FOR YEARS, the 46-room mansion at St. Paul and Preston streets in Baltimore was known as the "House of Mystery" -- a reference to its forbidding exterior, the high wall around its garden and the reclusive nature of former owner Ross Winans.
Today, it's anything but a mystery. Although it still looks ominous on the outside, the building has become a hive of activity. After a period of dormancy in the mid-1990s, it has reopened as home to three divisions of Agora Inc., a publishing company that takes its name from the ancient Greek agora, or marketplace.
As an international publisher of books and newsletters, Agora bills itself as the "modern marketplace of ideas." This weekend, the owners will provide a rare glimpse of some of the design ideas that set the Winans House apart when they open its doors to the public during a tour of "Gilded Age" residences.
The tour is sponsored by the Baltimore Architecture Foundation and the Evergreen House of the Johns Hopkins University. Other stops include the Marburg House at 14 W. Mount Vernon Place (another Agora property); Government House at 1125 N. Calvert St.; the Josias Pennington House at 1119 St. Paul St.; a private residence at 6 W. Mount Vernon Place; and the Evergreen House at 4545 N. Charles St.
All were constructed or renovated during the last quarter of the 19th century, the so-called Gilded Age, when wealthy owners went to great lengths to decorate their residences.
Of the six houses on the tour, the Winans mansion at 1217 St. Paul St. has gone through the most changes. Architectural historians Joanne Giza and Catharine Black say it is the only Baltimore residence designed "from start to finish" by New York architect Stanford White.
The house was completed in 1882 for Ross R. Winans, an early director of the Baltimore and Ohio railroad. He was the grandson of Ross Winans, who devised the modern rail car with friction wheels and outside bearings, and heir to his fortune.
According to "Great Baltimore Houses: An Architectural and Social History" by Giza and Black, Ross R. Winans married his first cousin, Neva Whistler, in 1879. Soon afterward, he hired White to design a residence for himself and his bride, a relative of the artist James McNeill Whistler.
The result was one of the finest houses ever built in Baltimore. Sixty feet wide and 75 feet deep, it was designed in the Chateau style popular in the United States between 1860 and 1890. The first floor is made of brownstone; upper floors are clad in brick with brownstone trim. Distinguishing features include twin towers with conical roofs, deep-set windows and a steeply pitched roof with dormer windows.
Inside, the house is a visual feast, with nearly every surface on the lower levels covered with some kind of patterning or lavish ornamentation. In the oak-paneled entrance hall, a fireplace is surrounded by Persian blue tiles. Other fireplaces have mantels made of oak, mahogany, cherry, alabaster or marble. Leaded glass windows illuminate a grand staircase of oak, with twisted spindles. Many rooms have their original chandeliers or wall sconces, parquet floors and other decorations.
The Winans entertained frequently until the early 1900s. But after Neva Winans died in 1907, her husband became a recluse. After his death in 1912, the house was rented to Girls' Latin School, the preparatory school for Goucher College.
In 1928, it was purchased by funeral director William Cook, who converted it to one of the area's first "homelike" funeral parlors -- the forerunner of today's funeral "home."
In 1969, the building was sold to a group of doctors for use as medical offices. According to city land records, Agora bought it last September for $300,000, far less than the $500,000 Winans spent to build it.
Joseph Dwyer, Agora's facilities manager, said the company removed many of the examining-room partitions installed by the doctors and otherwise tried to restore the building to its original condition, while providing comfortable work space for 45 employees. But he added that more always can be done, from repairing a stained-glass window to repairing a broken fountain. "It's still a work in progress," he said.
Agora President William Bonner said Winans House and Marburg House are valuable assets for the company because they provide inspiration for employees. "These buildings reflect the grace and elegance of the 19th century," he said. "They cause us to aim for a higher standard for our products and ourselves."
The "Gilded Age" tour will be from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, starting at Evergreen House, 4545 N. Charles St. Tickets cost $30 for architecture foundation and Evergreen House members, $35 for others. For reservations, call (410) 516-0341.
Pub Date: 9/19/96