The Cloisters was bequeathed to the City of Baltimore by its original owners, Sumner A. Parker (1881-1946) and G. Dudrea Parker (1883-1972). Both Mr. and Mrs. Parker were Baltimore natives and graduated from the Johns Hopkins University. After their marriage in 1905, Mr. and Mrs. Parker traveled extensively throughout Europe and the United States collecting art work and artifacts. During these travels, they became enchanted with the medieval architecture of England and France, which provided the inspiration for their summer home, The Cloisters.
The Cloisters sits atop a beautiful hillside in Lutherville in Baltimore County, Maryland surrounded by carefully tended gardens and 60 wooded acres. The house is principally composed of large, random-sized blocks of grey and gold Butler stone, some of which was quarried on the estate and all of which comes from Maryland quarries. The roof, consisting of heavy Butler stone flagstones arranged in an overlapping pattern and secured by iron pins, is the only one of its kind in the United States. The roof's flagstones are of irregular sizes, approximately one-inch thick and 8-12 inches across.
The cloistered garden, from which the house takes its name, is located on the north side, just off of the Gallery. To the northwest of the house, is a stunning windmill, made of the same Butler stone as the house. Mr. Parker used the original windmill, which stood on the same site, as a studio. After this structure was destroyed by fire in 1940, the Parkers built the current windmill, which served as quarters for the groundskeeper and pumped water for the swimming pool. This pool, which has since been removed, was located slightly to southwest of the front of the house. Its entrance was marked by the two stone pillars that still stand just to the side of the main driveway.
Although The Cloisters itself only dates from 1932, many of the architectural elements are far older, lending the house an ancient feel. For example, the massive, half-timbered gables on the main facade originally graced a medieval house in Donremy, France, while Mr. and Mrs. Parker acquired the pale gray medallions on the same facade from a 16th century house in Venice, Italy. Similarly, the elaborate stained-glass door leading from the chapel to the cloistered garden originally decorated a 16th century house in Verona, Italy, and several of the doors on the first floor date from medieval France as does the beautifully carved wooden panel over the Dining Room's mantel.
In addition to acquiring antique building materials directly from Europe, the Parkers also salvaged authentic medieval pieces from the renowned Glen Ellen mansion, which once stood near the Loch Raven reservoir in Baltimore. For example, the Gothic tracery above the windows in the Chapel and in the first-floor Solarium came from Glen Ellen as did the French doors that open from the Gallery to the cloistered garden. In addition to saving historical objects from Glen Ellen, Mr. and Mrs. Parker also creatively reused wood from antique furniture for architectural elements in the house.
For example, the mantels of the four fireplaces on the first floor were crafted from sections of antique chests and feature carved geometric designs in a late-medieval style and wooden Renaissance figures.
The Parkers were natives of Baltimore, maintaining their primary residence at 913 St. Paul Street in Baltimore's Mount Vernon neighborhood, and both graduated from the Johns Hopkins University. They had three children: Sumner A. Parker, Jr. (who died in infancy), F. Jameson Parker (1909-1971), and Katherine S. Parker (1914-1978).
Mr. Parker was president of the Armstrong and Parker Company, which produced ornamental ironwork (such as balconies, gates, and fences) and which was located where Lake Clifton High School now stands. Beautiful examples of the ironwork made by Mr. Parker's company can be seen around Baltimore and throughout The Cloisters. For example, Mr. Parker designed the railing of the stunning four-story spiral stair tower in the center of the house; the gothic-inspired banister of the library staircase; the decorative (and functional) grates on the windows of the stair tower and on the ground floor; and the balconies on the upper floors.
Throughout their lives, the Parkers frequently opened both of their homes to the public, allowing the people of Baltimore to view their remarkable collections of tapestries, rugs, porcelain, paintings, and antique furniture. In a final act of generosity to the city that she loved, Mrs. Parker willed The Cloisters and its contents to the City of Baltimore. Mr. and Mrs. Parker and their older son are interred on the property.
Since acquiring the estate in 1972, the city has used the house and grounds in a variety of ways. From 1977 until the 1990's, The Cloisters was home to a children's museum. Today The Cloisters is primarily an event facility, hosting 250 weddings, retirement parties, holiday balls, bar mitzvahs, and business meetings each year. Most famously, it was the site of actor Will Smith's 1998 wedding to Baltimore native Jada Pinkett.
In addition "The Castle," as it is known, with its distinctive architecture and breath-taking landscape has been featured in a variety of television shows (such as Homicide, The Wire, and Ace of Cakes) as well as several movies (including Absolute Power and John Water's Cry Baby.)