I stepped inside the long-abandoned Clifton Park Valve House and cursed myself for waiting so long to visit one of Baltimore's familiar, yet off-limits treasures.
The light shot though its broken tile roof and a steady breeze whistled though its substantial granite walls. The experience was a revelation.
This little castle on Saint Lo Drive in the middle of Clifton Park has been closed and abandoned for nearly 50 years. And while it's not a total ruin, one of its stone walls is beginning to separate from the roof. For more than four decades, preservationists have lamented its deplorable condition.
John Ciekot, special projects director for Civic Works, the community service nonprofit that trains young people in building skills, guided me on a tour of the structure, which once safeguarded machinery that controlled the water flow to the old Lake Clifton reservoir.
"We have a panoply of assets here in the park," said Ciekot, opening the lock on the chain-link fence that surrounds the massive eight-sided stone pavilion dating to 1887. "Our goal is to create a new level of livability and to attract people to the park and as new residents in the community around it."
One of the components of his bold strategy is to accomplish a $5 million restoration of the Valve House. Ciekot envisions it as a place where people will one day gather for a coffee and perhaps learn about Baltimore's water supply system.
The Valve House is an agenda item on Ciekot's to-do list for Clifton Park. Nearly a decade ago, he and his fellow Civic Works employees undertook renovation of Clifton Mansion, which had fallen on hard times after years of hard use as the adjoining municipal golf course's clubhouse.
The mansion, once the summer home of philanthropist Johns Hopkins, is now a showplace. Its restoration — costing about $7.5 million — is complete, save for some interior paint conservation work.
A visit to the Clifton Mansion requires passing the nearby Valve House, which stands about 100 yards down a hill.
"People visit the mansion and inevitably ask, 'What is that building?'" Ciekot said. "When we tell them, they then say, 'What's going to happen to it?'"
Ciekot sees the big picture — and the big promise of a handsomely renovated valve house.
"It will be an instrument that revitalizes the community," he said. "We could operate it as a welcoming cafe, with indoor and outdoor service that also trains students enrolled in high school partnerships in business management. In the summer, we could use it to promote and sell farm produce that we grow at the south end of Clifton."
Ciekot likes to think expansively — and not fret the details. For starters, the Valve House retains its original twin cavities, the size of small subway tunnels, that once held machinery controlling the water flow to the reservoir, which was closed and filled about 50 years ago.
As the old Lake Clifton disappeared, the city constructed a 3,200-student high school on the site. The school building now houses two smaller high schools, Academy for College and Career Exploration and Reach Partnership.
"I see the cafe as becoming a social hub for Clifton, which will function again, as it did in the past, as the shared front yard of the families surrounding the park," he said.
Ciekot works with the neighboring Coldstream Homestead Montebello community organization on their shared vision. His organization has agreed to take on the Valve House project.
Civic Works has applied for an initial $400,000 grant from the state to get started. If successful, fundraising will begin in earnest.
"Its rebirth will be a draw throughout the city," Ciekot said. "It's a magnificent structure, full of possibility. If we get the cafe open, who knows? Maybe a future pastry chef we've trained will come out of this endeavor."