maintain at Tudor Hall than a roof.

Richardson recalled a story about one of Tudor Hall's former owners, who said that he enjoyed sitting on the front porch and watching as actors walked up the driveway to the house and told him they wanted to stand on the ground and breathe the same air as the first family of American theater. The house boasts guests that included Lynn Redgrave, Hal Holbrook, Stacy Keach and Gary Sloan.

An actor by trade, Richardson would like the house to be the location of an annual pilgrimage for actors, he said. "Tudor Hall is an important part of history," Richardson said. "I'm into preserving it. If you tear something down, or change it, you ruin it. I don't want to commercialize it. I just want to see something done with it on a national level... perhaps a History of American Theater Museum."

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