Clifton Mansion to be restored

19th-century home set for $7 million renovation

  • Henry Hopkins, the great-great-great nephew of Johns Hopkins, who heads the Friends of Clifton Mansion and is co-chair of the Civic Works Building Committee, looks out on the grounds from the arcade porch. He played at the mansion as a child.
Henry Hopkins, the great-great-great nephew of Johns Hopkins,… (Amy Davis/Baltimore Sun )
May 26, 2012|By Mary Gail Hare, The Baltimore Sun

Clifton Mansion still towers over Baltimore, but decades of neglect are eroding its underpinnings.

Wood is rotting on the signature porches of the 19th-century building. Water stains the walls of its elegant salon. Job-training students wear gloves and hats in winter to ward off cold from a wall of aging windows. Plaster is crumbling, floors need refinishing and research must be done to preserve murals, stencils and paintings.

The Italianate stucco home, Johns Hopkins' summer estate in what is now Clifton Park in Northeast Baltimore, is about to undergo a $7 million renovation to restore those gracefully arched porches and floor-to-ceiling windows.

Crews will complete repairs to an 80-foot tower that offers those hardy enough to scale its curving, narrow stairs a sweeping view of the city down to the harbor. The installation of modern heating and air-conditioning systems will make the building much more comfortable, and other improvements will make it more accessible and welcoming to visitors.

Civic Works, a nonprofit headquartered in the mansion since 1993, has turned the two-story building and some of the grounds into classrooms for workforce development programs. The organization offers about 150 participants annually job training in many fields, including green construction, urban farming and weatherization.

Fundraising in partnership with public and private businesses and community groups will help preserve one of Baltimore's most historic sites.

"What we want to do is give the building a longer lease on life," said John Ciekot, project director for Civic Works.

Civic Works took over a vacant, neglected building from the city's Recreation and Parks Department and with its own limited resources has adapted many rooms and restored others. It has stabilized those tower stairs, replaced the main roof and re-created the original formal dining room, which is today a boardroom.

"We have found clues to make sure the restoration is authentic," said Ciekot. "The more the house evolves to reveal its cultural heritage, the more we all appreciate our Baltimore ancestors."

Henry Thompson, Baltimore merchant, planter and hero of the War of 1812, moved into his new home about 1803. He had insisted on foot-thick walls constructed using a Maryland formula of oyster shells and sand for the Georgian-style home, two miles from downtown. Thompson, who had come from England in 1794, managed the surrounding 400-acre farm, which is today Clifton Park along Harford Road,

He sold the property in 1837 to Johns Hopkins, who expanded the home, added much to the farming operation, built and stocked a picturesque lake and adorned the grounds with more than 100 pieces of sculpture, a few of which survive today. His home attracted government and business leaders and became such a popular destination that occasionally Hopkins was known to impose a no-visitor weekend.

At his death in 1873, Hopkins bequeathed $7 million for the establishment of the university and hospital that bear his name. At first, university students trekked from a campus that was largely rented buildings in Mount Vernon to practice and compete on Clifton's sprawling fields.

"This estate was home first to someone who defended Baltimore and then to one of its most well-known philanthropists," said Dana Stein, president of Civic Works. "We are continuing that tradition of service as the good stewards of this building."

The city purchased the property about 1895, and the proceeds of that sale helped to finance Hopkins' Homewood campus. City officials converted the grand estate into a public park with a popular golf course, tennis courts, baseball fields, a band shell and picnic groves. The house stood atop a small rise as the park's centerpiece, with a pro shop and locker rooms.

"It served the community for nearly 100 years as a recreational resource," said Ciekot.

By the time Civic Works took over, the mansion was essentially a vacant building. Its staff chose to remove many of the 20th-century alterations and revert to Hopkins' original floor plan, Ciekot said. The organization has joined direct descendants of both Thompson and Hopkins in a restoration effort to refurbish the mansion, which is on the National Register of Historic Places.

"The mansion is now poised for the major restoration it has so desperately needed for over a century," said Henry Hopkins, a great-great-great-nephew and the president of the Friends of Clifton Mansion. "This was a model farm with the most recent techniques and an idyllic summer home that was then way out in the country."

Civic Works will use $4 million in historic tax credits and more than $1 million in private pledges for the renovation. It is working with foundations, corporations and individuals to complete a $6.9 million capital campaign. Work is expected to begin this fall and in about a year, the mansion will become a functional workplace for Civic Works' many programs and a community gathering space.

"This is not a museum," said Peggy Cronym, a consultant working on the campaign. "It was and will be a working building."

Henry Hopkins thinks his ancestor "would be thrilled that Civic Works has become the custodian of his home. ... In essence, we are restoring the city's history. But for Civic Works, this building might not be standing."

mary.gail.hare@baltsun.com

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