Bel Air officials urged to buy historic home next to Liriodendron

Bel Air town officials were presented with what was called a "tremendous opportunity" Tuesday: the potential to acquire one of the town's most historic private properties that one day could conceivably be turned into a housing development.

A 177-year-old brick colonial home off West Gordon Street, maybe 100 yards at most from the landmark Liriodendron Mansion, has been on the market for several months and was recently reduced in price and the seller is offering to provide partial financing, a Realtor and a lawyer who represent the owner told the Board of Town Commissioners during Monday's town meeting.

The home sits on 4.85 acres and the asking price is $995,000, down from $1.15 million, Ed Garono, associate broker with Re/Max American Dream Realty in Bel Air, told the commissioners. Garono's firm has the listing on the property.

Garono said the owner, Judith Graybeal Eagle, is also offering to sell the home and 2.85 acres for $795,000. The remaining two acres would then be sold off separately, he said, although Eagle's preference is to keep the property intact. In addition to offering to hold some of the financing, he added, she is willing to make the home's period furnishings available.

"As old properties go, this one is in about as good a condition as you can expect," Garono said. "It's been kept very authentic."

The home has also had major upgrades to its heating and air conditioning systems and has other contemporary amenities, including exterior security cameras and motion detectors.

Graybeal, Garono said, "would like the town to consider purchasing" the property.

Compelling reasons

Both he and John Kane, a lawyer and town resident, noted there are a number of compelling reasons why the town should be interested. Although the five town commissioners listened politely, none of them commented when the brief presentation had concluded, however.

The Graybeal property is not within the town limits. It abuts the town's border, however, and is nearly surrounded by the county's sprawling Heavenly Waters Park. It could, however, be developed for houses, potentially many of them.

The property's provenance is significant, Kane and Garono noted.

The two and a half story home, which has eight bedrooms and nearly 3,500 square feet of living space, was built in 1835 by the Hays family, which founded Bel Air. The home and several hundred surrounding acres were acquired in the late 1890s by prominent Baltimore obstetrician Dr. Howard Kelly, a co-founder of Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Garono said Kelly, who bought the Hays property as a summer home, and his family lived in the brick home during the two years it took to build Liriodendron, which was designed to look like Kelly's wife's family's home in her native Prussia. Eventually, the smaller home and surrounding acreage was acquired by the Graybeal family, and has thus has belonged to only three families in its 177 years.

A portion of the Kelly Estate that was actively farmed became the Howard Park residential neighborhood in the early 1950s. The remainder of the Kelly Estate, including Liriodendron, was acquired by Harford County more than 40 years ago. The land was turned into a park, which includes a significant part of the popular Ma & Pa Trail, the Kelly Fields baseball, soccer and field hockey fields near Harford Mall and more than 100 acres of woodlands. The mansion was renovated and is used for conferences, community events, weddings, meetings, art exhibits and similar activities.

The Graybeal family has played a significant role of its own in Harford County's economic, political and athletic history. Eagle's late father, W. Eugene Graybeal, was a school board president and, as Kane noted Monday, also served as Bel Air's mayor. He also chaired the board that wrote the county's home rule charter.

A commercial airline pilot, Mr. Graybeal was also one of the owners of Courtland Hardware and was an accomplished tennis player, as were his late wife, Jean Reed Graybeal, and their children. The home has a tennis court.

Jean Graybeal was a founder of the Liriodendron Foundation, which was responsible for securing county and private funding to preserve the former Kelly Mansion. She was an avid historic preservationist, who worked to save many of Harford's historic properties.

Community support

Kane said 50 members of the community have signed a petition asking the town to consider acquiring the Graybeal property, including its "truly magnificent house."

"It's a rare opportunity when a property like this comes up for sale," he added, also saying that the house "is not Tudor Hall; it does not need a tremendous amount of work," a reference to the historic Booth family home east of Bel Air that the county government owns and on which it has spent significant sums for repairs since acquiring it.

"This is a tremendous opportunity that should be seriously considered," continued Kane, who said he understands the economic conditions are not the best but urged the commissioners "to think outside the box."

"It would be a shame to see this house go into some other type of development," he said.

Although the property does not have public sewer service, there are town sewer lines nearby. Garono said Eagle has not sought annexation, leaving that decision to whomever buys the property.

The home is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Garono said; however, there is no historic easement protecting the structure from significant alteration, or even demolition.

Following the presentation to the town board, Garono said the 4.85 acres has a Harford County zoning classification of R2, which would permit townhouses.

Asked if there had been developer interest, Garono mentioned the bad housing economy and said, "Frankly, they've all been hiding under a rock."

Both he and Kane said, however, that had the property been on the market in 2005-06, it might already be a housing development. That possibility remains should the housing market in the county turn around, Garono said.

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