A thorough housecleaning of Clifton Mansion has revealed the potential inside this Northeast Baltimore treasure, marking the beginning of a long-overdue, $7 million restoration. Even now, in its early state, you could charge admission.
I toured the place, the centerpiece of a city park, I had visited on numerous previous occasions and felt as if I had stepped inside for the first time. I experienced Clifton's grandeur, observed an emerging architectural pedigree and realized its potential. In the past, I saw too many dropped ceilings, fluorescent lights, unfortunate paint choices and vinyl floors. Despite many excellent intentions and underfunded earlier tries, poor Clifton was dreary. And the termites loved it.
For decades the old home and its 20-something rooms served as a park office building and clubhouse for the adjacent golf course. Civic Works, the nonprofit youth training and community service organization, moved in in 1993.
This week I saw an upstairs room that functioned as an accounting department and was once filled with gray steel desks and file cabinets. I could now see a delicate Baltimore mantelpiece beautifully decorated with bellflowers that graced the dining room of English-born merchant and ship owner Henry Thompson, who built this late Georgian-style home and moved in about 1803.
I walked on the original wood floors and learned they had been buried under asbestos-filled concrete since the 1940s. I saw the spots where Irish craftsmen created exquisite plaster floral niches. The room had been used as a golf locker area.
"Clifton looks better in this cleaned state than I have ever seen it," said Johns Hopkins, director of Baltimore Heritage. "You get a sense of why one of Baltimore's most prominent citizens lived here."
Later this summer, the next phase of the restoration will begin. Kinsley Construction, the firm that transformed the American Brewery on Gay Street, will move in and go to work.
Clifton's dirty and drab exterior will receive another coat of the stucco that first covered its walls when Johns Hopkins, the 19th-century Baltimore merchant/philanthropist, acquired Clifton and had it enlarged in the Italianate style. Little did I know that this proper Quaker gentleman had a taste for pinks and mauve and gold arabesques on his walls. I also never knew that his entrance hall contained a large mural of the Gulf of Naples and Mount Vesuvius.
Clifton's Italianate tower, which is visible from both Harford and Belair roads, is the mansion's most obvious architectural feature. There, in its stout stair hall, I had the feeling I had seen this spot before. Was I reminded of architects Niernsee and Neilson's Camden Station or their Gibbons Hall at Notre Dame of Maryland University?
"The layout of the rooms can be appreciated as never before," said John Ciekot, projects director for Civic Works, the service corps agency that is running the restoration. "Niernsee and Neilson were the guys who got the commissions when the owners really wanted to do it up to the nines."
I also visited with Nelson Bolton, a descendant of Henry Thompson.
"Captain Thompson was known for his prize Devon cattle and Merino sheep he raised here," Bolton said. "He had 500 acres and grew rye and timothy. He also had extensive orchards at Clifton."
The idea is to return Clifton's exterior walls to the hue of an ocher tan, like an ancient limestone building in Italy. Also, for the first time, Clifton will have heat on all its floors. It will also be air-conditioned, have humidity controls and a fire-suppression system.
The $7 million is aimed at keeping this fine old mansion in good shape. But Clifton will not become a museum. While its fancier rooms will be available for social functions, Civic Works will still be the home's tenant. Public tours will be available.
"Clifton will continue to be a working building of service," said Susan Brooks, Civic Works' volunteer and legacy coordinator.
Both of Clifton's illustrious owners, Henry Thompson and Johns Hopkins, are still in the neighborhood — in Green Mount Cemetery.