Randall House: The First Modern House in Annapolis

The first modern house in Annapolis, a duplex located at 86-88 State Circle, was built by Alexander Randall (1803-81). Randall was lawyer, businessman, United States Congressman, and Maryland Attorney General. He and his family were very well educated, world travelers, and successful in business, science, and the arts. He was a staunch unionist and campaigned to keep the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis during the Civil War. His wife Elizabeth Blanchard Randall (1827-96) met with T.H. Huxley in London after the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859), when Huxley was promoting the evolutionary biology of Darwin and scientific naturalism. Alexander and Elizabeth had seven children, which may have prompted them in 1878 to build the duplex in front of their home, The Bordley-Randall House.  

The architecture of 86-88 State Circle celebrates the complexity of organic life. The building’s silhouette is asymmetrical and varies dramatically from different vantage points. Interior rooms seem to push and pull themselves into space as if they are responding to a force requiring their existence. The three-story front bay windows are dominating vertical elements. The narrow chasm between them further accents their thrust into the sky. Each material of the house seems to have its own life. The brick foundation steps down in the front to support the vertical bay windows, and then moves around to the sides of the building and reaches up to the roof at the pediment over the stairs.  

Note the “room” above the entrance porch: it spans over half of the porch ceiling, and seems as if it has been pushed out from inside to create the space necessary for its existence. Its two small windows make no attempt to match others in the house. They are the size they need to be, based on natural selection, not a contrived sense of symmetry or balance.  

The architectural ornamentation of the building is animalistic. The terracotta ridge roof tiles are like vertebra. The terracotta fish scale siding is a taut skin. The stepped windows in the side stair hall take pleasure in the muscular mechanical movement of legs and feet climbing stairs.  The pediment on the porch roof does not align with the front door so the path from sidewalk to front door has a zigzag dance that celebrates biped ambulatory movement. The stucco panels of this pediment and the pediments at the gable ends of the main roof hold a key to the spirit of this building: oyster shells were pressed into the stucco during construction. The shells were tightly spaced, with the mother of pearl facing out. Most of the shells are gone, only a pattern of holes and some shell fragments protected by overhanging eves remain. In classical architecture, pediments were filled with sculptures of heroic human exploits; think of the Parthenon “Elgin” marble figures. However, here in Annapolis in 1878, the monumental space of the pediment is given over to celebrate the existence of nature, the beauty of Chesapeake Bay life, and the simple joy of eating.

Terracotta ridge roof tiles

The Alexander Randall duplex is “modern” architecture because it makes an emotional artistic statement: the wonderment of organic earthly life. The architectural spirit in this house links directly to the natural architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright in the 20th century and the biomorphic forms of architect Frank Gehry today.  

Terracotta fish scale siding and gable end with holes left from oyster shell decoration

The nature celebrating architecture of 86-88 State Circle is diametrically opposed to the social status architecture of the five-part plan mansions. It is also in direct contrast to the architecture of balance and harmony at the U.S. Post Office on Church Circle. It is marvelous to have in Annapolis the immediate comparison of such distinctly different architectural thoughts.

The owners of 86 State Circle are to be commended for maintaining the building in original condition including the dark red paint color. Unfortunately 88 State Circle has lost its original paint color. In spring, the Japanese red maple in the front yard is a perfect color match for the original paint.

Three-story bay window details:


Terracotta roof ridge tiles:


Terracotta fish scale siding

Siding corner detail

Stepped windows at stair