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 century Annapolis.

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 neighbor.

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 Annapolis gem.