13 Nov Grace Turnbull & Broken Dreams

The house belonging to Baltimore artist Grace Turnbull was put up for auction recently. Jill and I went to check it out. We’re crazy about old houses. This one was completed in 1928. Turnbull designed it herself. A slate-roofed cottage with lots of stained wood inside and leaded-glass windows, it’s arts-and-crafts mostly. We were surprised to learn that Turnbull, a sculptor and painter, died in 1976. The house has sat empty ever since.

She bequeathed it to the Maryland Historic Society but the Society couldn’t keep it up. Repair of the roof alone will cost $200,000. (Slate roofs last a good 70-100 years but then, when they need replacing, you’re in for a load of trouble.) Turnbull – who lived alone and was still mowing her own lawn when she was in her eighties – envisioned the house as a museum to showcase her art. In fact, she designed the house to do just that. The living room is an open, two-story gallery.

But house museums are closing across the country. Even renown, historic Williamsburg sold off one of its plantation houses recently. And some of the best independent houses, like Mark Twain’s (in Connecticut), are having serious financial trouble. They’re simply way too expensive to keep up and fewer and fewer people are visiting them because old house can’t compete with other distractions, like amusement parks. The result is that an increasing number of these houses are being put into private hands. The ramifications may be grim for historic preservation, especially for anyone hoping to designate and/or bequeath his/her old house to a local government or non-profit.

So, thirty-two years after her death, Ms. Turnbull’s dream hit the hard wall of fiscal reality. The house has an estimated value of $700,000. It’s in one of those well-manicured enclaves with ancient trees and copper-trimmed roofs and late-model luxury cars that looked as groomed as race horses. When I stand in a place like that I keep expecting somebody to escort me out of the neighborhood. “Sorry, sir, do you have business here?” That said, Turnbull’s house isn’t anything exceptional – except for the carvings at each corner of the house’s exterior. These are unusual in the extreme. So is Turnbull’s studio, just off the garage at the back of the house.

About 30 people showed up to gawk at the house. You could tell who the serious buyers were. They looked nothing like Jill and me. Some gritty speculator types were in attendance too (they looked more like us), but the house wouldn’t go cheap, we were sure. Just before the auction was about to begin, the auctioneers surprised us by stopping the sale. Apparently someone had made an attractive offer that morning and that was the end of business.

What about all of Turnbull’s art? That was auctioned – in a widely publicized sale — the next day at the auctioneer’s showroom. I went out of curiosity. Turnbull’s paintings are impressionistic (she was 20 in 1900) and very nicely done. Her sculpture is more eclectic and ranges widely. Jill really wanted something of Turnbull’s. I decided to wait for a lull in the bidding. Sometimes at an auction, the bidders get weary for a bit and let some items go cheap. As it turns out, during one of those lulls, I got a table sculpture called “Aztec head.”

Like everything else Jill and I own, it’s damaged, but very cool. We buy paintings with rips, vases with cracks, chairs with splits – we could open a museum of broken things. The only problem is, in today’s financial climate, nobody would visit it. Some said it was a tragedy that Turnbull’s collection would be scattered across the country after such a sale. True, it would have been a grand tribute to the artist to preserve all her work in one place. On the other hand, a little piece of her world is now making art-lovers happy in many homes like ours. And it’s possible that more will see her creations in this way than in manner she dreamed.