The Maryland State House, built in 1772–1779, is the oldest state capitol still in active use as the seat of government and the only state house to have served as the nation’s capitol building. Recognizing the new capitol’s central location and spacious and attractive accommodations, the Continental Congress met in its Senate Chamber from November 26, 1783 to August 13, 1784. It was during that time, on December 23, 1783, that George Washington appeared before Congress to resign his commission as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army. Washington’s actions have been exulted as a critical step in the establishment of civil authority over military rule, so much so that a painting of the scene as it enfolded within the Maryland State House hangs in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol. A few weeks later, on January 14, 1784, the Treaty of Paris was ratified in the State House, officially recognizing the United States as a sovereign nation and marking the end of the Revolutionary War.
The Maryland State House is a fine colonial representation of the Georgian style. It is the work of preeminent early Maryland architect, Joseph Horatio Anderson, who was also responsible for the design of Whitehall, the landmark residence of Provincial Governor Horatio Sharpe. Anderson’s plans were realized by overseer Charles Wallace. At the time of completion, the State House was praised as one of the country’s finest public spaces. Erected of Flemish bond brick, it features a central pedimented pavilion, Adamesque frontispiece and entry portico, as well as exceptionally fine classical interior finishes. Based on a comparative analysis of some of the best Annapolis houses (such as the Chase-Lloyd House), it has been determined that much of the ornamental detail was done by British craftsman John Rawlings.
The crowning achievement of the State House’s design is its wooden dome, designed by Annapolis architect Joseph Clark between 1785 and 1788. This unusually tall dome features a two-stage drum and lantern and splayed pent roof; it is constructed of timber framing held by traditional wood pegs and wrought-iron straps. A still-extant 28-foot lightning rod is held in place by an ornamental, copper-sheathed, carved wooden acorn, which, as the seed of the mighty oak tree, symbolizes strength and potential.
The Maryland State House forms the centerpiece of Annapolis’s notable Baroque town plan, situated within the most geographically prominent of two circles and overlooking the city’s harbor. Annapolis, then known as “Ann Arundell Town,” was designated as the state capital in 1695 by Governor Francis Nicholson, who relocated the capital from its original provincial site at St. Mary’s City. Nicholson prepared the town plan himself. Unique to the colonies at the time, the Annapolis design is now recognized as one of the most important early contributions to American city planning. It followed new currents in European urban planning, modifying a standard grid to include principal thoroughfares radiating from two circles to create a richer urban landscape, while taking advantage of vistas to and from the city’s harbor and its monumental structures. The circles were manifestations of the separate spheres of church and state within the new capital city, with the State House located in one and St. Anne’s Episcopal Church in the other. The State House sits today within the center of the Annapolis Historic District, in proximity to both the now-enlarged governmental center and the commercial main street.
Later alterations to the State House include an 1876–1877 renovation that resulted in the removal of interior finishes from a number of the principal rooms in favor of those of the Victorian era. Another restoration occurred in 1902–1905 under the direction of architect J. Appleton Wilson. At the same time, Baltimore architects Baldwin and Pennington designed a grand annex for the northwest elevation, which more than doubled the size of the original building.
The State House’s Old Senate Chamber underwent a state-of-the-art restoration between 2007 and 2015. Exhaustive archival research, physical investigation, and comparison with other period Annapolis landmarks formed the basis for returning the room to its appearance at the time of Washington’s resignation. The project was directed by the architectural firm of Mesick, Cohen, Wilson and Baker of Albany, New York, and executed by the Christman Company of Reston, Virginia, using traditional craftsmanship. Key architectural components of the Chamber added during the 1905 restoration were removed and painstakingly recreated based on physical and archival evidence, including the visitors’ gallery, cornice, and unfinished flooring. Retained was the original recessed niche flanked by pilasters with an arch above, which also provided clues as to the original paint scheme. Bronze statues of George Washington and of Molly Ridout (who was poised in the gallery during the historic event), created by StudioEIS of Brooklyn, New York, were installed as part of the interpretation of the restored chamber.
Mendinghall, Joseph Scott, and Frank S. Melvin, “Maryland State House,” Anne Arundel County, Maryland. National Register of Historic Places Inventory–Nomination Form, 1975. National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, D.C.
Miller, Marcia M. “‘Finished With More Elegance Than Was Required’: The Restoration of Maryland’s Old Senate Chamber.” Presented at the Vernacular Architecture Forum Conference, Chicago, Illinois, May 6, 2015.
Reps, John William. The Making of Urban America: A History of City Planning in the United States. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1965.