When Dr. Karen Swartz came to Baltimore seeking admission to the Johns Hopkins University's medical school 20 years ago, the first building she noticed was Hopkins' domed administration building, one of the oldest and most recognizable structures at the world-renowned hospital.
So, when she learned there was a chance to own part of it - and support a worthy cause in the process - she didn't hesitate.
The dome is "the heart of Hopkins," Swartz said. "It is our symbol. To have a piece of it, and give back to the community, is an opportunity I didn't want to pass up."
Swartz, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Hopkins, is among dozens of doctors, professors and other Hopkins employees who have ordered one of the surprise hits of the holiday gift-giving season - a teardrop-shaped roof tile that dates to the beginnings of Hopkins hospital and was removed when its landmark dome was renovated in 2005.
As part of an unconventional fundraising campaign, the hospital's parent, Johns Hopkins Medicine, is framing 975 slate tiles and selling them like limited-edition works of art, for $300 or $500 apiece. The proceeds will be used to help Chesapeake Habitat for Humanity renovate a two-story dwelling at 811 N. Washington St. in East Baltimore for a low-income family.
"We're using the roof from the dome and putting a roof over a family," said Pamela Paulk, vice president of human resources for Johns Hopkins Health System and originator of the fundraising effort, along with Senior Vice President Steve Thompson of Johns Hopkins Medicine.
The campaign is the latest twist on a trend in which pieces of cherished local buildings have been put up for sale to benefit worthy causes. Previous examples range from the seats and bricks of Memorial Stadium (to benefit the Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum), to chairs from the Lyric Opera House (to benefit the Lyric Foundation), to the floor of Cole Field House at College Park (to benefit a University of Maryland athletic scholarship fund).
This is among the first times locally that anyone has sold pieces of a building's roof to raise money for charity, and it has caught on. Since the tiles were put up for sale online Dec. 1, Hopkins has received orders for more than 80. Some buyers are giving them as Christmas presents. Department heads are reserving them to bestow as gifts to visiting lecturers and other dignitaries. Others are treating themselves.
Swartz, a Pittsburgh native who came to Hopkins for medical school and "never left," ordered one of the tiles for her parents to give to her for Christmas. She plans to put it in her office at home - a reminder not only of her years at Hopkins but of those who came before.
"This is something that dates back to the beginnings of Hopkins," she said. "The space beneath the dome ... is part of medical history."
Jeffrey Palmer, a professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation, bought one for himself.
"I joined the faculty in 1983," he said. "This institution is a major part of my life. The idea of having a part of Hopkins is meaningful to me. The fact that [the money] goes to a worthy cause makes it all the more attractive."
Ted Alban, assistant administrator of neurology and neurosurgery, said he bought a tile because he never grows tired of walking beneath the dome and thinking about the history it represents.
"It's very unusual to have a piece of this place," he said. "It's my Christmas present to myself."
Now known as the Billings Building, the domed structure on North Broadway was one of the hospital's three original buildings when it opened in 1889.
Named after former medical officer John Shaw Billings, the central building became an enduring symbol of the hospital because its Victorian dome was visible from many parts of the city. Although its interior had been renovated over the years, the Billings building hadn't had new roof tiles installed until its exterior was restored in 2005. At the time, Hopkins leaders said that it was important to preserve the dome because it was known around the world as a symbol of the medical campus.
Paulk said she and Thompson were looking for an unusual way for Hopkins to raise money to support Habitat for Humanity and the larger community rebuilding efforts near the medical center.
She said she came up with the fundraising idea after remembering the dome restoration. She asked Hopkins' facilities department whether any of the original slate pieces were still around - and if they might be available for sale. As it turned out, Hopkins had saved some of the tiles for a future, unspecified use, in one of its garages.