Abandoned mansion in Baltimore M

Sellers Mansion, Baltimore Maryland
Date added: June 06, 2023 Categories: Maryland House Mansion
North side facade (2001)

Construction of the Sellers Mansion on Lafayette Square began in the year 1868. Matthew Bacon Sellers (d. 1880) and his wife Anne L. (Lewis) Sellers created their new home and were preparing for the birth of their first (and would be only) son, Matthew Bacon Sellers, Jr. The residence they constructed expresses a successful and proud demeanor. Built by Edward Davis for the Sellers family, the late Victorian styling of the Mansion is finely crafted and architecturally beautifully executed.

The Sellers Mansion was the first dwelling built on the eastern side of Lafayette Square, which had been founded about ten years earlier by an agreement between the city and a company of citizens. Sellers had been a plantation owner, but after the Civil War he sold his holdings in Louisiana and moved to Baltimore. With the $50,000 brought in from the sale of the plantation, Sellers established himself on what was then the periphery of the city. Sellers purchased an unusually large lot, and constructed an independent residence in keeping with the grandeur and scale of his earlier plantation lifestyle. The Sellers Mansion is also reminiscent of the scale and intentions of other dignified and opulent City residences such as 105 Monument Street (designed by Louis Long, ca. 1853) and adjacent to Mt. Vernon Place. While utilizing different materials and the latest fashionable design elements, the overall massing, siting, and social prominence projected by these residences are very similar.

Urban parks such as Lafayette Square played an important part in the 19th-century growth of Baltimore. Up to and following the Civil War, Baltimore expanded westward, propelled by the commercial potential of the railroads, foundries, and the port. At the same time, journalists noted the weariness attendant on industrial life, and the benefits of refuge in parks. "Standing upon its green fields," one wrote of Lafayette Square "and surrounded by noble, majestic oaks, the wearied, toil-worn citizen, in the summer solstice, reclining upon the cool, green sward, and fanned by the cool breezes which prevail at this elevated spot, beholds before him a bold and glorious panorama of nature." So valuable were the parks as urban sanctuaries that they were surrounded and protected by cast-iron fences, though only a few blocks from open countryside. To live on the newly minted parks was a social and economic privilege (Lafayette Square was the third of seven parks established in the middle decades of the 19th century on the expanding edges of Baltimore.). Rowhouses, more common along the Squares than large detached residences such as the Sellers Mansion, were several feet wider, and usually taller than the "second-class homes" on streets off the Square.

Lafayette Square was created out of the park's movement growing in force at the beginning of the third quarter of the 19 century. A City ordinance officially established the square in 1857. Following on the heals of the highly successful development projects of Franklin Square (1854) and Union Square (1857), Lafayette Square was also slated to offer premier housing for the upper middle class and professional Baltimoreans. As was the case with contemporaneous projects, the developers were offering land to the City for public open spaces in return for enhancements such as street paving, fencing, fountains and the like. According to Mary Ellen Hayward, "The land developers of these parcels sold the future parkland, 2 1/2 acres in Northwest Baltimore, to the City in 1859 for $15,000 (the purchase money being in exchange for paving the streets 'adjacent to the square and one-half of all the streets which bind on said square'). For its part, the City agreed to fence in each side of the square with iron railings once six houses of not less than 20 feet frontage were built on each side."

The progress in developing Lafayette Square was disrupted by the events of the Civil War and the heavy use of the land holdings of the square as a Union War Camp. Much of the heavy forest of oak trees and foliage unique to this park were stripped for the camp during this period. Following the War, the City moved forward with development of Lafayette Square, installing the promised curving walks, fountain and fencing features.

In accordance with the agreements made, the private Lafayette Square Association lived up to their end of the bargain as well, successfully selling parcels adjacent to the Square and putting properties on the City's tax rolls. The Sellers Mansion was a keystone in the success of this development project. The Mansion, being the first parcel sold on the east side of the Square and one of the earliest properties sold fee simple, established the credibility for future buyers and asserted with the latest fashionable architectural statement, that Lafayette Square was 'the place to be' in prominent social circles of Baltimore in 1868.

