baltimore_A world behind a wall_mj11

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Nineteenth-century Baltimore had no shortage of grand estates with even grander names. There was stately Montebello at 33rd Street near The Alameda, sprawling Cloud Capped at the intersection of Frederick and North Bend roads, and Green Spring Valley’s Nacirema, which later became the site of opera singer Rosa Ponselle’s home, Villa Pace. But none of these compared to the curiosity that was Alexandroffsky.

Located just east of St. Peter the Apostle church in the middle of a working-class neighborhood filled with modest rowhomes owned by B&O railroad employees, Alexandroffsky was an anomaly, to say the least. Sky-reaching towers jutted upward from the house and a huge circular glass and iron conservatory, 62 feet in diameter, extended from the first floor into the garden like a giant bubble. The home boasted an aviary, bearskin rugs and marble staircases, as well as four acres of gardens filled with fountains and statuary. Surrounding the estate was a 12-foot brick wall known locally as Winans’ Wall, or West Baltimore’s Wall of China.

Like his neighbors, Alexandroffsky’s owner, Thomas Winans, also had railroad connections. The son of Ross Winans, an inventor responsible for designing the B&O’s first locomotive (whose St. Paul Street home was designed by renowned architect Stanford White), Thomas Winans made much of his fortune in Russia, where in 1843, Czar Nicholas I gave him, his brother and two partners (one the father of the artist James McNeill Whistler) a $5 million contract to supervise the building of a railroad between Moscow and St. Petersburg. During the construction, Thomas Winans and his team stayed in Alexandroffsky, a town outside St. Petersburg.

After returning to Baltimore in 1850, Winans purchased 35 acres of what was known as the old McHenry estate for $52,000 and dedicated four acres of the parcel to build his version of Russian grandeur. He then hired John Rudolph Niernsee and his partner J. Crawford Neilsen, who designed a range of structures in Baltimore, including Grace and St. Peter’s Episcopal Church (1852) and the chapel at Green Mount Cemetery (1857). Their job was to transform Fayettesville, a villa already on the estate that had been used as a boarding school, into a home befitting a man and woman of means and taste— Winans’ wife, Celeste, was reported to have been a lady in waiting to the Russian czarina— and their daughter, also named Celeste. The building was completed in 1852.

Alexandroffsky had all the bells and whistles and then some. Two hip-roofed towers, each pinnacle boasting a windowed observation room accessible by the main staircase, allowed the family to enjoy fresh air and unparalleled views. An additional 135-foot “ventilating tower” was necessary for the central heating system that during high season, burned nearly 800 pounds of coal daily. There was a ballroom (with floors, according to The Sun in 1939, that were “perforated with one-inch holes to admit hot-air from pipes strung along the basement ceiling”) and a concert hall complete with a pipe organ.

In a 1947 Sun interview, a childhood friend of Winans’ grandchildren recalled that the home had a secret staircase. “You pushed the paneling, and it opened and you went down into a cellar… and then through an underground tunnel into the stables,” she told the reporter. “It was like a Russian castle.”

It was also a bit of a zoo when in later years, Winans’ daughter, Celeste Hutton, kept an aviary on the second floor filled with brass, iron and marble cages of linnets, nightingales, thrushes and parrots.

Outside, Alexandroffsky was as opulent as inside. The property held stables, a carriage house and tennis courts, but its glory was the gardens. Roses bloomed alongside rare shrubs, and yews, cypresses and tropical paradise trees dotted the estate. Sylvan paths, thick with growth, opened into small clearings featuring marble urns, busts or fountains. Statues of lions and stags shared the lawn with Pan, Apollo and Minerva, as well as with the notorious Canova statue: a nude woman (said to have been modeled on Napoleon’s sister), hair piled high on her head, clutching a length of fabric to her torso (but not enough to prevent one breast from being exposed). While most sources claim that statues like this were the impetus to Winans’ Wall (the family wanted to shield onlookers from the nudity), it’s also likely the family wanted to protect its privacy in an era when the public thought nothing of sightseeing or picnicking on private property.

With the exception of a charitable soup kitchen Winans established in the neighborhood, the family’s social life existed within Winans’ Wall, and the public was naturally curious about what went on behind the 12 feet of brick. They got their first peek inside the walls in 1923, when Celeste Hutton, who inherited the estate after her parents’ deaths, hosted a benefit for South Baltimore General Hospital. The second chance followed quickly when Hutton’s three children, unable to make a deal with Baltimore City to buy the property for $400,000 (it was valued at $200,000), turned over the house’s contents to public auction after Hutton’s death in 1925. Thousands of people swarmed through the estate to finger heirloom china and Chippendale furniture, chandeliers and tapestries, as well as the humble detritus of everyday life including books, wine glasses and an old Christmas garden.

Alexandroffsky was torn down three years later, in 1929. Today, the property is part of the University of Maryland. 

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