I am often approached by friends with ideas for “Houstory” subjects. While I appreciate the enthusiasm (truly, I do), there have been some suggestions that have been off. For example, a friend told me about a house in her neighborhood where a murder had taken place in the ‘50s. Today, the same house is subject to late night police intervention to settle frequent domestic disputes. The angle for the story, she breezily explained, would be a prediction that history would repeat itself in this same, apparently cursed, home. Um, thanks anyway.
So you can understand my hesitation when, in the spring, my most eccentric friend suggested a story on a house he had discovered on one of his “drunk dog-walks.” (Don’t ask. I certainly didn’t.) “It’s old, romantic and oozing history,” he said, “one of the most beautiful houses I have ever seen…we can go look at it now.” My friend knows extraordinary homes (some might tie his eccentricities to a life of dysfunctional privilege), so my curiosity was piqued. When he revealed the house had been put up for auction and no one had bid, I knew I had to see it. I had an hour to kill before carpool, he seemed relatively sober; off we went.
We drove slowly up the very discreet and lovely Stewart Road in Stevenson, noting all the pretty houses as we passed, and there are plenty. (Some of them are still inhabited by the descendants of the early owners of the house we were headed to spy.) At the end of the road we came to a newish-looking security gate, half covered in overgrown grass with a brass plate that read “Cliffeholme.” The locked gate forced us to officially trespass, hopping over it and continuing on foot–nervously. We agreed, if caught, we’d say, “We’re interested in the house.” Only when I got a full view of the place did I (in Gap yoga pants and a dirty T) realize just how lame that excuse would seem.
Cliffeholme is simply breathtaking. It is a tudor-style masterpiece on 9-acres that, to my eye, makes the country aesthetic of the typical Baltimore County mansion seem crude and even a little Podunk. Maybe it was because I was in the throes of an affair with the BBC series Downtown Abbey, or maybe because The Secret Garden was the first book I really fell for, or because I had just seen the beautiful new film adaptation of Jane Eyre, but I was mesmerized. I could see past the sad signs of decline (the home has been uninhabited for three years) and pictured Cliffeholme in its heyday: little girls with huge bows in their curls playing on the lawn, a father returning from the hunt dressed in natty riding gear, ample-bosomed servants scurrying to fix supper as an aristocratic matriarch looks on. Turns out, I was right on the money.
The house that eventually became Cliffeholme was built in 1848 by James Howard, son of Revolutionary War hero John Eager Howard. As president of the Baltimore and Susquehanna railroad, Mr. Howard was responsible for building the “Green Spring Branch” of the local train route–he built his house adjacent to the newly erected “Eccleston Station.” Sadly, he sold the house a mere six years later, when his wife, Catherine, died. One can assume that the house held too many memories. Adding to the romantic tragedy is a deed dated nine months after her death that listed the widower as “James Howard, Lunatic.”
Better days lay ahead for Cliffeholme when it was purchased in 1872 by Charles Morton Stewart from Robert North Elder. Stewart bought Cliffeholme as a summer house. At the time, it was “a square, deeply walled old house, rather plain in appearance inside and out,” according to Dawn F. Thomas who wrote The Greenspring Valley: Its History and Heritage. Mr. Stewart was a shipping magnate who made his fortune bringing Brazilian coffee to the United States. With oodles of money, 18 kids and loads of fancy friends, the Stewarts were ready to splash out on their new summer pad. Two large parlors were constructed along with a study, picture gallery, library and “dancing room,” while the basement was outfitted to house the kitchen, laundry, servants’ quarters and a “lock-up” storeroom. Now party-ready, Cliffeholme served as a backdrop for all types of elite social fun. The Stewarts held a variety of fox hunting events and timber races on the grounds as well as a literary and artistic salon which counted Charles Dickens among its guests. Eleanor Stewart Heiser, a daughter of Charles Morton Stewart, recalled the family’s grand travel style in her book, Days Gone By.
