The observation tower of the Clifton Park mansion, the former summer residence of Johns Hopkins, offers quite a breathtaking view of Baltimore and the surrounding area. It has been said that on a clear day Hopkins would stare out and watch the ships--some of which were carrying goods bound for his warehouses--come into the harbor.
Today, the spirit of Johns Hopkins might still ascend the tower's steps now and again to gaze at the city that was his home and at the university and hospital that bear his name.
Earthbound folks, however, might think twice about joining him for a look-see.
The tower, one of several additions Hopkins made to the house, is in a state of disrepair, as are some of the other rooms in the 200-year-old mansion. The building's interior is also not as Hopkins left it. Once-ornate designs painted on the ceilings and walls have either faded or been painted over, and room configurations have been altered by subsequent tenants.
However, work is under way by the current tenant to restore parts of the mansion to their mid-19th-century appearance. There also are plans to house in the restored portion of the building an exhibit that honors Baltimore philanthropists and to dedicate the tower to one of Hopkins' oldest living relatives.
Civic Works, a nonprofit affiliate of youth service initiative AmeriCorps, began leasing the city-owned mansion in 1993. For the past five years the organization has been slowly and methodically taking apart some of the building's walls and floors to uncover its original layers.
According to John Ciekot, projects director of Civic Works, the organization is now in a position to "accelerate the renovation process and focus on it full-time."
Built in 1802, the mansion was owned originally by Henry Thompson, a Baltimore merchant and city planner. Hopkins purchased it at an auction in 1836 and viewed the estate as a getaway from the burgeoning and noisy city.
In 1852 Hopkins hired an architectural firm to redesign the house in an Italian villa style, replete with a third floor, a massive porch and its signature tower.
Hopkins lived in the house, located at 2701 St. Lo Dr. in Clifton Park, until his death in 1873. During his years of occupancy, Hopkins bought up adjacent properties until the estate totaled 500 acres. It has been documented that Hopkins envisioned the property as the future site of the university that was to be created by his bequest.
Although plans for the campus at Clifton were drawn up, some of the original trustees of the university thought the commute by horse-car from the city would be too far and that Clifton was full of noxious air capable of causing disease. North Howard street was chosen instead.
The estate was sold to the city in 1895, and by the early 1900s, it had become a public park. Between 1910 and 1912 an 18-hole golf course was put on the property, and the mansion became a clubhouse. Lockers, showers, a pro shop and snack bar were installed on the first floor.
Ciekot says that soon after Civic Works moved in, it was decided that an attempt would be made to bring the mansion back to life, in line with the organization's urban renewal mission.
"We've been blessed with the city allowing us to make use of this building, and one way to have the community make full use of it is to help bring to life some of the resources here," Ciekot says. "People can then come and appreciate the connection with the city's history and learn that there is a youth service corps that is active here in Baltimore."
In 1996, the Friends of Clifton Mansion was formed to provide support in the restoration effort. The group is composed of descendants of Johns Hopkins and Henry Thompson, as well as others interested in the history of the building and the great philanthropic tradition it represents.
Money raised for the initial phase of the renovation went primarily to demolition. The intent is to restore the building to the way it looked in 1852, when Hopkins remodeled it; this includes recreating the original flooring, plaster and woodwork.
Chris Wilson, construction manager, says the current phase of the restoration is centered on the mansion's breakfast room, main hallway and parlor, which has detailed ceilings, crown molding and a pair of recessed arches that flank what used to be a fireplace. Wilson says that for the most part the room's features will have to be recreated based on details still visible and on archival photos.
He adds that the restorers are rather lucky that some of the details remain.
"Years ago, when the ceiling began to collapse, the city put wallpaper on the ceiling to hold the plaster together. This allowed us to recover some of the painting," Wilson says. "If they had painted over it, we wouldn't know what was there."
Once the room is finished, plans call for it to house a standing exhibit to honor Baltimore philanthropists such as Hopkins, George Peabody, Enoch Pratt and Elisha Tyson.
The inspiration behind the philanthropic exhibit comes from Samuel Hopkins, a Civic Works board member and the great-great nephew of Johns Hopkins.
"We had an informal exhibit on philanthropy here a couple of years ago," says Hopkins, who was so pleased with the response that now he's looking toward the year 2000 to commemorate Johns Hopkins and his fellow 19th-century philanthropists.
Hopkins says he was surprised to find recently that when people come from out of town to the Maryland Historical Society, "the two people they are most interested in learning about are Johns Hopkins and George Peabody--and they have nothing on exhibit there that relates to them."
In mid-June there will be a ceremony to dedicate the tower to Samuel Hopkins, whose interests in Hopkins history and Civic Works meet in this mansion. Although the tower is accessible, parts of the stairs are rotting, and there is concern about the tower's further decay.
Two university engineers have been called in to help. Robert Pond, a fellow-by-courtesy and associate research scientist in Materials Science and Engineering, and Mase Meosoki, an alumnus of the School of Engineering, have been to the mansion to consult with Civic Works on the tower balcony's structural integrity.
Pond, who says there are some concerns that need to be addressed before the tower is open to the public, agrees that the efforts to restore the tower and the building are quite worthwhile.
"It's a marvelous view--it's quite surprising to see the city from that vantage," says Pond, who will visit the property again soon with another Hopkins alum. "I can see why they want to restore it."
Because there is not enough money available to complete the renovation, according to Ciekot, the organization is currently involved in a fund-raising effort.