From preservation to desperation

Historical Society to auction Baltimore artist Turnbull's estate amid financial troubles

November 01, 2008|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,ed.gunts@baltsun.com

Before her death in 1976, the noted Baltimore artist Grace Turnbull wrote a will leaving her valuable Guilford residence and much of her prized artwork to the Maryland Historical Society, with the stipulation that "the premises be kept intact as far as possible" and perhaps even exhibited "as a memorial to my family and me."

But 32 years after she died, Turnbull's vision is coming unraveled, with her house going on the auction block today and its contents following tomorrow.

After accepting Turnbull's gift and honoring her wishes for three decades, directors of the historical society relinquished all rights to the Spanish Colonial residence at 223 Chancery Road last year, setting in motion a sequence of events that led to today's sale by Alex Cooper Auctioneers.

Despite a last-ditch effort by a private group that sought to raise funds to avert the auction and keep the house and contents together, Turnbull's sculptures, paintings, books, furniture, house and studio will all be offered to the highest bidders.

In anticipation of today's sale, Baltimore's Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation has taken emergency action to add the property to a list that prevents any new owner from razing the house or altering its exterior without the commission's approval. The panel has also scheduled a Nov. 18 hearing to consider adding the Turnbull property to the city's permanent landmark list - another effort to protect it.

The Turnbull auction shows that even the most carefully crafted will can have consequences different from what a donor may have intended. It's also a comment on the difficulties that nonprofit organizations face in accepting bequests that come with strings attached, especially during an economic downturn.

Protecting works of fine art and rare architecture is a recurring problem at a time when even established house museums are facing financial trouble, including the Mark Twain House in Hartford, Conn., and The Mount, Edith Wharton's estate in Lenox, Mass.

Providing access to valuable works of art is "the greatest issue of our time," said Doreen Bolger, director of the Baltimore Museum of Art. "It's a huge obligation. It's something we worry about every day."

Any sale that separates her house and its contents was never what Grace Turnbull desired when she wrote her will, said Christine Tyson Harrison, a former neighbor who formed a group called The Friends of Grace Turnbull in an effort to purchase the house and art.

If the auctions take place, her artistic legacy will be scattered "to the wind," Harrison said. "That's not the vision she had when she died. Her house is her greatest work of art, and it was set up to house her work. Its true value is when they are all kept together."

The trustees for the estate, however, say that the auctions are being carried out in keeping with the terms of the will and that the city Circuit Court approved the method of sale.

"We're following a path that was outlined by Miss Turnbull," said Jane Twaddle, a trust officer for PNC Bank, which now controls the property. "We have a fiduciary duty to the heirs to follow the will and sell the property."

PNC and Cooper have had strong interest in the house and contents from prospective buyers, Twaddle added. "We're very excited about it."

What's surprising is that it's happening three decades after Turnbull's death, when many people assumed the house was well-protected, City Council member Mary Pat Clarke said.

"That's what caught everybody unawares," Clarke said. "The house is unique. The contents are unique. We'll probably lose it unless a guardian angel shows up and protects it."

The daughter of a prominent Baltimore family, Turnbull gained widespread acclaim as a painter and sculptor, with works in the permanent collections of the Baltimore Museum of Art, New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and other institutions. Among her best known outdoor works are the Naiad fountain, outside the Peabody Institute, and the "Good Shepherd Monument," dedicated to the poet Lizette Woodworth Reese, near Clifton Park.

Never married and fiercely opposed to alcohol and tobacco, Turnbull designed the two-story house and a separate studio and bell tower with her architect-brother Bayard and lived there for nearly 50 years. Completed in 1928, with four bedrooms and a two-story living room and gallery, the property has an assessed value of $741,240, according to state tax records.

"It's an absolutely charming house," said P. Raab Christhilf, Director of Fine and Decorative Arts for Alex Cooper. "She was a solitary woman who lived by herself and enjoyed these little vignettes of solitude. There's a certain mystique to it."

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