A ballroom returns to Clifton Mansion, former summer home of Johns Hopkins

Just a peek behind a protective plastic construction curtain reveals a room that says, “Strauss waltz, please.”

And later this spring, the “Wedding March” could resound in this, the former entertainment salon of the Clifton Mansion, the Northeast Baltimore landmark that has been transformed from a sadly neglected municipal building into a knockout combination event space and home to a workforce development effort.

Just off Harford Road and the Alameda, the summer home of Johns Hopkins, the prosperous merchant and university benefactor, sits quietly. Its tower and weathervane pop out of the springtime tree canopy.

After about more than a decade of invested money and a painstaking restoration effort underwritten by the Friends of Clifton Mansion, this very big house is very different from the long years it spent as a golf course clubhouse and administration building.

Many boxes have been checked here. The sagging porches were rebuilt. A grand stair in a tall tower could now be a Gilded Age movie set. There’s a dining room so lavishly outfitted a millionaire might blush. There’s a state-of-the-art heating and cooling system. And of course, there are electrified gas chandeliers, a lot of them.

Clifton’s former ballroom, where the philanthropist Hopkins presumably entertained his guests on warm 1860s Baltimore summer evenings, is about to make its debut, or re-debut.

It tests the imagination to consider that this grand chamber, with its windows overlooking the Clifton Park municipal golf course (trees and lawn), was once the clubhouse snack bar.

Yes, seriously. In the 1960s golfers ordered a soda and frankfurter where musicians once played violins and harps. It also did not help when an exterior chimney collapsed and crashed through this room.

Last autumn the careful restoration of the ballroom began. C&H Restoration and Renovation, a local outfit from nearby Loch Raven Road at Exeter Hall Avenue, took on the job, one in a line of the business’ specialized preservation work that includes the Peale Museum, Homewood, the Flag House and Fells Point’s Ship Caulkers Houses on Wolfe Street.

The ballroom is an example of domestic archaeology. Conservators gingerly lifted off years of overpainting to reveal the 1850s decorative color scheme and fanciful painted arabesque designs.

Conservators, a team that includes Laurie Timm and Gillian Quinn, and replication specialists Mariah Gillis and Susan Crawford discovered enough of the surviving decorative motifs to return the room to its former glory. They used scalpels to scrape away 20 layers of paint, vinyl adhesive and drywall compound.

Victorian tastes favored the lavish and unrestrained — no understated Bauhaus look at Clifton. How many houses have a front entry hall with a wall scene hand-painted to reveal the Bay of Naples? Clifton does and it’s an eye-popper.

“Clifton represents the height of 1850s Baltimore grandeur, ” said Tim Horjus, a partner in C&H Restoration. “It’s an honor to be involved with the process of revealing the opulence of the era in this unique building.”

Clifton is now serving as a special events venue for the community and private parties. The Green School, a Belair Road charter school and formerly the Shrine of the Little Flower, holds its gala there.

But Clifton is not all about fancy parties.

Civic Works, a community service nonprofit that trains young people in building skills and other professions, stages ceremonies there for those enrolled in its courses who go on to work for BGE and other community partners. The organization took up residence in the building in 1993.

Now, 31 years later, Clifton is fully functioning as Civic Works’ headquarters while the showplace reception rooms are open to the public and available to rent for events.

“We curate Clifton so that people can have it for all day or four hours based on the client’s vision. We’ve had nine weddings last year,” said Natrina S. Lee, the venue’s events manager. “And one elopement party … and I just booked a wedding for 2025 last night.”