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The Colonial Roots of Annapolis : Maryland's Statehouse Served as Young America's Capitol

Charles Hillinger's America

October 25, 1987|CHARLES HILLINGER | Times Staff Writer

ANNAPOLIS, Md. — Huge paintings of King Charles I of England and his wife, Queen Henrietta Maria, flank the fireplace of the Governor's Reception Room on the second floor of Maryland's Capitol.

The paintings of the 17th-Century king and queen are quite appropriate in America's oldest Capitol in continuous legislative use: Lord Baltimore named Maryland in honor of King Charles' wife, after the king granted Baltimore a charter for a colony in the New World.

Annapolis is also named for Queen Anne, who issued the capital its charter in 1708.

The British Colonial legacy is everywhere in Annapolis, population 32,000, where four of its main streets are named Duke of Gloucester, King George, Prince George and Hanover, for the Royal house of the same name.

Annapolis is filled with reminders of America's early history. The city boasts more pre-Revolutionary War homes than any other. Block after block of cobblestone and brick streets and alleys are lined with preserved and restored Colonial red-brick homes and shops.

High on a Hill

Maryland's pillared, red-brick Capitol with its 200-foot-high white wooden dome is perched on Annapolis' highest hill. It looms above the capital's historic district, above the sprawling U.S. Naval Academy on the shores of the Severn River. The Capitol was built between 1772 and 1779.

This is the only Statehouse that has served as the nation's Capitol. From Nov. 26, 1783, to Aug. 13, 1784, this same building, which continues to house Maryland's legislative chambers and executive offices, was the seat of the new country's government.

It was in the Old Senate Chambers on Dec. 23, 1783, that George Washington appeared before the Continental Congress and resigned his commission as commander in chief of the Continental Army. Five years and four months later, he was inaugurated as President.

On Jan. 14, 1784, the Treaty of Paris was ratified by the Continental Congress at the Capitol in Annapolis, officially ending the Revolutionary War. Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe were members of the Continental Congress when the Maryland Statehouse served as the nation's first peacetime Capitol.

Every day, Capitol guards climb the 149 steps of the steep spiral staircase to the top of the dome to raise and lower the U.S. and Maryland flags. Maryland's is the only state flag with the colors and coat of arms of a state's founding families.

The Capitol dome, the nation's largest wooden dome, is constructed of Maryland cypress and held together with wooden pegs. The dome is crowned with a huge carved acorn, a symbol of wisdom.

Almost every day, fourth-graders studying Maryland's history are bused in from schools throughout the state to tour, along with many other visitors, the Capitol.

"The fourth-graders get quite excited about being able to stand on the exact spot where George Washington stood and delivered his farewell address from the Army," veteran guide Judy Housley said.

Above the grand staircase is an 1859 painting by Edwin White of Washington resigning his military commission.

In 1781, the Legislature commissioned famed Maryland painter Charles Wilson Peale to paint a full-length portrait of Gen. Washington "in grateful remembrance of that most illustrious character." Peale's painting hangs in the Old Senate Chamber. A mannequin of Washington stands in there, too.

A plaque in the rotunda salutes Maryland native Matthew Alexander Henson, the co-discoverer of the North Pole with Adm. Robert E. Peary in 1909.

Moon Rocks

Behind glass is a miniature Maryland flag carried to the moon and back by the Apollo 11 astronauts, along with several small flakes of moon rocks.

Numerous historic paintings adorn the walls of the Statehouse. One painting that attracts considerable attention is "The Burning of the Peggy Stewart." Like Boston, Annapolis had a tea party. When Revolutionary patriots learned that Anthony Stewart, owner of the vessel, brought a cargo of tea from England and paid the taxes on it, they torched the ship in Annapolis harbor.

Every state honors two of its most illustrious citizens in Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol. Smaller versions of Maryland's statues of John Hanson and Charles Carroll are in the New Senate Chamber here.

Hanson is often called "the first president of the United States," because he represented Maryland in the Continental Congress and was elected by that body in 1771 as the "first president of the United States in Congress Assembled."

Carroll, one of Maryland's four signers of the Declaration of Independence and the only Roman Catholic to sign the document, was one of Maryland's first two U.S. senators. He lived to be 95 and was the oldest survivor of the 56 signers. At 90, on July 4, 1828, Carroll presided at a ceremony that began construction of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad.

An annex of similar style was added to the Statehouse at the turn of the century to provide larger quarters for the 141-member House of Delegates and the 47-member Senate.

"From time to time over the last 100 years there has been talk of moving the capital to Baltimore, but it was never pursued very seriously," said Chris Allan, 36, administrator of the State Archives.

"There is something especially nice about using the old Statehouse so long, about that kind of utility, where other states have moved to new locations several times and constructed massive complexes devoted to state government."

But Maryland has stuck with its old Capitol and its original plan for its capital city, laid out by a royal governor, Francis Nicholson, who ruled from 1694 to 1699. Nicholson moved the Colonial capital from St. Mary's to Annapolis in 1694 and laid out the city's baroque street plan.

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