Matthew Bacon Sellers achieved success in his new career changes and was elected director of the Northern Central Railway in 1874, a few years after his arrival in Baltimore from Louisiana. He remained director until his death in 1880. The Northern Central competed with the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Company, and both companies significantly expanded the commerce of the region. As the closest ocean port to the Great Lakes, Baltimore was of great interest to the railroad companies, who could, by building railways to the lakes, gain access to the resources of the region. To achieve this goal, the Northern Central was absorbed by the Pennsylvania Railroad Company, which controlled important east-west lines. The Northern Central also opened the anthracite fields of central Pennsylvania to exploration, and by the 1890s carried over 40% of all imports into Baltimore.

The Sellers Mansion is the birthplace and primary residence of aviation pioneer Matthew Bacon Sellers Jr. (March 29, 1869 - April 5, 1932). Educated in Europe and at Harvard, Sellers Jr. practiced patent law in Baltimore while inquiring into the emerging science of aeronautics. By 1900 he was actively employed as both lawyer and aerodynamic consulting engineer in New York City as well. (Sellers Jr. maintained his primary residence in the Mansion in Baltimore and lived there routinely during his work in Washington, DC and Maryland.) President Taft appointed him to the Aerodynamical Laboratory Commission, created in 1912, and in 1915, President Wilson, on the recommendation of the Secretary of the Navy, Josephus Daniels, appointed him to serve as one of two representatives of the Aeronautical Society of America on the newly formed Naval Consulting Board. The recommendations of the Aerodynamical Laboratory Commission led to the formation of NASA.

Sellers Jr.'s interest in the helicopter and related theoretical research led him to build an experimental "Quadroplane" in 1911. "The invention and construction of the lightest aeroplane flying in the least power is attributed to him. He acted as his own pilot ...constructed a wind tunnel for testing propellers and airfoil shapes for discovering their aerodynamic possibilities." He was awarded numerous patents on various aeronautical prototypes and improvements, most notably the first retractable wheels for an airplane. Prolific in publishing his research and theories, his works were well received in scientific and aeronautical journals of that day. Matthew Bacon Sellers Jr.'s role in shaping the world of flying and aviation, as we know it today, can not be underestimated.

Building Description

The Sellers Mansion is a large three-story brick masonry structure with refined architectural detailing of the late Victorian period. Constructed in 1868 by Edward Davis as the principal residence for Matthew Bacon Sellers, Sr., the grand symmetrical, five-bay by eight-bay, Italianate block form retains most of its original character-defining elements. Second Empire influences such as the Mansard roof and dormers speak to Mr. Sellers' desire to assert his progressive and upwardly successful image, stylistically within Baltimore City's built environment. Its prominent siting as a detached residence, adjacent to Lafayette Square (est. 1859) is a somewhat unusual construction in the typical development of the urban square in nineteenth Century Baltimore. As one of the first properties built on Lafayette Square following the Civil War, the Sellers Mansion helped launch further development of the properties surrounding the Square as well as improvements of the park setting, central to the Square. The principal (west) facade, the most decorated facade, is finished with ornately carved wooden cornice trim and porch columns, carved sandstone window surrounds and fine woodworking at the windows and main entranceway. The interior plan of the building consists of highly decorated social living spaces to either side of a central hall that connects to a grand stair at the West Lanvale Street entrance. The overall cruciform circulation pattern is repeated on all floor levels and provided for service circulation needs with entries at the basement level and a back stair at the rear of the property.

The building has lost several elements of its original design over the years. Specifically, roof cresting was lost since 1955. Physical evidence indicates an Italianate-styled cupola was originally constructed at the convergence of the sloping hipped roof above the visible Mansard roof form. This feature was sadly lost sometime in the twentieth century as well. Otherwise, much of the original building fabric remains well intact. While the property has experienced minor alterations with its varied uses since the Sellers family left it in the late 1950s, much of the original building fabric and construction detailing remains intact. Despite neglect and a leak in the roof at the front center bay causing plaster damage and decay, the Sellers Mansion retains its essential physical features and possesses sufficient integrity to convey its significance as one of Baltimore's finest grand residences built following the Civil War.

