Paxton Pickrell knows it will take a very special person to buy, restore and live in the lakefront Victorian mansion in Boyds, Md., that he’s been trying to sell for the past five years. He grew up in the Queen Anne-style house and hates that it’s fallen into disrepair: shutters missing, porch leaning, trees overgrown and hung with ivy.
But look at the potential. Nine forested acres on a lake minutes from I-270? Interesting architectural details? Connection to American history?
“I cannot believe that there isn’t somebody out there who says, ‘If I fix this up, it truly will be like owning Mount Vernon,’ ” Paxton told me when I called him recently.
The house is called Winderbourne and it can be yours for $895,000.
It was built in 1884 by Enoch and Mary Totten. He was a prominent Washington lawyer and Civil War veteran, shot four times at the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House. (A minie ball passed through his right hand after ricocheting off his saber.)
The Tottens lived in Washington but desired a summer home to escape the city’s stifling heat. They decided on a patch of land on Little Seneca Creek, right along the B&O Railroad line. The money to build the house came from Mary. Her father was Timothy Howe, a senator from Wisconsin and the cousin and heir of Elias Howe, who perfected the sewing machine.
The mansion took its name from one of Elias’s inventions: the bobbin winder. “Winderbourne” must have struck the Tottens as easier on the ear than “Bobbinbourne.”
According to a report on the house’s history compiled in 1978, Winderbourne was painted pink, with dark rose trim. The Tottens kept the house staffed year-round, with gardeners tending rare plants that had been imported from around the world. They threw formal parties on the lawn.
“I can only imagine the events they must have had,” Paxton said. “It was really something.”
But Winderbourne saw its share of tragedy, too. All three of the Tottens’ children caught typhoid fever; contracted, it was believed, from tainted drinking water at Winderbourne. One died.
A Totten daughter, Edith Totten, became a doctor and adopted a daughter of her own. This child was killed after sliding down — and, presumably, flying off — the long bannister at Winderbourne. Edith herself dropped dead at age 48 after delivering a lecture at Johns Hopkins University.
But none of this makes the house haunted, Paxton said, despite its current resemblance to something from a “Scooby-Doo” cartoon. He’s still ticked off that in 2011 a real estate website included Winderbourne on a list of “the spookiest, creepiest old houses for sale in America.”
“That place to me was just a wonderful home,” he said.
Paxton’s parents, Edward and Beulah Pickrell, bought it in 1929. Edward was a policeman with the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad — a little guy, Paxton said, but powerful.
“Shaking hands with him was like shaking hands with an oak tree,” he said.
Paxton grew up on the estate, fishing in Seneca Creek, hunting in the woods. He last lived there in 1968, before serving in the military in South Korea. His brother, Edward Jr., inherited Winderbourne and stayed there until his death in 2004.
By then, much of the land around it had been purchased — at bottom dollar, Paxton groused — by Montgomery County as it was creating Black Hill Regional Park. He thinks the county wanted to take that last nine acres, too.
Said Paxton: “Montgomery County said, ‘Get out. You’re standing in the way of progress.’ We said, ‘We don’t remember anybody named ‘progress’ on any of the tax bills.’ ”
Paxton, 69, is a purchasing agent for a high-tech company. He lives in Mount Airy, in Frederick County, Md. He knows the house has seen better days.
“Old stuff, you have to keep it up,” he said.
In 2009, he listed the property for $2 million. In 2010, he dropped the price to $1.5 million. It went back on the market in October at $895,000. He’s had nibbles but no bites. “There are tire kickers and tin-can hunters who say, ‘Oh, it’s too much,’ ” he said.
Tony Calkins, the Long & Foster agent handling Winderbourne, said: “It probably isn’t for the fainthearted, or somebody who wants to flip it. It’s going to take a very unique individual to buy it and restore it — or argue with the county that it needs to be torn down and replaced.”
That could be tough. The house is on Maryland’s inventory of historic places. And as tempting as it might be to buy the nine acres and put up a handful of mini-mansions, current zoning won’t allow that.
And so Winderbourne awaits just the right person.
“You should buy it,” Paxton said to me.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.