A city derided nationally for its high number of homicides, venereal disease and drug addiction got something new yesterday - a permanent exhibit dedicated to its central place in the history of American "goodness."
The exhibit, called "Baltimore: Cradle of American Philanthropy," makes the case that this city on the Patapsco was a birthplace of great giving in the 19th century - home not only to familiar charitable names like Peabody and Hopkins, but to dozens of lesser-known philanthropists who learned to make life better for others through their collective means.
Two years in the making, the tribute to Baltimore philanthropy opened yesterday at Clifton Mansion, once the summer home of Johns Hopkins, who gave $7 million to create the university and hospital that bear his name.
"Somehow, Baltimore, I think, maybe more than any other city in this country, has had a focus on service and voluntarism and philanthropy," said Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, who welcomed about 60 visitors - some of them descendants of Hopkins - to an opening reception yesterday.
The exhibit is sponsored by Friends of Clifton Mansion and Civic Works, a youth service organization that leases the mansion in Clifton Park from the city for $1 a year. But it is the brainchild of Samuel Hopkins, a great-grandnephew of Johns Hopkins who became determined to better acquaint the public with Baltimore's charitable roots.
"When I was growing up, people read about Horatio Alger," said Hopkins, an 86-year-old Guilford resident. "People don't have that anymore. With this exhibit, you can sort of turn your thoughts to the goodness and benevolence of the world."
Civic Works and Friends of Clifton Mansion are raising money for a wholesale renovation of the mansion as a community resource for public and private functions. As the restoration continues, the organizations hope to expand the philanthropy exhibit - now confined to the main hallway - into renovated rooms.
"It's too big a story for this hallway to hold," said Elizabeth Schaaf, archivist at the Peabody Institute and curator of the exhibit.
The exhibit includes a published timeline, from 1623 to 1900, of "benevolent giving and humane goodness in Baltimore City."
One hallmark event it chronicles was a fund-raising drive in 1846 to erect what is now the Maryland Historical Society. The appeal brought in $35,000 and it brought together such donors as Hopkins, George Peabody, Enoch Pratt, Moses Sheppard and John McDonogh, who went on to found the McDonogh School.
As the personal fortunes of these men grew - their businesses powered by industrial advances like the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad - their giving became more sophisticated as well.
Peabody moved to London in 1837 but kept his ties to Baltimore. He started the Peabody Homes in London, providing thousands of homes for the working poor. By creating the Peabody Institute in Baltimore in 1857, he provided one of the first major cultural centers in an American city.
"The Peabody donation really galvanized the city," Schaaf said. "It was a watershed event."
The Peabody gift also was instrumental in persuading Hopkins to make his famous donation in his will, she said.
"The city fathers had tried for years to get Hopkins to donate money for a university," Schaaf said. "Nobody was getting anywhere. Peabody told Hopkins his experience going through the London homes. He said he never would have believed he would enjoy giving away money more than making it."
Hopkins' gift to the university and hospital at the time of his death in 1873 was the largest in America to date, according to the timeline prepared by Samuel Hopkins.
The exhibit tells other stories of philanthropic figures, such as Samuel Shoemaker, a Baltimore businessman who sent supplies and his employees to help at field hospitals after the Battle of Gettysburg, and Elisha Tyson, an abolitionist who helped found Friends School in Baltimore.
Admission to the mansion - and to the exhibit - is free. The mansion, at 2701 St. Lo Drive, is open from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. Arrangements for tours or visits during other times may be made by calling Civic Works at 410-366-8533.