The lavish and grand residential structure is designed with two highly visible facades and public entrances, the first and grandest is facing Lafayette Square and fronting North Arlington Street (historically Oregon Street); the second, fronts West Lanvale Street (historically by the same name.) Sited at the cresting of a long gradual hill extending from the downtown areas of the City, the property commands an imposing stature and is an anchoring influence on the Square as a whole. While more recent construction of an apartment complex (in the 1970s) immediately adjacent to the property northward, actually at times shadows the Sellers Mansion, the architectural integrity of the Square (aside from this intrusion) is quite remarkably intact and the Sellers Mansion is a landmark in this composition overall.

The compelling grandeur of the Mansion in this location is enhanced by its solid rectangular form; consisting of five bays (approximately 44 feet) at the front (North Arlington Street) and back facades, by eight bays along each side elevation (approximately 65 feet). Originally each facade had a grand porch structure (to date, the porches are intact only on the North Arlington and West Lanvale facades). The side elevations each carry two brick chimney masses projecting through the mansard roof in varying patterns. A fifth fireplace/chimney is evidenced on the rear facade of the property and thought to have been used for kitchen/service functions in the basement levels of the Mansion.

The original roof forms included a standing seamed metal hip roof (now a rolled roofing material) adjoining a decorative multi-colored and patterned slate tile mansard roof form at the third story level. The sloping Mansard faces are trimmed with painted metal edging/flashing. The original color is not evident.

While the original slates have been replaced in some areas, much of the original fabric here is unchanged. Three hooded shed dormers project symmetrically along each facade at the Mansard level, except along the rear (where there is only one, located centrally.) Physical evidence indicates the windows were two over two double sash wooden windows. The original central roof cupola has been removed as has the original metal cresting that graced the top edge of the Mansard roof as it joined the low-sloping hipped roof forms above. At the lower edge of the Mansard is a highly decorative carved wooden cornice structure where the wooden soffit serves also as the base of the built-in box gutter drainage system. The heavy cymatium is supported by an ornate configuration of large paired wooden carved brackets spaced evenly along all facades and closely arranged to punctuate the corners of the building. Tucked in deeper under and beside these grand pairs are smaller wooden scroll brackets that visually ribbon the corona or fascia panels. At the lower edges of the cornice, the bed molding is a stylized foliated dentil of sorts that repeats continuously along all facades.

The North Arlington Street (west) facade facing Lafayette Square is the most highly decorated of the four. Below the roof and cornice structures described above, are elaborately carved sandstone window hoods/surrounds supported by attenuated scroll-carved brackets of the same material. The dentil ribbon supports the carved stone molding that boasts an incised floral carving in a scrolling and fan-like form. The second-story windows are narrow two-over-two wooden double sash with delicately carved sandstone sills. The center window is an elongated triple-sash French window form that maintains the original wooden casement shutters at the interior walls. The window seems to have provided access to the porch roof above the main entrance. The first-floor windows are longer still than those on the second floor and are in a triple sash arrangement. The sandstone surrounds are similarly very ornately carved celebrating the main floor level of the residence. The porch structure is composed of four free-standing carved wood columns adjoining the cornice to two carved pilasters at the building facade. The fluted columns have finely carved Corinthian capitals.

The main entrance is composed of a solid wood six-panel door, trimmed with triple-paned sidelights and a multi-paned rectangular transom light above. The transom is supported by a decorative dentilated mullion.

The Lanvale Street (south) elevation is the second most significant and decorated facade of the Sellers Mansion. It has similar roof and dormer forms to those of the Arlington Street facade, however, two of the original five chimney stacks are evident at the mansard level. The tall brick chimney forms are crowned with decorative molded brick caps and located symmetrically at either end of the facade in a manner that emphasizes the monumentally of this very public elevation, and draws the eye to the central porch structure and Lanvale Street entrance. The elongated window forms at this elevation are similar to those on the primary facade, however, the stone surrounds are much less ornamented. The porch forms are not as highly decorated as on Arlington Street. The cornice trim matches, but the columns are of a fine-rubbed brick construction.

