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Not yet finished, but Clifton Mansion restoration is a grand work in progress

Clifton Mansion, once the summer home of philanthropist Johns Hopkins, is being restored by Civic Works and the Friends of Clifton Mansion.
Clifton Mansion, once the summer home of philanthropist Johns Hopkins, is being restored by Civic Works and the Friends of Clifton Mansion. (Kim Hairston / Baltimore Sun)

I entered Clifton Mansion through the porch on which philanthropist and university founder Johns Hopkins might have watched a sunset.

Standing on this rebuilt veranda, I thought, "It's happened. Finally." The Clifton that was endangered by decades of hard use, then outright neglect, lives again.

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This Northeast Baltimore landmark, a home Hopkins constructed in 1852 around Battle of Baltimore defender Henry Thompson's residence, is again the magnificent summer retreat it once was.

It's been quite a saga, starting from the days when Clifton was a proposed location for the Johns Hopkins University. The university never did move here, and the city purchased it 1895 for a park.

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In 1916, Baltimore's first public golf course opened on the property's lawns and walks, and the mansion became its clubhouse. Victorian parlors were ripped apart for locker rooms and showers.

Clifton was a pathetic, battered relic by the 1990s. Its sheer size was daunting. Dwindling recreation and park budgets could never keep up with what was needed.

It was saved by Civic Works, the nonprofit whose mission statement says it "strengthens Baltimore's communities through education, skills development and community service."

Civic Works began leasing Clifton from the city in 1993. The group needed a headquarters, and the mansion's many rooms — including bedrooms and an upstairs billiard room — fit the bill. The first-floor dining room, ballroom and parlors were set aside for careful restoration. This is the kind of place where the stair hall has its own Bay of Naples mural.

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Back in 1852, Hopkins directed that his home be painted and decorated in a flamboyant style, its main rooms and halls colored in dramatic hues and intricate patterns. During the clubhouse years, these painted surfaces were covered over, but during the restoration, conservators used raw cotton swabs to reveal the original patterns.

"There are not many surviving Italianate villas of the type that Clifton is," said Matthew Mosca, a paint consultant. "They sat on the edges of cities and, as cities grew, they tended to be torn down.

"The Clifton dining room is spectacular," Mosca said. "I don't know of another example like it."

Over the past three years of restoration and renovation, Clifton has been worked over thoroughly. Prior damage was such that some of the floors had to be reinforced with steel. Termites were also an issue.

Some improvements mix historical restoration with modern amenities. The mansion now has an elevator, geothermal wells, 14 heat pumps, a sprinkler system and new wiring.

In all, the price has been $7 million, raised through donations, foundation grants, state and federal tax credits.

The first of this season's monthly Saturday guided tours is scheduled for 10 a.m. March 19. It's an opportunity for visitors to take in the glories lost for more than a century. The tour will reveal a home where the structure and mechanical systems are in fine order.

Some fancy rooms, while clean and orderly, still await painstaking restoration at the hands of painting curators. That could cost another $2 million. But the work already done is a testament to those devoted to saving this mansion.

"Clifton is off the question mark list," said Johns Hopkins, a member of the Hopkins family who is director of Baltimore Heritage, a preservation organization. "Now it's a question of how good can we make it."

Already, Clifton is quietly inviting guests for private functions.

"We are having a June wedding here," said John Ciekot, special projects director for the Clifton Mansion Legacy. "A bold, artistically minded Lauraville couple have selected us. They are going to have a New Orleans-style marching band."

Ciekot said rental proceeds will be used for ongoing maintenance.

"Clifton is subject to every issue that any homeowner would have," he said.

Looking to the future, Ciekot sees other nearby preservation challenges — a gardener's cottage that needs work, the valve house that connects to an old reservoir, and the Clifton Park band shell.

He sees the entire park — Erdman Avenue to Sinclair Lane — as a focal point for the Coldstream-Homestead-Montebello, Mayfield, Darley Park, Belair Edison and South Clifton Park communities.

He hopes residents in those enclaves see it the same way.

"There's a reciprocal relationship between a park on the rise and communities on the rise," he said.

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