Clifton Mansion transformed in $7 million restoration

In the summer of 2013, I visited the Clifton Mansion, which sits atop the little hill in the Northeast Baltimore park and golf course, as a $7 million restoration effort got underway.

And while the place looked much improved — at least the grim flourescent lights and gray metal administration desks were gone — I wondered if that amount of money could put a dent in the problems affecting this grand 19th-century Baltimore landmark, where philanthropist Johns Hopkins maintained his summer residence. I also wondered if 14 to 15 months would be enough time to complete this daunting task.

My friends who volunteer at Clifton told me I would be pleased, if not amazed, with the results at Clifton, which has its coming-out festivities from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday. The event also marks the role the mansion's owners played in the War of 1812.

I arrived for an advance look on a clear and bright afternoon this week. Clifton looked strong, proud and confident. It has a coat of fresh, well-applied tan stucco, a new roof and a rainwater-removal system designed to check decades of wood rot. It now has modern geothermal heat pumps, air-conditioning and energy systems.

Many of its huge windows were repaired. Its extensive Victorian porch, which overlooks the park's trees in the foreground and downtown Baltimore in the distance, is now solid. For decades, the porch was a rendezvous for termites. John Ciekot, who led me around and is the special projects director for Civic Works, which oversaw the renovations, said that before the work started, he could put his fist through the rotten pillars that support the roof on this lovely veranda, once a favorite subject of early postcard photographers.

I could imagine brides selecting this porch for their weddings or receptions. It would be a grand perch for a bouquet to be thrown to guests on the lawn.

The porch now has a standing-seam metal roof whose components were made in Germany. Ciekot said it all meets the standards of the Maryland Historic Trust.

I cannot speak for the state's preservation officials, but the restoration of Clifton produced an unanticipated effect on me. While circling the mansion on foot, I looked up at its walls and extensive wood details. I said to myself, "I've seen this setting before."

It was a revelation: The similarly grand old porch at the Pimlico Race Course clubhouse lives again. The Pimlico clubhouse burned to the ground in 1966 and was not rebuilt.

But both structures share a common heritage. They were each designed by architects John Rudolph Niernsee and James Crawford Neilson, who also gave Baltimore its Camden Station and early buildings at Notre Dame of Maryland University. On an earlier visit to Clifton, I had a deja vu experience in the entry tower. Its staircase reminded me of the old halls and woodwork treatments at Notre Dame on Charles Street.

For many years, Clifton appeared a beaten-down, haplessly converted park office building and municipal golf course headquarters. Civic Works, a nonprofit community service organization that trains young people in building skills, took up residence here in 1993. The renovation it led was funded with the help of the Bunting and Hopkins families, as well as assistance from the Abell and Weinberg foundations, among other donors.

This is a house within a house. Much of the first Clifton, a home constructed by Henry Thompson between 1790 and 1801, was extensively enlarged by Johns Hopkins. By 1852, he added the mansion's signature tower and many of its 20-something rooms. Hopkins also had a taste for florid Victorian decorative scenes and murals.

The $7 million for this Clifton upgrade stabilized and arrested this interior decoration's decay. On the walls and ceilings, it appears, some sort of 1950s wallpaper was pulled off to reveal an 1850s painted fantasy.

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