Annapolis: An American Classic

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On even the briefest visit to Annapolis, Maryland, you’ll find yourself wandering the same streets over again; and each time is an occasion for wonder. It’s that compact—the historic district measures a mere third of a square mile—and that rich, dense, and rewarding.

When it comes to tarrying, you might be drawn as I was to two special places that together evoke the essential Annapolis; as it was in the first stirrings of its mid-eighteenth-century golden age and as it is, reborn, today. One destination lies along the harbor; the other occupies a walled garden.

Start, then, at the harbor fronting on the south bank of the Severn River, where the town began. Here, in 1650, Thomas Todd built a shipyard on what is now Spa Creek, one of many inlets that still flow, fingerlike, into the lower town. Today only the name Shipwright Street survives as a reminder of Todd’s risky venture, but the harbor itself is ringed with relics from the early days. An innovative preservation group called Historic Annapolis, Inc., has seen to the restoration of many of these early commercial buildings. Open to visitors are the victualling warehouse with exhibits on Annapolis’s early maritime history, the Tobacco Prise House (a tiny warehouse for tobacco remnants that were shipped in hogsheads to England), and the Market House, which was saved just in time from being torn down to make room for a parking lot. The Market House story is a classic in the annals of preservation: racing against a city plan to destroy the building in 1968, Historic Annapolis uncovered a deed dating back to 1784 which proved that the property belonged to seven Annapolis merchants. Should the market ever be demolished, this document read, the land would revert to the original owners. A scramble to track down surviving descendants ensued: the group located three survivors, who agreed to join them in a lawsuit. Faced with the historical evidence and a favorable citywide referendum, the city council caved in—a victory for locals and tourists alike. Currently, nine vendors exist harmoniously in the wood frame open-market space, offering clams and oysters on the half-shell, spicy crab soup, and tempting pastries.

Riding a tide of prosperity that swept over Annapolis at the close of the French and Indian Wars, its harbor, giving on to the Chesapeake Bay, became a busy commercial arena. A rope walk, chandlery, customshouse, and cooperage, plus seafood houses and taverns, all sprang to life down by the docks. Annapolis was soon designated an official port of entry, and by the time the Revolution began, it had grown into a major outfitting port, an import center, and a staging area for troops and matériel.

Much of the colonial harbor still stands, even if gift shops and boutiques have invaded the scene. A harbor-side Hilton hotel has been built partly on pilings over the water, providing an extremely pleasant long outdoor deck used as a drinking spot and lined with bollards to allow yachtsmen to tie up and take their refreshment. Where working fishing vessels once plied these waters, today’s harbor swarms with pleasure craft—million-dollar yachts, three-masted schooners, excursion boats, water taxis, and the periodic, always dramatic, visit from a Connecticut-based windjammer. These days the waterfront where Thomas Todd decided to build his boatyard is considered the sailing capital of the East Coast.

First named Providence, and then Anne Arundel Town (after the wife of a Calvert lord to whom King Charles I deeded the province), Annapolis took its present name in 1694 when it was appointed the provincial capital. At that time the governor, Sir Francis Nicholson, designed a new look for the town, replacing a grid with a series of streets radiating from two main circles, known as a baroque plan. Today’s historic district faithfully reflects that original design. An English traveler of 1784 found the streets “remarkable for their singular and whimsical manner of being laid out from the province house in directions like rays from a center.”

Annapolis’s days of glory didn’t last much beyond the Revolution; by that time the harbor had silted in and trading power shifted to the nearby city of Baltimore. Nevertheless, the golden age, considered to be the decade or so leading up to the Revolution, produced what may well be the finest flowering of colonial architecture in this country. Here is a matchless legacy of Palladian dwellings fashioned from local brick, much of which was hand-rubbed and faceted, laid painstakingly in unique patterns that still seem to glow from within. Amazingly, the homes of all four of Maryland’s signers of the Declaration of Independence still stand, chief among them the 1765 masterpiece belonging to Gov. William Paca, one of the state’s greatest public servants.

Approached from Prince George Street, the main entrance of the two-and-a-half-story mansion with its five-part connecting wings and end buildings, is built nearly flush to the curb yet rises high above it. There’s not much room to stand back, so one stares straight up and wonders about the man who commissioned it. Just from the evidence of Paca’s home we can guess that he began his career in harmony with Britain, with its arts, its forms of government, and only gradually, in stages, joined the opposition. After independence, he was the man who proposed to amend the Constitution to protect individual rights.