Maryland Governor's House

The history of the Maryland Governor’s House is a long, troubled, winding tale. There is ruinous abandonment, then demolished grace, followed by enlightened eclecticism, and finally pale imitation.

PART 1: 
The story begins in 1744 with Colonial Governor Thomas Bladen starting construction on the official residence. Work commenced with a legislative appropriation of 4,000 pounds ($662,000 today) on one of the largest and most elaborate houses in all of the colonies. The 14,000 square foot house had a footprint of 80 feet by 60 feet. The brick walls reached two stories above a raised basement on high ground commanding views of all of Annapolis. There were Portland stone entrance steps imported from England, and a grand entertainment space with a two story high interior. Unfortunately, the walls were left without a roof. Work stopped for lack of additional appropriations. “Bladen’s Folly” stood as a ruin for nearly fifty years. Imagine the presence of this massive moldering ruin at the time all of the great 18th century homes of Annapolis were built.

After the Revolutionary War the ruins and property were confiscated from the British. In 1788 the building was completed with a third floor, roof and bell tower cupola, and has been in use by St. John’s College ever since. When we look at McDowell Hall today, the bottom two thirds is Bladen’s Folly. In the 1788 renovation, Bladen’s two story entertainment space was doubled in size. Today it is the beautiful Great Hall in McDowell, and is a spectacular example of an eighteenth century salon.

McDowell Hall exterior (left) and Great Hall (right) courtesy Celia Pearson

The architect of Bladen’s Folly was Simon Duff. As an early architect/builder, he relied on English “architectural pattern books” to create his designs. These books depicted the latest “Georgian” architectural styles, derived from the work of Italian architect Andrea Palladio. The architect of McDowell Hall was Joseph Clark, who was also the architect of the State House dome. Clark went beyond imitating style books to create his designs. The similarities of the State House dome and McDowell cupola are fascinating. Both have eight sided bases surmounted by domed cupolas with acorn finials, yet the dramatic difference of architectural scale and monumentality perfectly fits each building. It is a remarkable accomplishment for one architect.  

McDowell Hall

While Bladen’s house was under construction, Edmund Jennings, Secretary of the Province of Maryland and Chief Judge began building his own mansion on land now consumed by the Naval Academy.  Jennings had the resources to complete his mansion, which shared striking similarities of size and floor plan to Bladen’s Folly. Both houses featured grand two story entertainment salons. The Jennings house featured a long broad garden sloping down to the mouth of the Severn River as it opens into the Chesapeake Bay. It has been described as a place of great serenity and grandeur.

Jennings House: Governors of Maryland Residence, 1777-1780, courtesy Maryland State Archives

Edmund Jennings rented his house to Colonial Governor Horatio Sharp during his term from 1753 to 1768. When Sharp was replaced by Colonial Governor Thomas Eden in 1769, the Jennings family sold the house for 1,000 pounds ($150,000 today) to Governor Eden, who received his appointment by his marriage to the daughter of Charles Calvert 5Th Lord of Baltimore. A drinker and gambler, Eden excused himself to England to avoid any unpleasantness during the Revolution. The house and property were confiscated after the Revolution to become the first official residence of the Governor of the State of Maryland. It continued to serve as the official residence until 1869, hosting many U.S. presidents and world dignitaries.

The Naval Academy was established in 1845 to the east flank of the governor’s house. During the Civil War the Naval Academy moved to Newport, Rhode Island. After the war, there were rumors that the Academy would not return to Annapolis. Political pressure in Maryland to “recapture” the Academy must have been intense.  The Governor’s house and property was viewed by the Academy as an obstacle in expanding the campus back toward the city. In 1869, the State sold the property to the Academy for $25,000 ($410,000 today). Incorporated into the Academy’s post Civil War expansion, it was heavily modified, enlarged and finally demolished in 1901. Today in front of the Superintendent’s quarters you can only stand in the street where George Washington once slept in the governor’s house.

