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Clifton Park’s Historic Buildings

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Originally owned by an unknown farmer, Clifton Park was acquired by wealthy merchant and War of 1812 veteran Capt. Henry Thompson in the late 1790s. The land passed to Johns Hopkins, one of America’s wealthiest businessmen, in 1841. Hopkins bought the estate as a summer retreat. He added countless exotic trees, a lake, an orangery and a garden with over 100 pieces of marble sculpture. When Hopkins died in 1873, his will stipulated that the estate would become the grounds of a University in his name. The University’s trustees chose a different location and the land fell into a period of temporary neglect.

Purchased by the city of Baltimore in 1895 under the mayorship of Ferdinand Claiborne Latrobe, east Baltimore’s Clifton Park was given to the citizens of Baltimore. The city turned the property into a park of recreation, installing Lake Clifton, an 18-hole golf course and twenty-seven tennis courts. The Olmsted Brothers were hired to design the park’s layout. The brothers incorporated the pasture’s existing features into their competent design, complete with meandering paths and splendid arbors. Today the park still maintains qualities from the 18th, 19th and 20th Centuries, its historic buildings and significant landscape architecture bridging the gap between America’s westward expansion period and modern times.

In the early 19th Century Capt. Henry Thompson made vast improvements to the estate’s existing farmhouse, turning the hilltop abode into a stately manor. When Johns Hopkins purchased the property in 1841 he enhanced the mansion house even further. Hopkins hired the architectural firm of Niersnee and Neilson to turn the house into an Italian villa, adding an observation tower and an extended veranda. Made of brick covered in plaster, Clifton Mansion rests on a foundation of stone and has walls nearly a foot thick. The historic building will soon be undergoing a full restoration.

In 1887 the Baltimore Water Board completed the Clifton Park Valve House. The Gothic Revival open-air structure was constructed over Lake Clifton’s valve system. The man-made lake was eventually filled and a high school was built at the location. The Valve House has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Gardener’s Cottage is tucked away in a wooded area off the 16th-hole of Clifton’s public golf course. Designed in the rural Gothic tradition, the cottage was built by Johns Hopkins’ gardener in the late 1840s or the early 1850s. Its design was based upon an Andrew Jackson Downing sketch. Downing’s A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening, Adapted to North America, a popular book at the time, contains a detailed drawing of a very similar cottage. The building appears to be structurally sound and stands ready for renovation.

Mothers’ Garden was dedicated by Mayor William Broening “to all the mothers of Baltimore” in 1926. At the northern tip of Clifton Park, the memorial garden features a stone gazebo and a wood and stone pergola. The gazebo’s eight-sided shape is seemingly inspired by the Valve House. The recently deceased William Donald Schaefer rededicated Mothers’ Garden in 1984.

Other historic buildings at Clifton include the bandstand, the superintendent’s house and the stable (now a maintenance garage). The collection of structures in the park display a wide variety of architectural styles and construction practices. They are presented in their original environment displaying their original intent. Wealth, luck and preservation have kept Clifton Park in a state of perpetual limbo that I can only hope continues for another 200 years.

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Written by monumentcity

May 20th, 2011 at 9:03 am