One of Baltimore finest residences, the former home of railroad tycoon Ross R. Winans, would be transformed to an alumni center and conference facility for the University of Baltimore if the current owner can come to terms with the university and a prospective donor.
Agora Inc., a publishing company that owns the former Winans mansion at 1217 St. Paul St., is negotiating with the donor's representatives to work out details of the transaction, which would involve a complete restoration of the 46-room mansion and its grounds before the sale is final.
Grieves, Worrall, Wright and O'Hatnick, the respected Baltimore firm that restored Hackerman House on Mount Vernon Place for the Walters Art Museum, would be the restoration architect for the Winans mansion as well.
But unlike the Hackerman House, which developer Willard Hackerman bought and conveyed to the Walters for restoration as home for its Asian art collection, the Winans mansion would be acquired and restored by the mystery donor and then conveyed to the University of Baltimore, under the plan.
The building is the only residence in Baltimore designed from start to finish by famous New York architect Stanford White, of McKim, Mead and White. Agora has had the building listed with Insignia Miller Real Co. brokerage since January 2001 but recently took it off the market -- a sign that the alumni center project is moving ahead.
Jean Hankey, director of facilities for Agora and a 1982 graduate of the University of Baltimore, said her company is working with others on a plan to sell the building to an entity that would donate it to the university. That's why it was taken off the market.
She said Agora wants to be sure that the building will be used appropriately and cared for once it is sold, and that has affected who she would consider as possible buyer.
"I didn't want it turned over to somebody who would chop it up," she said. "I didn't want it to be become a sterile structure with cubicles. I wanted it to be restored properly."
An alumni center and conference facility would be a "wonderful" use, she said. "I just hope the pieces fall into place."
The mansion 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.
Agora, which has restored half a dozen historic properties in the Mount Vernon neighborhood, bought the Winans mansion in 1995 for $300,000 and has had employees there for the past six years. It moved its employees out of the Winans mansion last April and into another building it restored, the former Sons of Italy building at 808 St. Paul St. Agora put the Winans property up for sale for $750,000.
Hankey said she doesn't know the identity of the donor who would acquire the mansion for the university.
She said she has been working with a representative of the donor, Charles Jeffries of Center Development Corp.
Jeffries said he couldn't disclose the donor's identity, except to say that it is someone with a strong interest in preserving historic works of architecture. Jeffries said he is working with Agora on behalf of the donor to carry out a first-class restoration, worthy of a Stanford White building.
"This is a very special piece of property," he said. "It's one of the few examples of McKim, Mead and White's work in Maryland, and it's an extraordinary building. Agora has done a tremendous job of restoring properties in Mount Vernon, and wants to be satisfied that it will be in good hands."
With a growing campus several blocks north of the Winans mansion, the University of Baltimore has 40,000 alumni, and 70 percent live in Maryland.
The university's current alumni center is at 1130 N. Charles St. With 18,600 square feet of space on four levels, oak paneling, leaded glass windows and a spacious courtyard, the Winans mansion is much grander.
President H. Mebane Turner said the university does not have sufficient funds to buy and restore the mansion but would be delighted to receive it as a gift. He said the university could control it through the University of Baltimore Educational Foundation or its subsidiary, University Properties. "It would be a tremendous asset for the institution and the surrounding midtown neighborhood," he said.
For years, the Winans mansion was known as the "House of Mystery" -- a reference to its forbidding exterior, the high wall around its garden and the reclusive nature of its former owner.
According to Great Baltimore Houses: An Architectural and Social History by Joanne Giza and Catherine 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. It was designed in the Chateau style popular in the United States between 1860 and 1890, and its construction cost $500,000.
Besides alumni functions, the restored mansion could be used for a variety of community meetings and conferences, Jeffries said.
"There's an opportunity for us to do something that's really exceptional for Baltimore," he said. "A lot of great buildings don't lend themselves to adaptive reuse, but this is such a nice fit with the University of Baltimore.
"That's what makes it work for everybody."