Friday, November 05, 1999

For sale: One grand landmark

Laurel Court was home to business barons, archbishops

The Cincinnati Enquirer

laurel court
Front hall and central staircase of Laurel Court.
(Tony Jones photos)
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        The big house goes on the auction block Sunday. Bids start at $1 million.

        When the auctioneer sings out, “Sold!” and the gavel falls for the last time, some lucky buyer will walk off with Laurel Court, one of Cincinnati's most opulent and most storied homes.

        Listed on the National Historic Register and worthy of the Great Gatsby, this 93-year-old mansion sports a gilt-edged music room, a library trimmed in a forest of African rosewood, and a two-story atrium with a sliding glass and copper roof equipped to let in the good weather and keep out the bad.

        Called Laurel Court by original owner Peter G. Thomson, and “the big house,” by his grandchildren, the mansion cost $1 million to build and furnish in 1906 on a vast estate on the western side of College Hill.

laurel court
The mansion has an imposing presence from the front.
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        Back then, College Hill was a village known for its institutions of higher education, beginning with the Farmers College and the Ohio Female College. Wealthy families, whose children attended the schools, lived in large homes on huge tracts of land. People of lesser means lived on the fringes and often worked in the big houses.

        Laurel Court was one of the biggest, with 27,482 square feet under several roofs and situated, at the time, on 30 acres of gardens. (Today the lot covers only 7.4 acres.)

        A byproduct of the Gilded Age, the house was a gift from Peter Thomson to his wife, Laura. A self-made multimillionaire, Peter Thomson made his fortune with paper. After getting his start in the book trade, he founded the Champion Coated Paper Co., which became Champion International.

laurel court
Atrium offers a stately refuge.
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        After Laura and Peter Thomson died, nearly 23 acres of gardens were sold off as the mansion passed through family hands until it was sold — first to the Archdiocese of Cincinnati in 1947, where it was home to Archbishops McNicholas and Alter, then to pizza baron Bud dy LaRosa in 1977. He sold the house to its present owners, Roger Loth and John Coffey, in 1991.

        When it was home to the Thomsons and the archbishops, the house was a place of wonder. Few average citizens had the nerve to approach the gates.

        Today, people still want to sneak a peek. A sign mounted on the estate's driveway announces that attack dogs, security cameras and armed guards wait to welcome the overcurious.

        Times and College Hill have changed since Peter Thomson built his marble-laden dream home. Once a rural village, an hour's ride from downtown Cincinnati, the close-knit, racially diverse and economically mixed neighborhood is now minutes away from all parts of town.

A real estate
        Laurel Court will definitely sell at the upper end of College Hill's prices for houses. In the past 12 months, 187 homes have sold in the Cincinnati neighborhood that radiates from the intersection of North Bend Road and Hamilton Avenue. Prices ranged from $22,000 to $221,000. The average was $93,718.

        Laurel Court has 25 rooms, including 13 bedrooms.

        Ruth Davis lives across the street from the estate. She has two bedrooms in her apartment, set in one of a string of apartment buildings.

        “I need more space,” she told me Thursday morning as she packed boxes. “So I'm moving.”

        She's not thinking about moving across the street.

        “Too big,” she said, looking out her living room window at Laurel Court. “Even if I had the money, I wouldn't want to live there.

        “Wouldn't want to put up with all the fanfare that goes with living in a place like that. People always pulling in the driveway and wanting to take a look around.”

        George Baker has lived around the corner from Laurel Court for 15 years. On his afternoon walk around the block, he paused to look at the sign near one of the mansion's stone gates advertising Sunday's 2 p.m. auction. The public's invited.

        “I don't have that kind of money,” said the retired meatpacker inspector. “But if I did, I would buy it and turn it into a healing center for the sick and weary.”

        George Baker has never been in the big house.

        “But my son has. He installed the security system. He told me they have a swell pool, heated year-round.”

Home sweet home
        Lawrence Ulrich has been in that swimming pool. He met Peter Thomson once. And, after sneaking a dip in the pool, he ran into the rich man's gardener.

        “I grew up just down the street from that big old house,” Lawrence said between sips of coffee. His wife, Carol, stood by his side, taking a break from raking leaves. For 31 years they have lived three doors from the great house.

        “I'd like to have Laurel Court's gardeners right about now,” Carol said.

        The Ulrichs hope the big house continues to be a home.

        I hope that on Sunday, the person who buys the place plans to live there.

        The Ulrichs and Laurel Court's other neighbors are a mix of rich and not-so-rich, big and little houses. This creates a block where everyone, regardless of house sizes, can live together in harmony.

        Too often in older cities like Cincinnati, these grand homes, these big relics from the past, are left to fall apart and later torn down. They disappear and live on only in fading memories and photos.

        Many of Laurel Court's neighboring homes of 80 years ago are gone, torn down and hauled away. Here's hoping somebody with a million and change to spend is looking for a nice little street with good neighbors.

        • The auction of Laurel Court, the mansion and 7.4 acres of land, begins at 2 p.m. Sunday at 5870 Belmont Ave., College Hill. The grounds open at noon. Information: 724-1133.

        Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.


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