The Clifton Mansion in northeast Baltimore was in disrepair in 2013, when this treasure began an initial $7 million restoration. This spring, nine years later, Clifton shines again.
After decades of serving as the administration building for Clifton Park and its public golf course, the mansion was a dreary mess of too many dropped ceilings, desk lamps, hideous paint choices and vinyl floors. Despite excellent intentions and underfunded earlier trials, poor Clifton was pathetic.
And termites have feasted on its porches and columns.
What had been grand Victorian drawing rooms served as an accounting department. The living room furniture had been replaced by steel desks and filing cabinets.
Over the past nine years, Clifton has been completely restored with all new heating and air conditioning. Civic Works, the non-profit youth training and community service organization, which operates out of the mansion, has begun the initial heavy lifting for its restoration.
When this first major phase was completed, the Friends of Clifton Mansion began to put the finishing touches. A small army of painters, restorers, glaziers, cabinetmakers and craftsmen then transformed the salons and the staircase tower into an interior that is almost incredible, rich and voluptuous today.
The building has now been revealed as the home of English-born merchant and shipowner Henry Thompson, who built this late Georgian house and moved in around 1803. Thompson raised Devon cattle and Merino sheep on the 500-acre estate . He also raised rye and timothy and had a large orchard.
Years later Johns Hopkins, a 19th century Baltimore merchant and philanthropist, acquired Clifton and had it enlarged in the Italian style. Hopkins seemed to be having fun redoing the place he had escaped to during the summer months. (During the winter he lived downtown, also in the baronial style, on West Saratoga Street near Charles. This house was razed for a parking lot in the 1930s.)
Also new to the mansion is a marker describing the shameful working conditions there before the Civil War.
“Slaves were forced to live and work on the Clifton estate,” reads the plaque in the mansion’s main hallway. “Henry Thompson and Johns Hopkins both benefited from forced slave labor. … We honor [these] people… Rueben, Bill, Kitty, Jacob, Sarah, Chester, Louis, Mathilde, Annis, Isaac, Jim, Maria, Essex [and] Harriet and a second Bill and a second Maria and other names we don’t know.
Hopkins lived here extensively in late spring and summer. He had a taste for whimsical interiors and must have liked the pinks and mauve and gold arabesques on his walls. He ordered painters to produce a mural of the Gulf of Naples and Mount Vesuvius for his entrance hall. Now gloriously restored, this mural is a knockout.
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His dining table was so large that it stretched almost from wall to wall in the restored dining room. Artisans and restorers have recreated the majestic painting of its walls and ceiling.
Friends of Clifton Mansion worked with local landscaper, Natural Concerns, to redo the South Lawn, a small plateau that overlooks downtown Baltimore. Years of old asphalt paving is gone, as is a flagpole. No one misses the causeway.
“We had the best possible team for the job,” said Clifton’s top donor, Henry Holt Hopkins, a distant nephew and collateral nephew of Johns Hopkins. “Baltimore is fortunate to have so many people locally with the restaurant knowledge we needed.”
Many of these skilled artisans and restorers live or work near Clifton Mansion. Henry Holt Hopkins mentioned paint detective Matthew Mosca, carpenter Thomas Brown, interior designer Henry Johnson, plaster makers Hayles and Howe, and consultant Tom McCracken.
There is newly woven historically accurate carpeting as well as sheer and lace curtains that can make visitors breathe.
Volunteers from Baltimore Heritage, the preservation advocacy group, offer monthly tours of Clifton Mansion. Brides discover it as a setting for their weddings. And Civic Works continues to use most of the building as it has since 1993.
As for the former owners, Henry Thompson and Johns Hopkins, they remain in the headquarters, buried in Green Mount Cemetery.