Sellers Mansion is sad relic, but could be a new cornerstone of Lafayette Square

Sellers Mansion is sad relic, but could be a new cornerstone of Lafayette Square
The 1868 Sellers Mansion, a Second Empire house listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is boarded up and gravely deteriorated. It faces the southeast corner of Lafayette Square at 801 North Arlington Avenue. It was originally the home of the Matthew Bacon Sellers, president of the Northern Central Railway. (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

The Sellers Mansion is the sad orphan of West Baltimore's Lafayette Square.

The square's urban park is lined with mansions and churches dating from the city's prosperity after the Civil War. Union troops camped here during the conflict, but after the war ended, wealthy Baltimoreans built grand homes in the area.


Some were grander than others. The Sellers Mansion, at North Arlington Avenue and West Lanvale Street, might have been the grandest of them all.

Size and pedigree do not guarantee a fabulous old age, however. For the past several decades, this mansion has remained a forlorn eyesore. Unoccupied for more than 20 years, it appears ashen and fragile.

There is no mistaking its fine lineage. The home was built about 1868 by Matthew Bacon Sellers, a millionaire trustee of the old Northern Central Railroad.

Sellers came to Baltimore after living in Louisiana and Kentucky. A man of considerable wealth, he had his likeness painted by the prominent portraitist Thomas Sully.

The family gained a reputation for eccentricity — Sellers, for instance, kept money and bonds in metal boxes in his home. And when the family had a dispute with a neighbor, they erected a high brick spite wall.

Yet family members were accomplished. Matthew Bacon Sellers II, who lived at the mansion as a young man, was a graduate of Drexel and Harvard universities and was a pioneer of early aviation.

By the mid-1950s, the reclusive family were among the last representatives of the original Lafayette Square settlers. Their 18-room home, filled with virtually undisturbed possessions, began to assume the air of a novel. About that time, when Samuel Sellers — the younger Matthew's brother — died alone in the home, The Baltimore Sun reported that Samuel's nephew discovered the body "in the dusty parlor, a high-ceilinged room carpeted in thick rugs and decorated with huge mirrors and plush drapes."

By this time, the neighborhood was an established home to African-American families, many having moved there in the early 1930s. White religious congregations sold their churches facing Lafayette Square to African-American congregations.

In 1955, The Sun carried an article about the Sellers Mansion with the headline "Mystery Mansion Sold for $20,600."

"The lofty rooms held nothing but fireless hearths, marble wash basins, brass chandeliers — and the March wind," said the article, noting that "no visitor had been admitted for many years."

A real estate speculator bought the property with an eye toward opening a nightclub. It never happened.

For a time, the Sellers Mansion was owned by St. James Episcopal Church, whose members worship in another historic building in the same block. As late as 2001, there was a plan, now abandoned, to redevelop the property as senior apartments. By then it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

After nearly 15 years in limbo, the mansion is now in receivership in the hands of a Baltimore nonprofit, One House at a Time Inc. The organization works to reduce Baltimore's inventory of vacant houses.

"It's an unusual property — a free-standing, large property," said Lisa Evans, the nonprofit's executive director.


"Potentially, it's going to take someone who has worked with historic buildings and multilayered financing," she said. "It is outside of our normal transfers."

Evans said receivership has worked in other neighborhoods, where new ambitions have been realized for older properties.

"Look at Greenmount West, Barclay, Oliver and Callow Avenue in Reservoir Hill," she said. "These are our successes."

I've been visiting those neighborhoods — and watching new residents move into former vacant house shells.

Perhaps now it's time for the Sellers Mansion. The historic house is likely to go to public auction in the spring or early summer, Evans said.

"We need to advertise the sale and create interest in the property," she said. "We are looking for the good of the house — and the good of the neighborhood."