The side (north) elevation is very similar to the Lanvale side, except that the symmetrical arrangement of the chimneys and porch have been modified to create a series of somewhat paired windows (toward the front of the facade) that are flanked by two chimneys, in essence, the arrangement "off-sets" the porch structure in a slightly asymmetrical configuration. The porch is located slightly off-center toward the rear of the property.

All porch detailing has been lost over the years, however, the remaining evidence indicates a structure very similar to that of the Lanvale elevation. The decorative sandstone window surrounds are replaced with rubbed brick flat jack arches on this facade.

The rear(east) elevation, being less visible than any of the others, has only one primary, centrally located dormer at the mansard level. Intact physical evidence indicates a single chimney (located to the north or right of the dormer). There is an elongated triple sash window at the second-floor level centrally located above the main entryway on this facade. While modified over the years, much of the original four-light transom and other features remain intact. Again, the decorative sandstone window surrounds are replaced with rubbed brick flat, jack arches on this facade. Physical evidence and written reports suggest that the entire facade was covered with a two-and-one-half-story wooden veranda-like porch structure (no longer extant). A second entrance adjacent to the south of the one centrally located retains a wooden door and three light transom above, its purpose is not clear. Two service entrances are located symmetrically at either corner at the ground floor/basement level of this elevation and were presumably for access to the kitchen and service facilities at this location in the Mansion.

The interior plan of the first floor of the building consists of highly decorated social living spaces to either side of a central hall that connects to a grand stair at the West Lanvale Street entrance. The overall cruciform circulation pattern is repeated on all floor levels and provided for service circulation needs with entries at the basement level and a back stair at the rear of the property.

The main entrance foyer is about four feet by eight feet. Set with an interior pair of glazed doors, the trim details and ornament is typical of the late Victorian period, including sidelights, transom lights, and elaborate trim work.

The largest and grandest parlor is located to the south of the main hall. The fireplace was centrally located. Its mantelpiece is no longer extant. The room finishes include solid wood floor of random-width boards of heart pine. An original eleven-inch baseboard trim with elaborate molding runs throughout the space. Walls and ceiling are plaster. The ceiling height is roughly fourteen feet. The complex original plaster cornice, mostly intact throughout the first floor, consists of a double crown molding, with a heavy cyma reversa curve below and a decorative bed molding at the lower edges. The central decorative plaster ceiling roses, from which hung a gas lighting fixture or chandelier, is of a foliated pattern and unfortunately, is mostly destroyed due to water damage. The four windows are tall, triple sash with elaborate wooden trim work intact. The original interior shutters, with panels of approximately six inches in dimension, are trimmed with double-beaded panels. Most are painted shut, but are nevertheless very much intact and good condition in all windows in this room.

The two smaller rooms across the main hall to the north side of the building are similarly finished and highly ornamented. All trim work matches throughout the first-floor spaces. Both rooms have centrally located fireplaces of which one simple marble mantelpiece remains. Window details match those across the hall and are also triple sash complete with interior box shutters as described above. Each room retains aspects of the plaster ceiling roses, original to these living spaces.

In plan, the central hall adjoins a wider cross hall at mid-point to the side elevations of the building. The long central hall is connected to the entrance at the rear of the building as well. This creates a general four-square arrangement in plan.

The main decorative stair hall is located at the Lanvale entrance. The original decorative newel post and ornate balustrade and railing to all three stories is in superb condition, as are the stair brackets, treads and risers. The newel post is the major design feature in this space and is consistent with similar newel post designs of the late nineteenth century. Much of the original interior woodwork is intact through all levels of this stair. The plaster ceiling rosette in this stair hall is an oval foliated form.

All base, chair and cornice moldings, as well as, interior door frames and decorative window trim details are generally in their original configurations with the exception of some wall modifications along the central hall in the front parlor spaces. Original interior shutters remain intact at all windows except those in the stair halls.

