Kin aim to lay foundation for repairs to mansion

Hopkins descendants plan party to raise funds for site owned by city

October 12, 2003|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

In the three-story tower atop the Italian-style villa, boards have been slapped over broken windows, slats of rotting wood dangle from crumbling plaster and paint flakes the size of bats cling to the walls in clusters.

The estate of Johns Hopkins, founder of the university, has seen better days. Rust streaks run down the face of the 200-year-old home, called Clifton Mansion, and black metal cages have been bolted over the first-floor windows.

On the porch, two relatives of Hopkins talk about how they hope to save the building, which has been long ignored by the Johns Hopkins University - located about 1 1/2 miles west - and by the mansion's owner, the cash-starved Baltimore City government, which struggles to maintain it as part of the surrounding public park.

Samuel Hopkins, an 89-year-old retired investment banker who is the great-great-nephew of Johns Hopkins, has contributed about $60,000 in what some might see as a quixotic quest to preserve the home. But that was just a drop in the ocean of the roughly $6 million needed to restore the mansion.

So he and his son Henry Hopkins, 60, have concocted a plan to attract gifts for their fund-raising efforts: They will hold a birthday party for Samuel Hopkins, a former president of the Maryland Historical Society, at the society's headquarters at 201 W. Monument St. on Dec. 7. They're inviting his many friends to give presents not to him, but to the mansion in the form of checks made out to the Friends of Clifton Mansion.

"This was the Shangri-La of Johns Hopkins, his place outside the noisy city where he could sleep, and he just loved being out here," said Henry Hopkins, chief legal counsel for the T. Rowe Price investment banking firm.

"I feel that a city that cannot maintain its historic landmarks cannot do other things well, either. And I hope that we cannot only restore this place, but bring the whole park back," he said.

The mansion has an unusual history. Built as a farmhouse in 1803 by a merchant named Henry Thompson, the home and its 166 acres were sold at auction in 1836 to Johns Hopkins, a merchant, banker and railroad investor, for $15,800 when Thompson ran into financial trouble.

Hopkins expanded the home into an Italian villa, building an 85-foot tower from which he could watch his ships in the harbor. He used the estate as his summer home until his death in 1873.

Hopkins wanted to transform the mansion and its surrounding land into the university bearing his name. But after his death, the university's board of trustees took the $3.5 million he donated and instead started the university downtown on Howard Street, later moving it to its current location on North Charles Street, according to a history of Clifton Mansion written by Warren D. Elliott. North Baltimore was viewed as a more fashionable neighborhood than the area surrounding Clifton, which had smaller houses, saloons, distilleries and graveyards.

Samuel Hopkins said that a relative of his, Lewis Hopkins, resigned from the university board during the late 19th century, because the board picked Howard Street as the school's location instead of Clifton Mansion.

"I would have carried out Johns Hopkins' wishes. I am a great believer in carrying out the wishes of those who give you money," said Samuel Hopkins, looking over his reading glasses, his bushy white eyebrows raised. "But I can also understand why they started the university downtown, because it was more centrally located."

The city bought the property for $710,000 in 1895 to create a public park. The Parks Department used the mansion as its headquarters and later as a pro shop for the Clifton Park golf course, but has neglected it over the decades.

Since 1993, the city has leased the mansion for $1 a year to a nonprofit organization called Civic Works, which uses part of the building as its offices.

Despite the university's refusal to provide money to help maintain the landmark, Henry Hopkins dreams of making a part of Johns Hopkins' vision come true. He wants the university to adopt the mansion as the offices for faculty studying public policy, nonprofit organizations and philanthropy.

"Obviously, this is a pipe dream," Henry Hopkins said. "But we've had very preliminary discussions and we are hopeful about the future of the mansion."

The university has declined to donate money toward the building's restoration with its officials arguing that they have enough historic buildings to maintain on campus.

Dennis O'Shea, a spokesman for the university, said he was not aware of any talks to move faculty to Clifton Mansion. "I haven't heard of any discussions along those lines, but we always welcome speaking to people with good ideas, particularly members of our founder's family," he said.

The most pressing need for the mansion is a new roof, which could cost $200,000 to $300,000. Leaks are causing wood to rot and plaster to crack.

But whether the city - faced with the problem of limited resources and many competing demands - will come up with the money is something that Mayor Martin O'Malley will have to consider, said Rick Abbruzzese, a spokesman for the mayor.

Meanwhile, Samuel Hopkins is hoping for a lot of birthday presents Dec. 7.

"We hope that the event will be a kickoff for a major effort to restore the building," said Henry Hopkins.

"Until the city becomes financially stronger, it is going to have to allocate money for essential, nonfrill things, like education. But I don't think our park system is a frill. It is also essential, and we have to find a way to restore this mansion and the park around it to the way it should have been," he said.

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