Main Street Annapolis in 1790 & 1970
99 Main Street is more than a very handsome building commanding the harbor front. It is an icon of simplicity. Erected in the 1790’s shortly after a destructive fire, the building had commercial shops on the ground floor and residential uses on the upper story.
Architecturally, the edifice makes a singular statement. The proportions are simple and direct- the building's configuration can be understood in a single glance. Note how the exterior walls directly support the roof and the roof ridge spans straight between the two end wall chimneys.
The reserved building silhouette is only the first impression. A closer
look reveals elegant craftsmanship and details. The proportion of the
windows is thoughtful and orderly. Notice how the windows graduate in size
from larger on the first floor to smaller at the top floor. The two brick
belt courses which wrap around the building provide a subtle horizontal
articulation and echo the corner location at Green Street. The wood
cornice is a beautiful dentil and modillion trim popular in Annapolis at
the time. Dentil trim is so named because of the visual similarity to
teeth. Modillion trim has repetitive small projecting brackets that
originated in Greek architecture. The attractive Flemish bond brick
pattern, the dramatically angled flat window arches, and tall thin
chimneys further reflect the superior building craft achieved in late 18th
99 Main Street commands its quiet nobility in part because of its immediate neighbor. The “Donner Building” was designed by Annapolis architect James Wood Burch in 1970. It is a masterful accomplishment. At a time when most architects were designing buildings that proclaimed their solitary independence, Burch designed this building to be in the background, in order to showcase the architectural treasure of its neighbor. He did this without mimicking the older building, and without resorting to fake historicism. He created an architecture which is the direct opposite of the building he wished to glorify. Where the Custom House is simple, direct and whole, the Donner Building is complex, obfuscating and fragmented. One is universal and the other idiosyncratic.
Burch was faced with designing a building that would be wider,
considerably larger and include one more floor than 99 Main Street. He
started by dividing the front of the Donner Building into two unequal
parts. On the left is a narrow three story form of familiar townhouse
proportions. On the right is a four story form that is pushed back from
the sidewalk. This arrangement gives the left side of the 18th
century building exposure to the street and harbor, leaving its left
corner silhouette uninterrupted from sidewalk to chimney. This allows the
older building prominence when viewed from either up or down Main Street.
Burch creates further deference by articulating the building details.
Notice the two plain but not unadorned roof cornices. The left cornice is
lower than the older building; the right cornice is well behind it. The
windows are graduated bottom to top, but are not regularly spaced side to
side. The fourth floor windows thrust up into the roof, breaking the
cornice line. I have not found this idiosyncrasy in any other building in
Annapolis. The effect is to further diminish the solidity of the Donner
Building. It is an architectural invention that significantly predates the
“de-constructivist” architectural designs of the 1990s. The ratio of
window openings to solid wall is actually greater in the 1790’s building
which is contrary to what one would expect in a building of the 1970s.
The other masterstroke by Burch is his avoidance of using any historical
detailing. The windows are a casement and transom design that does not
mimic the historic multi mullioned double hung wood windows. He designed
precast concrete lintels to avoid any reference to the beautiful 18th
century brick arches. Even the color palettes are different. Burch uses no
white paint in order to feature the beautiful historic woodwork of its
The Donner Building is wider, larger and one more story than its revered
neighbor, but because of the talent of James Wood Burch, the new building
is always deferential to the older. It is full of architectural lessons in
how to design a new building in an established historic setting. Burch
loved and understood the history of Annapolis. He created an idiosyncratic
building of great importance. It is a building that can live in only one
place: the foot of Main Street, at the side of an 18th century