Owners mull registering Towson's Villa Madrid as national landmark before selling
By Rus VanWestervelt
For the Towson Times|
May 27, 2015 | 6:00 AM
The historic Villa Madrid house on Charles Street Avenue in Towson is about to change hands again, as its owner for the past 12 years has decided to sell. (Jon Sham/Baltimore Sun Media Group video)
Almost exactly 17 years ago, in 1998, Dave and Nancy McManus stood in the lush gardens of a stately home in the 6700 block of Charles Street Avenue, where they were attending a post-prom party for Towson High School seniors. After taking a tour of the home and the grounds, Dave turned to Nancy, his wife, and told her that he wanted to buy the home.
"I really liked the way the grounds were laid out and maintained," said Dave McManus, "and I told Nancy that if the property ever went up for sale we should look into it."
Five years later, in 2003, Dave and Nancy received word that the Towson home, known as Villa Madrid, had been put up for sale. Dave followed through on what he told Nancy, and they bought the historic home.
It was only fitting that the McManus family fell in love with Villa Madrid while attending a party. The home has had a longstanding reputation of large celebrations dating back to the late 1920s.
The house was designed and built by Edward J. Gallagher in 1925, and the property was used primarily as a retreat for social gatherings. In 1929, it was sold to Samuel M. Bushman, brother of Hollywood silent film star Francis X. Bushman, who was the first owner to live in the house. Bushman held large parties at Villa Madrid for celebrities and debutantes. Bushman owned Villa Madrid until 1946. Since then, ownership has changed 12 times.
According to John McGrain, Baltimore County Historian and Historic Preservation Planner in the county's Office of Planning for 30 years, the style of the house — Spanish Colonial Revival — was one of the styles a suburban property owner could select in the early 1900s, but Georgian Revival and French Provincial styles were much more popular.
"The people who selected Spanish Revival style were not necessarily of Spanish descent," McGrain said. "They merely liked a romantic style found in some faraway place."
Whereas recent previous owners have devoted much of their time and effort in restoring the beautiful grounds and gardens of Villa Madrid to much of their original condition when Bushman owned the house — at least on the remaining two of the original 17 acres — the McManus family has spent the last 12 years restoring the house and its interior to its original state.
Nancy McManus used letters and old photos to help with the restoration while being very mindful of what she discovered as she peeled away the layers of home modifications from previous owners.
"You could tell from the living room side where the stone was," Nancy McManus said. "We tore away the drywall and could tell immediately we had found the original walls."
"We wanted to keep the architecture consistent in our restoration," Dave McManus said.
In addition to restoring the house much to its original state, they made upgrades to the kitchen, upper-level bedrooms and pool area.
They are now considering the option of registering the house as a national historic landmark.
Villa Madrid is registered as a "Historical Place," which is a designation with little more than a recognition that the building has historic value and, therefore, should be preserved. It differs from the more prestigious "landmark" status, which provides federal protection from it being destroyed for the sake of progress or redevelopment.
"Historic preservations will certainly applaud the accurate restoration of any part of our built environment," said McGrain, who published "Charles Street: Baltimore's Artery of Elegance" in 2012 and noted Villa Madrid in his book.
Ruth Mascari, president of the Preservation Alliance of Baltimore County, believes it is important to Towson's history to preserve, as much as possible, historic homes such as Villa Madrid.
"If we don't make an effort to save things, our children and our community lose where they came from," said Mascari, who said she hopes the McManuses will go forward with registering Villa Madrid as a national landmark. "We have lost so many things because of development. People drive by the house every day and they have no idea what that house is."
According to Mascari, the landmark designation is assigned to the title, regardless of who owns the house.
"The people who are working for historic preservation are very happy to see this kind of restoration at Villa Madrid," Mascari said.
Baltimore County Councilman David Marks agreed.
"The restoration of Villa Madrid will enhance the Charles Street corridor, perhaps the most beautiful route in metropolitan Baltimore," said Marks, who was a former officer in the Baltimore County Historical Trust. "With Towson developing, it's certainly important to hold on to those structures that link this community to its past. ... I applaud any private investor who can invest the time and money to restore something so historic."
As far as Dave and Nancy McManus are concerned, they hope that the new owners will respect their labors of love in restoring Villa Madrid.
"You become invested in it. It's like it's your child," Nancy McManus said.
It isn't any surprise that some of the individuals interested in buying the house have attended their own parties.
"We've had people at our parties say the same thing as we did before we bought it," Dave McManus said.
Dave and Nancy McManus hope the next era for Villa Madrid will continue as a voice of the past, present and future.