You are here
Built in 1812 for the College of Medicine of Maryland, Davidge Hall is the oldest extant anatomical theater in the nation. It is also significant for its architectural design as one of the earliest examples of the Classical Revival in Baltimore, featuring a massive pedimented portico and a rare and intact example of a Delorme dome. Developed in the sixteenth century by French architect Philibert Delorme (or de l’Orme), the dome employed narrow wood strips fastened together to create long, curved structural ribs. Delorme’s design was highly significant in that it enabled the construction of domes in a simplified and inexpensive manner. Thomas Jefferson introduced the technology to this country when he used it to construct a dome at Monticello. The Delorme Dome was used in a number of other monumental structures built along the eastern seaboard in the early nineteenth century, including Benjamin Henry Latrobe’s landmark Basilica of the Assumption (MD-01-510-0086) in 1806–1821, also in Baltimore. This caused a number of people to conclude that Davidge Hall was designed by Latrobe as well. While the Hall’s true attribution is still debated, evidence points more directly to Robert Cary Long Sr., who also ranks among the city’s most accomplished architects. Davidge Hall’s immense full-height portico and domed rotunda is reminiscent of the Pantheon in Rome. It is a three-story, rectangular structure of painted, handmade brick dominated by a massive full-length pedimented portico supported by eight Tuscan columns. Behind the portico, its understated front facade is marked only by a large, single entry and an oversized plaster frieze on which is inscribed “University of Maryland, School of Medicine, AD MDCCCVII.” The dome rises from the north end of the building, above the rotunda, and is punctuated by skylights to illuminate the anatomical theater below.
The structure is name for Dr. John Beale Davidge, the founder and first dean of the College of Medicine of Maryland. Davidge was an Annapolis native who trained at the world-renowned medical school at the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh, Scotland. He began by offering lectures on anatomy, physiology, and surgery in a small anatomical theater that he built for that purpose. An angry mob disturbed by his use of cadavers to teach anatomy prompted the founding of the medical college and the construction of Davidge Hall, thereby legitimizing the doctor’s path-breaking work. The building speaks to the changing nature of medical study during the early nineteenth century, when human anatomy was the most prominent of the biological sciences. Anatomical theaters were established for the staging of surgical procedures and scientific experimentation; they were places of philosophical learning that allowed for the scientific analysis of the body. Human dissection was then recognized as the means by which students and medical professionals alike gained practical knowledge of the structure and workings of the human body.
Davidge Hall combined classroom, library, and laboratory space with two stacked lecture halls. The interior plan was modeled after contemporary examples of anatomical theaters in both the United States and in Europe, although the building type has roots in the Middle Ages. Only three other anatomical theaters were erected in the United States prior to Davidge Hall, none of which survive (Pennsylvania Hospital, 1796; the University of Pennsylvania, 1805–1806; and Dartmouth University, 1811). Like others of its type, the uppermost space known as Anatomical Hall was erected as an amphitheater with tiers of benches arranged around a central viewing area where the dissections were performed. The hall is surmounted by a dome punctuated by eight circular skylights with an oculus at its apex, and its plaster ceiling is ornamented in a network of semi-circular and rosette patterns. On the first floor sits Chemical Hall, which is two stories high and has tiers of wood benches that wrap around the east, west, and north walls, overlooking the instructional area to the south. The building was constructed by Towson and Mosher, who were also responsible for the construction of Baltimore’s Washington Monument (MD-01-510-0001) at Mount Vernon Place. Davidge Hall was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1997.
Dilts, James D., and John Dorsey. A Guide to Baltimore Architecture. 3rd ed. Centreville, MD: Tidewater Publishers, 1997.
Measured drawings [delineated by Architecture Department, Carnegie Institute of Technology], “University of Maryland, Medical Building (Davidge Hall),” HABS No. MD-304, Historic American Buildings Survey, National Park Service, 1962. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.
Waite, John G., and Associates. “College of Medicine of Maryland (Davidge Hall),” Baltimore County, Maryland. National Historic Landmark Nomination, 1997. National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, D.C.
If SAH Archipedia has been useful to you, please consider supporting it.
SAH Archipedia tells the story of the United States through its buildings, landscapes, and cities. This freely available resource empowers the public with authoritative knowledge that deepens their understanding and appreciation of the built environment. But the Society of Architectural Historians, which created SAH Archipedia with University of Virginia Press, needs your support to maintain the high-caliber research, writing, photography, cartography, editing, design, and programming that make SAH Archipedia a trusted online resource available to all who value the history of place, heritage tourism, and learning.