Time, fashion and finances were not kind to a fabled West Baltimore mansion, a winter palace built by 19th-century railroad builder and engineer Thomas deKay Winans. He gave his residence a curious name, Alexandroffsky. It was every bit a walled Xanadu that caused Baltimoreans to gasp and gossip until the day the wreckers flattened it. The mansion's site is now part of the University of Maryland biotech park.
The story behind Alexandroffsky is a good tale, well-documented by Baltimore County historian John McGrain.
"Early in his career Thomas Winans traveled to Czarist Russia to plan and construct the Moscow-St. Petersburg railway, a venture that paid handsomely," McGrain writes in the winter edition of the Baltimore County Historical Society's History Trails publication.
With the money Winans made, he hired Baltimore architects Niernsee and Neilson and threw money at the block bounded by Fremont Avenue, Baltimore and Hollins streets. His architects also designed Camden Station, and both the mansion and the rail terminal bear a passing resemblance.
"The great house was built at a brisk pace and on February 24, 1852, Winans recorded he 'Slept in Alexandroffsky for the First Time,'" McGrain writes.
A short while later, he paid Tiffany in New York the equivalent of $55,000 in today's money for nine chandeliers. He also installed fountains and many examples of garden statuary. His lion statues later traveled to the Maryland Zoo in Druid Hill Park, where they remain on display.
Winans, who liked good engineering, engaged the Baltimore firm of Hayward, Bartlett to produce what amounted to an industrial-grade heating plant, one served by a brick ventilating chimney on the grounds of the estate.
There was also an early heating and cooling system involving coils of pipe under the floors and ventilating cavities. Ferdinand C. Latrobe later wrote that "when a Victorian-petticoated lady, returning with her escort to retrieve her fan, reached the middle of the ballroom floor, she made the screeching discovery that her voluminous skirt and petticoats were fluttering over her head, blown up by the air suddenly rising from holes in the floor."
Winans had stables, a house for his black swans and a large glass conservatory. But it was his garden statues and art collection that caused a guidebook writer to say that his collection "would do credit to the home of a European prince." Some of the Greek and Roman statues were a little too much for prim and proper Baltimore. Someone complained to the City Council, and Winans reacted by having a high brick wall erected around his compound. Once the mansion was walled off, stories of its opulence only magnified.
Winans died in 1878, and by the 1920s, his descendants were alternating between Newport, R.I., and Baltimore. (They also had a still-standing summer house, Orianda at Crimea, in Leakin Park.) In 1923, they opened Alexandroffsky to the public for a card party to benefit South Baltimore General Hospital. The Baltimore Sun noted that "its massive brick wall, like a battlement" would at last be opened.
In November 1926, the Winans descendants called in the auctioneers to sell the furniture and art collections, presumably including the James McNeill Whistler paintings they acquired.
"The curtain began to descend on the past glories of Alexandroffsky yesterday when 800 lots … were sold at public auction for approximately $15,000," The Sun reported. "Before the last article had been disposed of, policemen had been sent to guard the old boxwood in the gardens which was being torn apart by souvenir hunters."
Among other items, a set of six whiskey glasses and a decanter emblazoned with the Imperial Russian coat of arms sold for $18.
"Women in the crowd nearly came to blows when a gold-plated jewel box was placed on sale and Mr. Galton [the auctioneer] had to call for order. It fetched $28."
The Sun covered the auction for several days. "Football rushes, wrestling matches and track meets took place in the corridors and rooms. … Streetcars, taxicabs and private automobiles emptied crowds at the gates."
By 1929, the wreckers were pulling down the great chimney. The city rejected buying the site for a park, and it remained a vacant lot for decades.