Clifton is a highly refined and well-preserved example of the Tidewater dwelling, an architectural form characteristic of early period Maryland. Erected circa 1748 by John Thomas, the brick residence was impressive for its day, particularly because it was built at a time when the area remained largely unsettled. Among Clifton’s most character-defining features is its gambrel roof, a variation on the earlier one-and-a-half-story, gable-roofed Tidewater house, first appearing in the Chesapeake region in the 1740s. The double-pitched gambrel roof provided additional headroom and when combined with dormers on its steep lower slope, provided more light as well. Because its articulated construction allowed it to span a greater depth, the gambrel roof initially appeared on larger two-room-deep houses but from the 1780s through the 1820s became common for even modest one-room-deep dwellings. As in the case of Clifton, it also appeared among the better plantation houses of the mid- to late-eighteenth century, after the first generations of Maryland settlement and prior to the popular acceptance of the Federal and Georgian modes of architecture.
Clifton also contains a more sophisticated interior floor plan and decorative treatment than most houses of its era, demonstrating a progression beyond the small, wood-frame, one-and-a-half-story, hall-and-parlor plan houses prevalent at the time. Clifton contains an entry and stair hall and other specialized rooms, including three formal rooms on the first floor, four bedchambers on the second, and a separate kitchen wing. Among the noteworthy interior finishes are paneled walls, corner cabinets, an open stair with ornamental balustrade, and complex molding profiles.
Clifton is the oldest of many houses built by the founding Thomas family of the greater Sandy Spring Quaker community, and one of the oldest extant houses in Montgomery County. The earliest settlers to Sandy Spring were Quakers James Brooke and John Thomas (Clifton’s builder); the two were the sons-in-law of wealthy Maryland planter and iron master Richard Snowden, from whom they acquired their first tracts of land. Both Brooke and Thomas compiled large landholdings over the course of their lifetimes, and established plantations and tenanted farms that were passed down to their children.
While the devoutly Quaker Brooke family also built in the Tidewater style, they erected their houses from local timber, none of which survive. The Thomas family, however, built of more permanent brick and with greater architectural finish. In fact, Clifton is one of four brick manor houses known to have been built in Sandy Spring by the Thomas family of master builders. As the earliest of them, Clifton is the only one built in the Tidewater tradition; the others date from the last quarter of the eighteenth or the early nineteenth century and were built in the Federal and Georgian styles. The Thomas family is also responsible for the construction of the 1817 Friends Meeting House in Sandy Spring, which forms the civic and religious center of the great Sandy Spring Quaker Community.
Carson, Cary, and Carl Lounsbury, eds. The Chesapeake House.Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013.
Farquhar, Roger B. Old Homes and History of Montgomery County. 3rd ed. Brookeville, MD: American History Research Associates, 1981.
Forman, Henry Chandlee. Early Manor and Plantation Houses of Maryland. 2nd ed. Baltimore: Bodine and Associates, 1982.
Owens, Christopher, “Clifton,” Montgomery County, Maryland. National Register of Historic Places Inventory–Nomination Form, 1973. National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, D.C.