Mansion to Again Serve Needy

By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 14, 2008

After sitting vacant for more than three years, the Paxton mansion in Leesburg was given new life last week with the signing of an agreement to reopen it as a school and resource center for people with disabilities.

The Arc of Loudoun, a 40-year-old nonprofit organization serving those with intellectual and developmental disabilities, signed a long-term lease on the historic 16-acre property, culminating about two years of negotiations.

The Aurora School, a facility for autistic children that the nonprofit group operates in Purcellville, will move into one of the stone buildings surrounding the manor house as early as September 2009.

The administrative offices of the Arc of Loudoun will move into the 32-room mansion after it is restored, a costly process that could take several years.

The extra space will be a tremendous help because the advocacy organization has outgrown its home, Arc of Loudoun officials said. About five people work out of a 12-by-20-foot office on the edge of Leesburg, providing referrals, support groups, advocacy and training for more than 2,500 people a year.

The five-year-old Purcellville school also is in cramped quarters, sharing a building with a day-care center, and has a waiting list. It serves 24 children.

With more room, school officials hope to double enrollment, serve students with other kinds of disabilities and offer after-school care and music and arts enrichment programs, said Jennifer Lassiter, the school's director.

"This is just going to open a whole new world of opportunities, not just for our students but for other kids as well," Lassiter said.

The long-term goal is to create a resource center, or "one-stop shop," for those with disabilities, Lassiter said. The estate could house occupational therapists, speech therapists and parent support groups, as well as a library well-stocked with the latest research.

Such a center would help parents who have just learned that their son or daughter has a disability and are seeking more information and help. Lassiter said that when her daughter, now 12, had a diagnosis of autism, she relied on the Internet and far-flung professionals. Lassiter hopes to make the process easier for other families.

The mansion, built in the 1870s and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, has a long history of serving those in need.

When owner Rachel Paxton died in 1921 at 95, she deeded the mansion -- also known as Carlheim -- to the Margaret Paxton Memorial for Convalescent Children, named for her only daughter. The terms of her will specified that the home be used to provide free care for needy children from Loudoun County.

Over the years, the property has served as a respite for ailing children, an orphanage, a preschool and a day-care center. It was closed in 2004, and the trustees of the estate said maintenance costs were prohibitive. After a thwarted attempt by the trustees to demolish the home, town officials added it to the Leesburg historic district. The trustees then set out to find a tenant who could meet Paxton's dying wishes.

Restoring the mansion is expected to cost about $9 million. The trustees are to help bring the building up to code, and the Loudoun Restoration and Preservation Society is committed to raising the necessary funds to bring the home back to its former grandeur.

Although U.S. Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va) has helped the Arc of Loudoun apply for and secure some government funding, the organization has a long way to go before the doors to the mansion can reopen. But with a lease in hand, the group is ready to get started. "We are very excited," Lassiter said.

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