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Preservation Victory in Loudoun: Mrs. Paxton Prevails

Rachel Paxton was a wealthy woman who died in 1921, adamant about leaving one legacy--a place where the poor children of Leesburg and Loudoun County would get the care and love that might, in some cosmic fashion, ease some of the pain visited upon her family when her grandson Charles died when he was just five years old.

Paxton's handwritten will left her estate and magnificent 1872 home in the center of Leesburg to a foundation that was to run the Margaret Paxton Memorial for Convalescent Children, a facility that would take in orphans and afflicted children without charge. For most of a century, that's just what the Paxton home was--but in 2004, its trustees shut down the place, saying they could no longer afford to operate it--even if they were sitting on $6 million in assets--and anyway, the building was too old and the land had become too valuable. The trustees proposed to bulldoze the home and sell the 16-acre property to the highest bidder.

Now, there's splendid news for lovers of the Paxton estate and for Loudoun's kids: After considerable pressure from residents and preservation groups and assists from Rep. Frank Wolf and state Sen. Mark Herring, the Arc of Loudoun has signed a 10-year lease to take over the Paxton house and turn it into the new campus of the Aurora School, a facility for autistic children that has operated in Purcellville since 2003. The school will now be able to double its enrollment of 24 students.

"This is a tremendous victory," said Rev. John Ohmer, rector of St. James' Episcopal Church a few blocks away, who sued the trustees in an effort to save the house. (This came after the trustees sued the town, and after the home's two governing boards dissolved into a not-so-civil battle.) Ohmer said it will be more than a year before kids can move into the home, which has fallen into disrepair and which requires several million dollars in work. But given the rising number of autism cases and the relative lack of facilities devoted to caring for autistic kids, the preservation of a grand property is a bright first step.

By Marc Fisher |  February 19, 2008; 7:45 AM ET
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You say this is a victory for all involved. I'm not so sure. You say nothing about the contemporary mission of the convalescent home and its trustees. What were they going to do with the proceeds from the sale? I'm going to guess there were potential beneficiaries in line with the trust's original intent, e.g. children in need. Is their loss inconsequential?

You do mention that it will cost millions to renovate this old building. Where is that money coming from? Again, were there other potential uses for that money and could it have had a major impact on more lives than the 48 autistic students? Is that not a loss to be considered in the equation?

It is time for smart members of the press like you to take into account the entire equation in decisions like this one that appear at first light "victories" for all involved. Maybe there are losers here. You just have to dig a little deeper to find them.

Posted by: Kelli Kobor | February 19, 2008 9:15 AM

With development literally on all sides of that property, it's only the house that might be worth saving. The parcel pales in comparison to the vast sprawl of suburbia of the nieghboring Exeter community. Thankfully the western side of Leesburg has been preserved through Morven, Ida Lee, Rust Nature Sanctuary and the like.

Posted by: Leesburger | February 19, 2008 11:11 AM

Hey, when someone has given you money with strict guidelines as to how the money is to be used you don't get to turn around and decide to do something else with it. There are lots of over priced homes on the market and enough Starbucks to satisfy even the most hardcore coffee achievers. What there aren't enough of are places to take care of sick kids and adults.

As for fixing the building, didn't the blog say that there was 6 million in the trust? They can use all or part of that for the renovations.

Posted by: had it with high price developments | February 19, 2008 12:55 PM

had it....,

If the trustees spend every penny of their assets they would not come close to the renovation costs. And I'm afraid if you knew anything about how trusts operate you would know that they cannot spend anything near that amount. A trust must remain financially viable or it is not a trust.

As for the wishes of Mrs. Paxton being honored, clearly there is a tension between her wish that her house be kept and used (which the preservationists focus on) and her wish that her worldly goods be used for the benefit of needy children (the trustee's perspective). Please stop trying to gloss this over. It is the heart of the matter.

$9 M is a starting estimate--the final bill will likely be 50-100% higher. What would a state of the art facility for 48 autistic kids cost in NoVa? Likely much less. So is money that was intended to help kids being used to subsidize historic preservation? Yes.

Maybe you and Marc think the end result justifies the means, but at least have the courage to admit you might be wrong. If the trustees have lost control over the entire process to the city and preservation forces, this is a blow to all property owners in VA.

When the final bill for this massive boondoggle is published, 5 or 6 years from now, I hope Mr. Fisher will publish the figure in this blog and we can assess whether it was all worthwhile.

Posted by: Kelli Kobor | February 19, 2008 1:40 PM

Ms. Kobor,
"I'm going to guess there were potential beneficiaries in line with the trust's original intent, e.g. children in need." You guessed wrong.
The trustees had no potential beneficiaries because there were no legally defined beneficiaries until after Rev. John Ohmer, head of the other governing board for the trust sued the trustees for failing to uphold the values of Mrs. Paxton. Rev. Ohmer believed that the loss of the estate would have been very consequential to the community and the children that the trust was suppose to assist.

"You do mention that it will cost millions to renovate this old building. Where is that money coming from?"
The local historical society is planning to assist with the renovations of Carlheim. The money that this group raises would never have an alternate use that would directly assist the children legally defined by Mrs. Paxton.

"Again, were there other potential uses for that money and could it have had a major impact on more lives than the 48 autistic students?" In Loudoun County where the estate exist and the trustees have a responsibility to support, the answer is squarely, no.

There was tension in determining if the Paxton trust be kept and used for the original intent of Rachel Paxton (which Rev. Ohmer focused on) and the wish of the trustees, who have no local connections. You cannot gloss over the heart of the matter that Rev. Ohmer is the authority in determining the wishes of Rachel Paxton. The only reason he is part of the trust is due to Rachel Paxton's decree that her church must be involved.

"What would a state of the art facility for 48 autistic kids cost in NoVa?" No one has the ability to answer that question because no federal, state, or local agency or organization had any plans or finances to build one in Loudoun. That is why LARC built the school in the first place on a shoe-string budget. The fact that you do not know the financial information, the number of adults and children, the charitable organizations, or the disabilities that will benefit from the Margaret Paxton memorial trust demonstrates that you have no real grasp of the facts involved in the creation of the Paxton Learning Center and you are only trying to push your own political agenda. Kenilworth is a much better place then Leesburg for that.

Posted by: Chuck | March 9, 2008 10:45 PM

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