Bringing home legacy of giving

Exhibit: To honor 19th century philanthropists like his great-granduncle, Samuel Hopkins is looking to Clifton Mansion, which is in need of a donation itself.

October 29, 1999|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

Clifton Mansion, the grand summer home of Johns Hopkins from 1836 to 1873, will soon hold a remembrance of 19th century Baltimore's great fortunes and early philanthropy -- thanks to Hopkins' 86-year-old great-grandnephew Samuel Hopkins.

To honor the Hopkins legacy -- and that of other great givers to Baltimore, such as Enoch Pratt and George Peabody -- a philanthropy exhibit showcasing those figures will be placed in the mansion's arched hallway. The hall was made wide enough to let a young woman wearing a hoop skirt climb the spiral staircase leading up to the Italianate tower.

The exhibit will be mostly documents and texts, Samuel Hopkins says, but the house and its surroundings will revive the spirit of his illustrious ancestor and the other givers.

The dilapidated Clifton -- now the headquarters of the nonprofit Civic Works in northeast Baltimore -- resembles a haunted house in desperate need of renovation. Still, some say Samuel Hopkins could not have chosen a more appropriate site or subject for a history exhibit.

"He's the spiritual leader of this project," said Elizabeth Schaaf, the Peabody Institute archivist curating the exhibit, scheduled to open in March.

Speaking of Baltimore's 19th century philanthropists, Schaaf said, "They were bright young men, and Baltimore was booming. They were friends and knew one another. It seems fitting that they should be together at Clifton, since there was a lot of interaction in an interesting social milieu."

A lifelong Baltimorean active in civic causes, Hopkins speaks affectionately of his great-granduncle -- almost as if he knew the Quaker-born man who made his fortune in grocery, whiskey, banking, insurance, money lending and real estate businesses. He himself made a comfortable living at the oldest Baltimore financial firm of Alex. Brown, from which he is retired.

"He got off the [Quaker] reservation when he sold whiskey. And he was very frugal. They say he caught a cold and died of pneumonia because he didn't wear a winter coat," Hopkins said of the relative who left $7 million for the founding of the famed university and hospital that bear his name. Looking around the shabbily elegant salon, crumbling plaster and faded ceiling murals of the grand mansion Johns Hopkins owned, Samuel Hopkins seems to see what it was and what it could be -- which means more to him than the way it is right now. His eyes sparkle as he rhapsodizes about Johns Hopkins and his like-minded circle.

"They were anti-slavery and inclusive, amazingly so," he said. "They were pioneers in philanthropy in the U.S. because their gifts were for everyone without regard to race, religion or creed."

In some ways, they were the fathers of large-scale modern philanthropy -- "one way of solving the world's problems," he said.

The Clifton Park mansion, which the city bought from the Hopkins estate about a century ago, is leased for $1 a year to Civic Works, which coordinates Baltimore's youth service corps. Its director, Dana Stein, is overseeing the painstaking progress of a room-by-room renovation.

In fact, Stein says, the work won't be complete until $1.5 million is raised. It will take that much money to repair the wreckage of the years, during which the chimney fell through the roof and the porch windows were boarded with plywood.

Throughout this century, the summer house has had a variety of uses, ranging from ballroom dancing to serving as the park police office and the golf course clubhouse.

Traces of each -- like cleat marks -- overlay the time when the friends and guests of Johns Hopkins bathed, boated and frolicked on a lake that is no longer there. Lake Clifton High School is located where the lake used to be.

Rare flower gardens, tropical trees, fruits and fields of wheat grew on the estate in Johns Hopkins' day. He even had some outdoor nude statues, which Samuel Hopkins says may have frightened off the philanthropist's first cousin Elizabeth, a good Quaker girl.

"He fell in love with his first cousin Elizabeth, but he never married," Samuel Hopkins said.

Echoing that era most strongly of all is a simple piece of furniture: a green rocking chair that once belonged to Johns Hopkins.

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