Detail from Edward Sachse's Bird's Eye View of the City of Annapolis, 1858, courtesy Maryland State Archives

The demolition of the first official governor’s house by the Naval Academy was a great loss to the State. To make up for the loss, the legislature moved to create a meaningful replacement worthy of the admiration of the citizens of Maryland.

After nearly a century of using the magnificent Jennings house, creating a new residence for the governor was a challenge. The State bought the land between State Circle and Church Circle with the proceeds of the sale of the Jennings property to the Naval Academy, and then appropriated $75,000 ($1,230,000 today) for the construction of a new residence. R. Snowden Andrews, a well regarded and accomplished Baltimore architect, was selected to design the new mansion, to be “…modern in improvements, taste and ideas…and creditable to the public spirit of the State."

Maryland Government House and State House, 1886, courtesy Maryland State Archives

The design was certainly of the moment and an expression that after the Civil War, Maryland was ready to play on the world stage. Andrews created a building composition that we now call eclectic, but at the time was about celebrating a broad world view. The spirit of eclecticism was to engage in the variety of human cultures, an interest in foreign lands, ancient peoples, and exotic thoughts. This movement reached it pinnacle during the aesthetic movement of the 1890’s by Tiffany design studios in New York. The home was lavishly detailed with French Second Empire Mansard roof, Italianate bracketed cornice, Egyptian stone porch, and among many lavish interior appointments, a curving Renaissance Revival interior staircase. This home was a fully considered work of art, skillfully combining a complex array of eclectic images for the purpose of establishing a multi sensory setting. The house was fully integrated with interior furnishings and appointments that aroused exotic interests. It was a house that was built for its time.

Unfortunately by the 1930’s this eclecticism was viewed as a dated relic of previous generations. What surfaced in the 1930’s was interest in the generations of early Americans. Colonial Williamsburg was “discovered” as if an American Pompeii, and reconstructed like a Disneyland to proclaim the glory of early Americana.

In the midst of this “early American” hysteria, tragedy struck in Annapolis: it was conceived that the Governor’s house should be converted into a “colonial” house. It is so odd that this should happen in Annapolis, where the collection of genuine unaltered 18th century architectural masterpieces exceeds any other American city, including Williamsburg.

Architect Clyde M. Fritz had just finished the exceptionally progressive Enoch Pratt Free Library across the street from Benjamin Latrobe’s magnificent Cathedral in Baltimore. But when asked to make the governor’s house colonial, Fritz could only make the best of a bad concept. As the cost of the conversion swelled from $75,000 to $136,000 ($2,137,000 today), the request for additional funds by Governor Harry W. Nice was met by opposition from Representative William H. Labrot, who knew something about architecture. He lived in one of the most beautiful colonial revival homes, Holly Beach Farm, just east of Annapolis designed by Baltimore architects Parker, Thomas and Rice. Labrot said “I do not think the money is being spent wisely… the mansion will not be colonial in architecture… I do not know what style it will be.” When we look at the house today, we see the formulaic trappings of Annapolis 18th century grand houses: steep pitch roof with bookend chimney slabs, a Palladian window lifted out of the Chase Lloyd House floats isolated above an uninspired copy of the Hammond Harwood House front door. The building scale and silhouette is pumped up to a proportion that is a boorish exaggeration of any real colonial house.

Maryland Governor's House today

Annapolis lost two important architectural accomplishments in the first two Governor’s mansions. The Jennings house had achieved grandeur, graciousness, and monumentality without being overreaching, crass or pretentious. The 1869 governor’s mansion achieved a harmonious balance of disparate parts, and created an environment extolling the wonders of human culture. The mansion of today is a pale imitation of the real architectural heritage of Annapolis. The 1936 renovation attempt to create history had the opposite result of destroying history, and sullying the genuine architectural treasures of 18th century Annapolis.

We cannot let the pressures of current fashion or political expediency destroy the accomplishments of our ancestors. We should restore and preserve them. More importantly, we must create new architecture that speaks of our time, and not artificially attempt to recreate the past.




Views of the current Maryland Governor's House:


Views of McDowell Hall: