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Restored tower resplendent at Baltimore's Clifton Mansion, Johns Hopkins' home

Glass restoration artisans fitted the final two panels within the staircase of the Victorian tower that stands atop a Northeast Baltimore hill. These window panes celebrate the Clifton Mansion’s recovery from decades of neglect after a lengthy and painstaking transformation. The results, unveiled this spring, are extraordinary.

“It’s been a long haul,” said Henry Hopkins, a Baltimore philanthropist who has been a donor to the current Clifton restoration effort.

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He is the son of longtime Baltimore Recreation and Parks Department official Samuel Hopkins, who died in 2008.

“We are just finishing up a project my father started,” Hopkins said. “It’s a step to bring a little more pride back to Baltimore.”

Decades ago, Samuel Hopkins called reporters to the Clifton Mansion — it is the architectural centerpiece of Clifton Park — one weekend afternoon. His agenda was to bring public awareness to this then under-recognized Baltimore treasure, which at the time served as the clubhouse for the public golf course that extends around the residence. Once it had been the summer home of Johns Hopkins, who founded the university and hospital. Samuel Hopkins was was his great-grandnephew and also kin to Elisha Tyson, the Baltimore anti-slavery activist.

That day, in the 1990s, the restoration of Clifton seemed improbable. Where do you start to fix a vast and rambling monument to Victorian aspirational taste?

For starters, Clifton is a house within a house. The oldest part of Clifton was built by Henry Thompson between 1790 and 1801. The first home was acquired by Johns Hopkins, who by 1852 had added the mansion's signature tower and many of its 20-something rooms. Hopkins also liked wrap-around porches (in poor condition in the 1990s) and indulged himself with over-the-top interiors.

The start to Clifton’s return to glory began when Civic Works, a nonprofit community service organization that trains young people in building skills, took up residence there in 1993. Its initial restoration, which cleared away years as serving at the Clifton Park Golf Course Club House, was funded with the help of the Bunting and Hopkins families, as well as assistance from the Abell and Weinberg foundations, among other donors. Civic Works remains the home’s tenant.

But what do you with a Victorian Baltimore palace whose fancy decorations had been painted over in tones of municipal green? And what about the doors that had been hacked through the walls of the Hopkins dining salon?

For nearly three years, a collection of artists and conservators arrived to address Clifton’s preservation journey after it was given a new roof, electrical, heating and air conditioning systems.

These artists labored in the once-grand staircase and front entry hall where Johns Hopkins greeted his arriving guests in the 1850s. Hopkins, proud of his wealth, wanted to impress his visitors. He laid out a banquet of the decorative arts — a mural of the Bay of Naples, a walnut wood staircase with fancy newel posts, deluxe carpeting and walks embellished with trompe-l'œil “trick the eye” painting, glass panels etched and painted with festoons, twists and curls. In sort, only the best.

A recent tour to Clifton’s tower and entry hall — where the most intensive restoration was just finished — suggests affluence not normally seen in Baltimore.

This spring the Friends of Clifton Mansion also paid for a lawn encircled by new trees to face home’s south-facing porches. The city’s parks department is installing new tennis courts as well.

“It is important to respect the legacy of Johns Hopkins and restore his favorite home, the place that was his Shangri-La,” said Henry Hopkins, one of the principal donors of this restoration phase. “It has been been a real pleasure to be working with such remarkable artists.”

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