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Annapolis and Vicinity

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Annapolis is Maryland’s capital and a gem of the colonial and post-Revolutionary eras, encompassing some of America’s premier Georgian architecture and one of its most sophisticated early town plans. Its origins can be traced to a 1649 settlement known as Providence established by nonconformist Puritans seeking the religious freedom promised by the Maryland Toleration Act, issued that same year. Forming dispersed tobacco plantations, they soon migrated across the Severn River, establishing a town site, much of which was acquired by colonial proprietor Cecil Calvert to form the initial hundred-acre tract then named Anne Arundel Town. Located near the confluence of the Severn River and the Chesapeake Bay, the economy centered around maritime pursuits and shipping, including trade in Maryland’s greatest commodity, tobacco. Growth was prompted in 1695 by provincial governor Francis Nicholson moving the colonial capital here from St. Mary’s City.

Nicholson reenvisioned the fledgling port town; renaming it Annapolis in 1702, he overlaid its grid with a plan based upon Baroque models of seventeenth-century Europe. Unique to the colonies, it featured two prominent circles, State and Church, located at the high-point of the town plan, from which radiated diagonal streets, with a market square and other public reservations. Now recognized as one of the most important early contributions to American city planning, the scheme followed new currents in European urban planning, modifying a standard grid to create a richer urban landscape with viewsheds to the harbor. The circles were occupied by the State House and by the Anglican Church (St. Anne’s) newly established in Maryland, representing the separate spheres of church and state. Numerous brick public buildings were soon underway, scattered among an existing cityscape of one-and-a-half-story frame buildings characteristic of the Chesapeake.

The high point of the town’s prosperity came under the provincial governorship of Horatio Sharpe, sent from England by Cecil Calvert. A structured governmental bureaucracy drew wealthy attorneys and politicians. Stability combined with the lucrative tobacco trade likewise attracted a citizenry of prosperous planters and merchants, artisans, craftsmen, and shopkeepers. Their wealth was transformative, manifested in the creation of increasingly more sophisticated brick-constructed houses that, like the town plan, reflected the latest European trends. By the mid-eighteenth century, the affluent looked to England, where the revival of classical architectural designs had been popularly adopted by British architects. The designs were then transferred to the colonies through pattern books and skilled immigrant craftsmen. The modest Chesapeake-styled buildings gave way to grander edifices in all but the working-class enclaves.

Annapolis’s architectural ascendency took root in the 1730s and 1740s when significant transformations led to the great houses of the mid- to late eighteenth century. It began with the introduction of more sophisticated plans, two-story brick construction, and the adaptation of the Georgian mode of architecture. The 1760s through the 1780s witnessed ever more complex designs, including the introduction of the Palladian-influenced five-part-plan house, some encompassing private gardens, and the Annapolis Plan variation on the traditional center passage. Intended to rival London’s best, the houses demonstrated the growing wealth of Maryland’s merchants and planters.

Annapolis was surpassed by Baltimore in size and importance during the post-Revolutionary era. Freed from British control over production, Baltimore benefited from industrial development, easier access to western and Caribbean markets, and the switch to more lucrative grain production and export. Annapolis remained influential as Maryland’s cultural and governmental center and regional marketplace. Mid- to late-nineteenth-century growth occurred along its commercial corridors, Main Street and Maryland Avenue, spilling out to neighboring residential streets. Likewise, development within St. John’s College (beginning with McDowell Hall) and the U.S. Naval Academy (WS53) contributed to the city’s architectural splendor with buildings ranging from the Georgian through to Beaux-Arts and modern. Although Baltimore’s eclipse was detrimental to Annapolis’s economy, reduced developmental pressure facilitated the survival and integrity of the town’s rich architectural heritage. Colonial Revival buildings were erected during the early twentieth century to blend within the existing built environment. In the 1950s Annapolis led the state in organizations and ordinances designed to protect its architectural landscape, including the establishment of a historic district in 1965.

Writing Credits

Lisa Pfueller Davidson and Catherine C. Lavoie

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