Skip to main content


Annapolis: An American Classic

June 2024
6min read

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.

Paca clearly built his house to last. And yet by the early 190Os the house and part of its splendid garden were buried within a two-hundred-room hotel; later a parking lot and bus station were added. By 1965 the whole excrescence was scheduled for demolition until Historic Annapolis intervened, buying the house and assuring its restoration, along with that of the garden.

The Paca house is full of treasures, but it is the spacious, peaceful Paca garden that tempted me to linger, even at the expense of a house tour or two. This walled oasis is a conscious re-creation of an English-influenced garden, restored as closely as possible to William Paca’s original scheme. The record is surprisingly sparse. Among the clues: a surviving corner of a garden wall; a Charles Willson Peale portrait of Paca that included a garden pavilion in the background; archeological findings that revealed the undulating form of the garden, and root remains that told of trees and shrubs that once flourished.

Under the care of a historically trained horticulturist, the garden features plantings that would have been grown locally at the time—bayberry and Saint-John’swort, for example, as well as imported plants popular in England and France, and in classical literature—gold-lace primrose, myrtle, lady apple, lavender, and fig. Room also has been found in these two acres for vegetable, flower, and physick gardens, as well as for a wooded wilderness area.

The visitor with a sense of history will also want to explore the massive State House, the oldest state capitol in the United States in continuous legislative use. Its original section, built between 1772 and 1779, contains the chamber that functioned briefly as the Capitol of the United States from November 1783 to August 1784. Here, on December 23, 1783, Gen. George Washington resigned his commission. To the tears of onlookers, Washington concluded his address by saying, “Having now finished the work assigned me, I retire from the great theatre of Action … and take my leave of all the employments of public life.” At a ball held in his honor the previous night, it was noted that General Washington saw to it that “all the ladies might have the pleasure of dancing with him.”

A couple of blocks away the campus of St. John’s College, founded in 1696, is dominated by a huge tulip poplar tree said to be more than four hundred years old, under which the Sons of Liberty met to plot their Revolutionary strategy.

The eighteenth-century harbor is now considered the East Coast’s sailing capital.

The United States Naval Academy, opened in 1845, has a spacious, tree-shaded campus—a U.S. National Historic Site—which is home to countless relics of the Navy’s history, including John Paul Jones’s tomb under the chapel and a starkly simple flag emblazoned with the uncompromising dying words Capt. James Lawrence uttered during the 1812 war: DONT GIVE UP THE SHIP . The flag was flown by Comm. Oliver Hazard Perry at his decisive victory on Lake Erie.

For an orientation to the many sights of Annapolis, call on the services of Historic Annapolis or Three Centuries Tours; both offer guided walking tours and will tailor them for special groups.

Another way to immerse yourself in the spirit of the town is to book rooms at any of the Historic Inns of Annapolis, five hotels that have been carefully restored by a local developer, Paul Pearson. One of these, the Maryland Inn, dating back to the 1770s, contains Annapolis’s finest restaurant, the Treaty of Paris, which offers an incomparable buffet lunch on Sundays. Try for a room with a view of the harbor; it’s the best seat in town. Another of the group, Reynolds Tavern, dates from about 1747 and was built by the town hatter. It is distinguished on the outer walls by a graceful and rare undulating belt course—a row of bricks that typically marked off the first floor from the second—and holds a lovely colonial dining room, as well as an outdoor terrace, with just four elegant accommodations upstairs.

The day I arrived in Annapolis I noticed a bunch of young people vigorously attacking a blacktop parking lot with pickaxes. They weren’t vandals but archeologists seeking the long-buried dwelling of one Thomas Hyde, a wealthy citizen of the town in the mid-1700s. In fact, the town is enveloped in historical energy: it colors the narrow brick walkways, flickers over the waters of the harbor, and perfumes the great magnolias and walnut trees, and the venerable tulip poplar.

—Carla Davidson

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.