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Rescuing an enchanted cottage from ruin in Baltimore’s Clifton Park

The gardener's lodge in Northeast Baltimore's Clifton Park has been shored up to permit work on its restoration.
The gardener's lodge in Northeast Baltimore's Clifton Park has been shored up to permit work on its restoration. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun)

Tree trimmers moved into a brushy section of Northeast Baltimore’s Clifton Park. Another crew cut through a temporary roadway.

The workers created a clearing to reveal a Hansel and Gretel house, a fanciful circa-1852 building where the park’s head gardener lived and raised plants. Once a horticultural showplace, flanked by boxwood, rose beds and an ornamental pond, the building has been vacant for decades. Its roof collapsed and its interior floors became unsafe.

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After years of neglect, this Clifton Park late bloomer is being given another chance, beginning with months of structural stabilization.

The gardener’s cottage was constructed when Baltimore merchant and university benefactor Johns Hopkins acquired Clifton and made it his summer home. He enlarged his mansion and added a prominent tower. He also had its grounds laid out with lawns, walks and elaborate flower beds described as “eloquence manifest in the poetry of architecture and landscape.”

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Hopkins ordered up a picturesque gardener’s residence within eyesight of his mansion toward the northern half of the property, midway between Belair and Harford roads. After Baltimore City acquired Clifton as a park, the Johns Hopkins residence became the clubhouse and operations center for the municipal golf course established there in 1916.

The Clifton gardener’s cottage served for decades as municipal horticulture headquarters. Changes in budgets and programming ended its productive use, and it became a fenced-off vacant house.

The site reverted to an unkempt, weedy, forgotten ruin. About 10 years ago, some volunteers from the preservation group Baltimore Heritage, City Council member Mary Pat Clarke and Civic Work’s John Ciekot spent a day boarding up the building, which had suffered a fire presumably set by homeless persons who took shelter in it.

But even though it is surrounded by junk trees, the cottage’s charm endures. It bears a similar aesthetic style to the Charles Street gatehouse of the Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital in Towson.

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“Even in its decline, the gardener’s cottage is beautiful and intriguing,” said Katie Dix, a former Northeast Baltimore resident who is now a University of New Mexico graduate student writing a master’s thesis on it. “I believe the building, landscape and story belong to the past, present and future stewards of Baltimore’s green spaces.”

The current effort to preserve the cottage is being funded by a private philanthropist, Henry Holt Hopkins, a relative of Johns Hopkins. He is also the son of Samuel Hopkins, who died in 2008 and sat on the Baltimore City Recreation and Parks Board for many years.

“My father took me there years ago,” Henry Hopkins said. “One of his great desires was to restore the Clifton mansion and its little cottage. The gardener’s cottage was his little jewel.”

Henry Hopkins, through the nonprofit Friends of Clifton Mansion, funded an elaborate restoration of the mansion’s main rooms and stair tower. A team of building and painting conservators reclaimed murals and wall decorations long covered by overpainting.

Now attention has turned to the gardener’s lodge.

The current phase involves shoring up the cottages’s walls and its substantial chimneys. Restoration architects have measured the structure and created a digital model. Some of its original woodwork also has been salvaged.

Henry Hopkins is open to ideas about what a future use for the restored building would be.

“The gardener’s cottage is a wonderful, if hidden, part of Clifton Park and now that the Friends have stabilized it, we’re looking forward to full restoration and a new use that hopefully will showcase this gem,” said Baltimore Heritage director Johns Hopkins, another member of extended family.

City preservation planner Lauren Schiszik said: “Well-built structures, like the gardener’s cottage, can endure. They can survive neglect and abuse. They can have multiple chapters in their lives.”

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