A self-described impulsive "house-a-holic," who before yesterday had never seen the inside of Baltimore's landmark Sherwood Mansion, bought it on a $2.52 million whim at auction.
The purchase apparently set a Baltimore sales record, and successfully punctuates the end of a long, sluggish ride on the market for one of the city's most celebrated homes.
"I went there, I liked it, I bought it. I'm very impulsive," said winning bidder Leroy M. Merritt, a Baltimore native and industrial developer.
Merritt fought off seven bidders yesterday afternoon on the mansion's black-topped back driveway in a steady rain. It was over in minutes. Bidding, which started at $1.8 million, climbed in a hurry past $2 million, with Merritt answering each more aggressive call.
"I have $2,400,000. This property will change hands today. This is your last opportunity," warned auctioneer Jon Levinson, vice president of Alex Cooper. "I have $2,400,000. Going once. I have $2,400,000. Going twice. Ladies and gentlemen, last chance to buy this beautiful mansion. ....
Owners Louis and Patricia Nicholas welcomed Merritt immediately inside to toast the sale with champagne and to sign on the dotted line with an ornate pink-and-gold enameled pen - the same one that retiree Louis Nicholas used as he sold his five health-care companies.
"I'm so happy that someone who can do it justice has it," Nicholas said of the home he has owned for more than 20 years, raised four children in and elaborately designed to match his and his wife's taste.
"The secret to living in this house and enjoying it is subtle," he added. "It's being grateful - every single day."
For 80 years, the Sherwood Mansion has been one of Baltimore's most recognized properties. Petroleum magnate John W. Sherwood built it in 1925, a smaller-scale model of Virginia's famed Westover plantation.
But as lovely as Sherwood designed his home to be, his gardens were legend. Planted like forested palace grounds with thousands of azaleas and tulips, Sherwood invited the public for a few weeks each spring to step onto his property and witness the spectacle.
Public now, the gardens draw crowds each spring and still bear the original owner's name: Sherwood Gardens.
Before the Nicholas family decided to auction the house, it languished on the market for two years. Even with the home's pedigree and deluxe features, buyers didn't go for the original $3.8 million asking price, or even for the $2.7 million the owners eventually dropped it to.
But at $2.52 million - which is the $2.4 million sales price plus the auction premium - the price is still a Baltimore record, according to brokers at the sale familiar with the market.
Merritt chuckled a bit at the idea of having bought what is possibly the most expensive house ever to sell in Baltimore. "Baltimore is a very nice, but very provincial, town," he said. "They don't believe in being extravagant."
Though he grew up hearing about the mansion and seeing pictures of its famous public gardens, it was only yesterday, for about an hour before the auction, that Merritt saw it up close. He had not heard that the house was for sale until reading an article about it in Sunday's newspaper.
Driving through the lush Guilford neighborhood and up to its red-brick centerpiece on Highfield Road, Merritt, who is 74 and engaged to be married, said he thought to himself, "This is magnificent."
A few hours later, it was his. The home theater, the wine cellar, the air-conditioned doghouse and a fragment of Baltimore history.
"The prestige of owning such a wonderful, wonderful house probably did me in," Merritt said, joking that the doghouse with air conditioning sealed the deal: "Because I'm in the doghouse so often."
The Sherwood Mansion will be Merritt's eighth house, he said, and "one of the main houses."
"I'm a house-a-holic," he said. "Impulse is what I am."