Benefactor's Legacy Facing A Bulldozer

By Marc Fisher
Tuesday, May 10, 2005

When Rachel Paxton, widow of a railroad man who built one of Leesburg's finest mansions, died in 1921, she left behind a five-page will written in her elegant, clear hand. The stilted, formal language that Paxton's attorneys imposed on her could not hide the grief and sorrow that saturated the latter half of her 95 years.

Rachel Paxton's only child, Margaret, bore a son, Charles, who died one month after his fifth birthday. Margaret mourned that boy for all her days. All evidence portrays a family crushed across the generations by the passing of the little guy. Rachel Paxton resolved to channel that anguish into something lasting and good.

In her will, she directed that her magnificent home, Carlheim, its 50 acres in the center of Leesburg, $30,000 and most of her personal property be used to set up the Margaret Paxton Memorial for Convalescent Children. Without charge, the home would care for poor children from Leesburg and Loudoun.

Carlheim was a showpiece even when it was completed in 1872 -- a stately, even forbidding structure, with a touch of Charles Addams and a dollop of 19th-century extravagance.

For most of a century, the trustees Paxton appointed ran the home as a respite for ailing children. After many of the worst childhood diseases were conquered, it became an orphanage and then a preschool and day-care center.

But last year, the trustees shut down the Paxton Home, saying they could no longer afford to keep it going. While trustee Bill Hanes, a Leesburg lawyer, declared publicly that he was open to proposals to purchase the house and maintain it as a facility for children, he and the other trustees hired Hanes's cousin, development lawyer Grayson Hanes, who quietly went to the town of Leesburg and applied for a demolition permit. The town rejected the application and hurriedly added Carlheim to Leesburg's historic district, preventing any dramatic changes to the property.

The trustees promptly sued the town, and the Rev. John Ohmer, rector of St. James' Episcopal Church a few blocks away, sued the trustees. Ohmer heads the Paxton Home's Board of Visitors, which Rachel Paxton set up in her will to advise the trustees and appoint new ones.

The trustees, who according to their federal tax returns are already sitting on more than $6 million in assets, want to sell the land to the highest bidder. Then they'll see about how to serve needy kids. That might mean just writing checks to existing programs.

"We'll put it out to a number of developers and see what comes up," Grayson Hanes told me. "The center was losing too much money. It wasn't a good business to be in." (His cousin and the other trustees declined to talk to me or did not return calls.)

Ohmer says the trustees' opinion of the profitability of caring for children is irrelevant. "Mrs. Paxton said in her will that she wants her buildings and grounds used for children. She never said a thing about her property and money being used to be a check-writing foundation for disadvantaged children."

But Hanes says the members of the Board of Visitors have no role other than to advise and the trustees "don't have to pay any attention to their advice."

I asked Hanes if Carlheim, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is worth saving. "That depends whether you like new things or old things," he said. "I like new things, and I'm a Virginian by birth and history. This looks like a wreck to me."

The Loudoun Restoration and Preservation Society won a $10,000 grant from Centex, the home builder, to analyze the house's condition, but Hanes has not granted access. He told me he'll let the study proceed if the eventual developer agrees.

"Here's this crying need for the children of Loudoun and here's this great resource set aside for them," Ohmer says. "And there's silence about what comes next, just silence."

"It'd be nice to have something in Leesburg stay the same," says Brian Rolston, a leader of Friends for Saving Paxton, a citizens group that is raising money to bid on the property. "We have to do what she wanted us to do."

Hanes says the trustees will follow Paxton's wishes by selling off her land "for the benefit of these children." But Rachel Paxton never offered that option. She wasn't interested in writing a check to poor children; she wanted to give them her home.

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