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Misfortune haunts Radnor's Bloomfield estate

Misfortune has had a way, over the years, of creeping into the lives of those who took up residence at the Bloomfield estate in Radnor.

Misfortune has had a way, over the years, of creeping into the lives of those who took up residence at the Bloomfield estate in Radnor.

Consider the fate of George H. McFadden Jr., who made his money in cotton and spent it remodeling the place in the 1920s as a lavish, 16th-century-style French château. He met his end years later by electrocution, while enjoying a sweat in the mansion's steam room.

Before him, New York socialite Albert Eugene Gallatin struggled at the turn of the 20th century to keep his country home on what was once an expansive 37 acres - even as entitled relatives drained his family's 200-year-old financial trust dry.

Now, more than two weeks after fire engulfed the $5.2 million, Trumbauer-designed mansion on South Ithan Street, a new generation of Main Line elites - including the wife of a national talk-radio personality, the son of a deceased top Democratic donor, and a Canadian business mogul - is left fighting over value in the ruins.

Fire investigators last week ruled out arson as a cause for the blaze, which originated April 4 in electrical wiring stapled to a basement wall.

Flames reached a dumbwaiter and rocketed three floors up the shaft - past floor-length windows with wrought-iron railings, past lavish furnishings decorating its 19 bedrooms, eventually creating an oven under the structure's slate roof.

While no one was injured, only a burned-out shell of the 22,000-square-foot mansion remains.

"I just don't see any way it can be restored without jeopardizing the original integrity of the building," said Steve Pendergast, a board member of the Radnor Historical Society. "If they rebuild it now, the cost per square foot would be astronomical."

Who will shoulder that burden or make the decision to abandon the house remains unclear - clouded by a legal fight over its most recent sale and a rent-to-own agreement that split Bloomfield's equity between landlord and tenants.

And in that Main Line tradition of keeping scandal to a whisper, none of the players is talking.

Not Jerald Batoff, son of the late Democratic fund-raiser William W. Batoff and Bloomfield's current owner, according to property records.

Not Dean Topolinski, a corporate turnaround artist from Montreal, who entered into a lease-purchase agreement to buy Bloomfield from Batoff eight months before the flames erupted.

And not Lavinia Smerconish, a Main Line real estate agent and wife of radio talk-show host and Inquirer columnist Michael Smerconish.

She introduced Batoff and Topolinski in January 2011. But the realty firm she is associated with, Prudential Fox & Roach, has since announced its intention to sue both, claiming they cut her out of an expected commission of more than $230,000 on the sale.

All of the parties and the lawyers representing them either declined to comment or did not return phone calls last week.

Fox & Roach's allegations are outlined in a request for pre-lawsuit discovery material being contested by Batoff and Topolinski in Delaware County Court.

According to the filings, Batoff enlisted Lavinia Smerconish to sell Bloomfield in October 2010.

For decades, the estate had been the crown jewel of the McFadden heirs - staples of Main Line society dating back to the days when George H. McFadden Sr., a cotton broker, first purchased the plot known as Barclay Farm neighboring Bloomfield.

A McFadden son, George Jr., moved in next door in the 1920s and eventually erected his own mansion, named after a branch of the family.

At the time, the structure, with its limestone exterior, lavish decorative touches, and elaborately designed surrounding gardens, stood in stark contrast to the colonial-style country homes that dotted Radnor's landscape.

The younger McFadden's taste for opulence eventually led to his steam-room demise, but his daughter Caroline McFadden Ewing remained until the '80s.

Since then, the property has bounced from buyer to buyer - each with plans of dividing up the grounds, subdividing the mansion into condos, or looking to make a quick turnaround sale.

Batoff purchased the property for $2.3 million in 2001.

And in Topolinski, Batoff found an eager new buyer, Smerconish said in court filings. The Canadian's girlfriend contacted the agent in January 2011 and within three months had agreed on a $5.2 million sale price.

But days before closing, Topolinski backed out, saying he could not raise the necessary funds - despite assurances from his accountant that he could afford a purchase price of up to $12 million, Smerconish says.

Yet, when the agent persisted in showing the house to other potential buyers, she found Topolinski and his girlfriend - Canadian interior designer Julie Charbonneau - had moved in. Both were at home with their daughter and pets when the fire erupted this month.

According to Smerconish's filings, the couple showed her a rent-to-own agreement signed by Batoff that she now says they drafted with the intent of cutting her out.

The contract spelled out that Topolinski would own a $2.2 million equity stake in the property and continue to pay off a $3 million mortgage held by Batoff through monthly rent payments.

That split ownership could complicate decisions on the mansion's next steps. The deed remains in Batoff's name, but Smerconish says Topolinski took out a $12 million fire-insurance policy on the mansion.

And the financial hit of the fire is only the latest trouble the Canadian businessman has had since he expanded his dealings southward.

In December, he shut down a Gloucester County direct mailing firm he owned amid a lawsuit by JPMorgan Chase claiming the firm stole millions in prepaid postage fees. A separate incident of what company managers described as "industrial sabotage" that has since drawn in FBI investigators was mentioned in corporate filings.

As for Bloomfield, its prospects are not reassuring, Main Line historian Jeff Groff said.

"Who makes the major decisions now?" he said. "Who decides whether to keep it up or take the whole thing down?"

at 267-564-5218 or jroebuck@, or follow on Twitter @jeremyrroebuck.