Preserving Hopkins history

Mansion: A nonprofit group and two distant relatives of the university's founder want to refurbish his summer home.

October 09, 2002|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

Before railroad magnate Johns Hopkins died on Christmas Eve 1873, he stipulated in his will that his sprawling country estate, with its Italian-style villa and gardens populated by 100 statues, should be transformed into a university bearing his name.

After his death, however, his trustees aborted Hopkins' dreams for his beloved summer home, called Clifton Mansion. Concerned that the 500-acre estate was too distant from the center of Baltimore, the trustees chose instead to start the Johns Hopkins University downtown on Howard Street, later moving it north to Homewood.

In 1895, the trustees sold Clifton Mansion to the city, which turned its land into a public park but allowed the mansion to decay. The home's gold-painted frescoes have been boarded over. Its roof is leaking, its plaster cracking and its woodwork rotting.

But now, Clifton Mansion may be reborn. A nonprofit organization, Civic Works -- along with two distant relatives of Hopkins -- recently launched an effort to raise $5 million to restore the nearly 200-year-old mansion, which is surrounded by Clifton Park in Northeast Baltimore.

Civic Works is a 9-year-old service organization that organizes young people in urban service projects, such as boarding up vacant houses, tutoring children and renovating blighted properties. Since 1993, the nonprofit has rented the crumbling house from the city for $1 a year, using part of the building as offices for its 30 employees.

After the planned renovation, Civic Works intends to keep using the building for its offices, believing that its charitable work fits with the spirit of Hopkins' philanthropy, said Dana Stein, director of the organization. But the group would also like to open the mansion to the public as a museum, allowing visitors to see exhibits on Hopkins and learn about the history of other great philanthropists in the city, Stein said.

The organization started a partial restoration in the late 1990s by renovating a hallway and dining room and opening a small display of prints and paintings. But now Civic Works would like to expand the project to restore the whole house, not just two rooms on the first floor.

"This building is an incredible historical resource that has unfortunately been neglected," said Donald Kann, a Baltimore architect working on the project. "There is no question that this building should be available to the public. But money is a difficult issue."

The organization has raised about $450,000 in state grants and private contributions so far, but needs more to continue the work.

Johns Hopkins, a 32-year-old distant relative of the philanthropist and director of a state program to encourage the renovation of old buildings, said he found it frustrating that the university is not doing anything to help save its founder's home.

Dennis O'Shea, spokesman for the Johns Hopkins University, said the university doesn't plan to contribute any money because it has enough obligations keeping up old buildings. However, the university might provide advice on how to restore Clifton Mansion, O'Shea said.

"Financially, our obligation is to Homewood House [former home of the son of Declaration of Independence signer Charles Carroll of Carrollton] and Evergreen [former home of diplomat John Work Garrett], two other historically important Baltimore homes that are now owned by the university, fully restored and open to the public as museums," O'Shea said.

Civic Works is being helped in its fund-raising efforts by Nelson Bolton, a descendant of Henry Thompson, who built a farmhouse at the site in 1803 that was later incorporated into Hopkins' estate.

Hopkins -- a merchant, banker and director of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad -- bought the house as his summer home in 1836, also maintaining a home downtown at 18 W. Saratoga St.

Hopkins rebuilt the farmhouse into an opulent villa with 19 rooms, a grand staircase and an 85-foot tower, from which he watched ships arriving in the harbor.

Inside the pinnacle of the tower, scribbled on a wall, is an oblique reminder of why so much of Hopkins' fortune was devoted to philanthropy: He never had any children.

The name "Elizabeth Hopkins" and "1889" are written on the plaster. She was a first cousin of Johns Hopkins and left her mark in the tower 16 years after his death.

"Johns Hopkins was in love with her, but the Quaker [faith] prohibited him from marrying his first cousin," explained the young Johns Hopkins. "The family rumor is that his love for her was the reason he never married."

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