“Two wagons transported steamer trunks to the estate, while the older children and servants traveled by steam train to Eccleston. Finally, Mrs. Stewart and her coachmen, dressed in the Stewart livery, green broadcloth piped in red with a gold lace band around the black silk hat, headed out with the little ones in the family carriage.”
Today they would definitely be in the private plane set.
“There were 13 master bedrooms. A large veranda encircled the house, which Mother had measured to know how many times ‘up and down’ made a mile, and on rainy days many constitutionals were taken there.” The Stewarts occupied Cliffeholme for nearly 60 idyllic years. Halcyon days, indeed.
The next chapter in Cliffeholme’s story belongs to Charles Alexander, founder of Alexander & Alexander, the Baltimore insurance brokerage. He purchased the home at the height of the Jazz Age (another delicious image) and initiated a renovation that is responsible for many of the home’s distinguishing characteristics. He covered its facade in cream-colored stucco and changed windows to casements with mullions and leaded glass. He added a great window set over the entrance, enfusing a Masterpiece Theater flare. Other architectural highlights include the marble fireplaces and mantels (13 in all), finely detailed crown and dental moldings and mahogany paneling. He also renovated the bathrooms with I920s fixtures like elegant porcelain pedestal sinks and tubs large enough to hold visiting President William Howard Taft, who was a hefty 300-plus pounds. Charles Alexander died in 1958 and an auction of his books, paintings and antiques was held a Cliffeholme. (Can you imagine the treasures?)
A year later, Cliffeholme was sold to Reuben and Beatrice Fedderman. The Feddermans owned an East Baltimore furniture store and spent their time raising two kids and tending to their business. The days of the large glamourous parties and illustrious guests were over. Decades later, when the house became too expensive to heat, Mr. and Mrs. Fedderman took up residence in the basement, leaving the upper floors to the vagaries of benign neglect.
When the couple finally decided to sell the house in 1998, it was in need of major renovation and languished on the market for years. Laureate Education Chairman and C.E.O. and Sylvan Learning founder Doug Becker bought it with plans to renovate it with his new bride. The newlyweds ultimately abandoned the plan and soon the house was on the market again.
Unfortunately, Becker had done little to the place (he never moved in), so it faced the same obstacles that kept it on the market before: tons of expensive renovations, unlivable quarters due to disrepair, and a massive house too big for family life in the new century.
One of the many obstacles to purchase were the contingencies. Every potential buyer ordered a house inspection and the results–termites, an oil tank buried beneath the yard, major roof repair, replacement of all systems–soured the deal.
In 2002, just when Becker had verbally closed the deal with a local family, Larry Cohoon, a Texas businessman who found the property for sale in the Wall Street Journal, swooped in with a $1.1 million cash offer, no contingencies.
An out-of-towner in one of Baltimore’s most storied houses? The new owner made neighbors uneasy. But at least he had the money to fix up the place–or ruin it depending on your taste.
The discovery of a website devoted to the house, with shots of the “parking lot,” increased suspicion about the Texan’s motives. Was he planning to use it for some other purpose? Weddings? Bar Mitzvahs? These possibilities never came to pass thanks to a move by neighbors to put the property in the Maryland Historical Trust.
One year and $2 million later, the house was transformed, and in 2004, Melinda and Steve Geppi, head of Diamond Comics and Baltimore Magazine publisher, bought the mansion for $4.8 million.
Geppi’s financial woes are well known so we won’t go into details here, but after he placed the property on the market in 2009 for $7.7 million, the house went into foreclosure and eventually to auction in 2010. Bidding opened at $3.7 million, but no one bought it.
Bank of America owns Cliffeholme now. It still maintains its old world luster but with the added vulgarity of modern times: custom audio and lighting, a wine room, a home theater, a gourmet kitchen with granite up one side and down the other, and, of course, a gym.
Where are Cliffeholme’s next house-passionate, extravagant party-throwing owners, and mightn’t they like to open the gate and have me over for a casual design consultation? Wait, first let me change from yoga clothes to cocktail.