The rear portions of the Mansion are less ornamented and appear to be more service oriented. There is one main room on either side of the central hall in the rear portions. The room on the north side of the hall may have served as a dining room. It contains a stair to the basement level, possibly an access for servants to the kitchen area below. The rear stair at the far south east corner of the house connects only the first, second and third floors, and does not extend to the basement level. (Bathroom areas have been added in the rear portions of the house in more recent times.)

On the Second floor, much of the original central corridor floor plan is still extant and follows that of the lower level. Ceiling height is nearly twelve feet, one inch. At the western end of the building, above the main parlors, there are three chambers of very similar size and dimension. These rooms retain most of their original features including marble mantelpieces and fireboxes in some locations. Several smaller rooms have been added along the north length for storage and restroom needs as well. Interior finishes in these areas consist of wooden floors, random width. The baseboard trim and cornice ornamentation is generally less ornate than that on the first-floor level. Still all windows (other than those in the two stair halls) maintain their original wooden interior shutters. Windows are still triple sash but are accordingly, of a smaller scale.

The Third floor maintains the same general plan as that of the second-floor level. The windows are set into the walls and are raised by two steps upward to the window sill level. These are the Mansard windows at the exterior elevations and they do not have the ornamental shutters as on the lower levels. Ceiling height at the third floor is eleven feet, eight inches. Closets have been added in areas adjacent to the window boxes in the mansard profile, in some areas. Third-floor finishes are the simplest of all and not ornamental.

In 1875, Sellers returned from Europe to find a house had been built on the adjoining property. Angered by the change in view, he built the 40-foot high "spite wall" along the northern edge of the property. A three-story carriage house at the northeast corner of the property was built with the Mansion. Both structures were taken down sometime between 1955 and 1965.

After passing out of the Sellers family in 1955, the house was used by the City Commission on Urban Renewal, and afterward bought by Saint James Terrace Apartments, Inc., an affiliate of Saint James Episcopal Church on Lafayette Square. The building narrowly escaped demolition when a senior citizens' apartment building went up next door in the early 1970s. The church and community groups used the Sellers Mansion until the early 1990s, but it has since been vacant.

Sellers Mansion, Baltimore Maryland North Arlington Ave. and Lanvale St. facades looking northeast (2001)
North Arlington Ave. and Lanvale St. facades looking northeast (2001)

Sellers Mansion, Baltimore Maryland North Arlington Ave. facade looking southeast (2001)
North Arlington Ave. facade looking southeast (2001)

Sellers Mansion, Baltimore Maryland North side facade (2001)
North side facade (2001)

Sellers Mansion, Baltimore Maryland Rear east facade (2001)
Rear east facade (2001)

Sellers Mansion, Baltimore Maryland Front porch detail (2001)
Front porch detail (2001)

Sellers Mansion, Baltimore Maryland First floor window (2001)
First floor window (2001)

Sellers Mansion, Baltimore Maryland Upper floor window (2001)
Upper floor window (2001)

Sellers Mansion, Baltimore Maryland Lanvale Street entrance (2001)
Lanvale Street entrance (2001)

Sellers Mansion, Baltimore Maryland Front Arlington Avenue entrance (2001)
Front Arlington Avenue entrance (2001)

Sellers Mansion, Baltimore Maryland First floor plaster cornice (2001)
First floor plaster cornice (2001)

Sellers Mansion, Baltimore Maryland First floor plaster ceiling rose (2001)
First floor plaster ceiling rose (2001)

Sellers Mansion, Baltimore Maryland First floor plaster ceiling rose (2001)
First floor plaster ceiling rose (2001)

Sellers Mansion, Baltimore Maryland Main stair newel post (2001)
Main stair newel post (2001)

Sellers Mansion, Baltimore Maryland Main stair rail (2001)
Main stair rail (2001)

Sellers Mansion, Baltimore Maryland Second floor main hall (2001)
Second floor main hall (2001)

Sellers Mansion, Baltimore Maryland Interior shutters (2001)
Interior shutters (2001)

Sellers Mansion, Baltimore Maryland Second floor closet door (2001)
Second floor closet door (2001)

Sellers Mansion, Baltimore Maryland Second floor fireplace (2001)
Second floor fireplace (2001)