Built on a chrome fortune, Cylburn still enchants as garden spot

Built on a chrome fortune, Cylburn still enchants as garden spot
Stone lions stand guard outside the Cylburn Mansion, a 19th Century Italianate Renaissance Revival building. (Kim Hairston / Baltimore Sun)

They don't put private train stations at homes in Baltimore any more.

The Cylburn estate used to have one. But while light rail trains still pass its eastern edge, they don't stop there. The private platform that once stood on the estate is gone without a trace.


Nevertheless, the Victorian stone mansion and grounds now known as Cylburn Arboretum — renowned for the gardens, woodland walks and the exclusive guest lists of the past — still beguile.

Pronounced Sill-burn, the home and its rolling acres on Greenspring Avenue welcome visitors today for the annual Market Day, when gardeners converge for plant shopping in a public park setting.

This spring, workers are busy building a new garden feature adjacent to the main residence. When completed this year, the spot should make an ideal venue for outdoor weddings.

The Baltimore Sun once called Cylburn "the rendezvous of the city's most exclusive set," and the society writer was not exaggerating. The place was born of a 19th-century local mining fortune — Baltimore industrialist Jesse Tyson made his mark quarrying chromium at Bare Hills in Baltimore County.

Tyson used gneiss, a stone found at Bare Hills, to build a summer home for his household, which included his mother. He hired architect George A. Frederick — the man who designed Baltimore's City Hall and many Druid Hill Park structures in a prolific lifetime.

Tyson's mother died before work was completed in 1889. Tyson then took a bride 48 years his junior, Edyth Johns. She was a legendary Baltimore beauty — her likeness still graces the foyer of Shriver Hall on the Johns Hopkins University's Homewood campus.

Her taste survives in Cylburn's unrestored interior. Its walls are lined with tapestries woven in Belgium. If you look carefully, you can see how the artists included a view of Cylburn in the threads.

Jesse Tyson, the chrome king of Baltimore, died in 1906. His wife later wed an American Army officer of equally refined ways named Bruce Cotten. They married in England, then sailed home to Cylburn aboard the Lapland on the Red Star Line.

In the years that followed, the Cottens embellished Cylburn's interior decor on annual shopping trips abroad.

"Cylburn's beautiful and fanciful gardens echoed the strains of quiet musicals," said a 1942 article in The Sun. "The rustle of formal attire, satin gowns and brocaded trains, dinner clothes, and pumps was heard almost nightly in its famous dining rooms."

The Sun article also suggested that Mrs. Cotten was a determined customer of fine furniture created for Paris expositions.

Edyth Johns Tyson Cotten died at Cylburn on April 12, 1942. Her funeral was held at the house; she was buried at Green Mount Cemetery.

Her husband moved to smaller quarters downtown, and the city bought the 180-acre estate for $42,300. On the day the house and its contents went up for auction, a Sun reporter caught the sentiments of a loyal servant.

" 'Indeed, I hate to see this place torn up,' commented Miss Mary Roach, the Irish parlormaid who served the household for 30 years," the article said. " 'Mrs. Cotten always said she would like this place as a museum or a park.' "


She got her wish, but not for a while.

Cylburn was pressed into service during World War II. While purchased as a park, the estate was lent to the Department of Public Welfare as a home for abandoned and neglected children. About 40 to 50 children were housed there on a temporary basis for about a decade.

Cylburn was obviously not a place designed to be a temporary orphanage. The welfare agency, in an annual report, acknowledged that the mansion was having "a checkered career ... depending on whether there was a satisfactory staff."

By 1960, the city had funds to open it as a park.

It was originally called a "wildflower preserve and garden center," and Market Day was one of its first fundraisers.

Decades later, that tradition continues, and perhaps offers those who attend some inspiration for Mother's Day. Market Day begins today at 8 a.m. at Cylburn, 4915 Greenspring Ave.