Baltimore Building of the Week: Clifton Mansion

This edition of our Baltimore Building of the Week series with Dr. John Breihan is a few days late but still a stunning landmark of Baltimore history and architecture: Clifton Mansion,

Image courtesy Jack Breihan

The country home of Baltimore’s premier philanthropist, the wealthy merchant Johns Hopkins, Clifton represents another variation on the Italianate architectural style so popular in the middle of the 19th century. Besides their massive symmetrical town palaces with heavy overhanging cornices, the merchant princes of the Italian Renaissance also built less formal suburban villas. The layout was deliberately asymmetrical, especially evident in a tall tower placed at an off-center location in the design. Johns Hopkins certainly qualified as a merchant prince. In addition to his town mansion on Saratoga Street (since demolished), Hopkins in the 1840s began to remodel an older Federal-style house situated on a suburban hilltop, once the home of an 1814 Baltimore Defender. The architectural firm of Niernsee and Neilson incorporated the old house into a much larger mansion, including various Italianate elements – particularly bracketed cornices and arched windows and porch arcades – combined with the asymmetrical layout and 80-foot tower that mark the Italian Villa style.

Hopkins surrounded Clifton with ornamental gardens and a lake – a “paradise on earth.” He presided there for more two decades, entertaining visiting celebrities – including the Prince of Wales, future King Edward VII of Britain – in the splendor of the marble and mahogany interior. After Hopkins’ death in 1873, Clifton declined. The trustees of Johns Hopkins University chose other locations, selling the Clifton estate to the City for a public park. For decades the mansion served as clubhouse for the municipal golf course, golfers’ spikes gradually destroying the walnut floors. Only recently have the Friends of Clifton Mansion restored it to something like its glory as residence of the great philanthropist. Appropriately, it now houses the headquarters of Civic Works, volunteers at work in various projects for the improvement of Baltimore.

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