Summary of the Old Senate Chamber’s Evolution to the Present

by Calder Loth

(The following is taken from the final report of the Old Senate Chamber Architectural Advisory Committee that was presented to the Maryland State House Trust in January 2009)

All buildings change, some much more than others. Although the Maryland State House is America’s oldest functioning state capitol building, it is very different, especially on its interior, from the building that was first occupied in 1779. From the start, it was subjected to alterations and repairs that affected its appearance inside and out.

A positive change to the original plan of the Senate Chamber occurred during the course of construction, in 1777, when it was decided to add a rear gallery. The gallery, described as “more elegant than required,” was a tour-de-force of Annapolis-style design and craftsmanship.

Its rich classical details closely followed illustrations published in Abraham Swan’s 1758 pattern book The British Architect, a work owned by Annapolis architect William Buckland and which influenced architectural features in many of the finer 18th-century Annapolis houses. The next change came in 1792 when risers and seating were installed in the space under the gallery. At the same time a solid railing was constructed between the gallery columns to separate the public seating from the senators’ desks. Additional changes included a small vestibule and an extra pair of doors under the gallery to provide added separation from the building’s main hall.

General George Washington Resigning His Commission John Trumbull, 1824

General George Washington Resigning His Commission
John Trumbull, 1824

The general character of the Senate Chamber is depicted in John Trumbull’s famous 1824 painting of Washington’s resignation as commander in chief, one of the large historic scenes displayed in the Rotunda of the United States Capitol. The on-site sketches that Trumbull made in preparation for the painting provide more valuable clues to the early appearance of the chamber. Fortunately, the appearance of the center portion of the gallery is known through a rare 1868 stereoview photograph. Further evidence of the room’s early appearance appears in an 1856 sketch by Frank. B. Mayer.

The architectural focal point of the Senate Chamber was the niche and dais opposite the entrance, where the President of the Senate’s chair and desk were placed. Like the gallery, the niche was treated with rich architectural embellishment. It was framed by pilasters and set off by a classical pediment supported on Ionic columns. The original appearance of this feature is also recorded in an 1868 stereoview photograph, as well as in the Trumbull painting and other historic images. By the time the photograph was taken, however, the windows on either side of the dais had been covered over for the display of large portraits.

In 1797, structural weakness was observed in the Senate Chamber ceiling necessitating extensive repairs and replastering. As part of the repair, an ornament, for which there is no surviving image, was applied to the ceiling. The ceiling repairs may well have affected the main entablature although to what degree its design was changed, if at all, is uncertain.

1877-1878 Remodeling

1868 stereoview of the President's niche

1868 stereoview of the President’s niche

By the late 1870s the State House was showing signs of wear and structural weakness. George A. Frederick, a prominent Baltimore architect, was hired to supervise renovations throughout the building. Regrettably, the Senate Chamber’s repairs resulted in a complete remodeling. Except for the niche, all of the 18th-century fabric was removed, including the gallery, window and door frames, as well as the pediment and columns framing the niche. The chimney breast and mantel had already been removed, in 1858, for the installation of a new heating system. Frederick stated that the gallery was in “ruinous condition” and could not be repaired. He recommended its replication in more substantial materials but this was not done. Fortunately, two of the gallery column shafts were saved as relics by a local citizen.

In his detailed account of the restoration, published in the Baltimore Sun on December 26, 1903, Frederick stated that his examination of the flooring showed that it consisted of three layers, “which at intervals, as the worn condition of the floors demanded, had recklessly been nailed, one floor upon the other.” Further examination by Frederick revealed that the floor joists were badly decayed. This necessitated installation of a new floor support system and new floorboards. Frederick unfortunately did not record the structural system before its removal. An 1886 photograph shows that the new flooring was covered with fitted floral carpeting.

Old Senate Chamber, circa 1880

Old Senate Chamber, circa 1880

The plaster entablature skirting the ceiling was a copy of the earlier entablature but with modifications to the spacing of the frieze ornaments. The new entablature was continued on either side of a large new beam installed in the center of the ceiling for extra stability. The niche, flanking pilasters and some of the moldings were spared, however, they were hidden behind an elaborate Victorian arrangement of draperies setting off the president’s desk and chair. The resulting new look of the chamber is recorded in several historic photographs. It had little resemblance to an 18th-century space.

1905 Restoration

It is ironic that just one year after the nation’s Centennial, a space so closely identified with the country’s formation should be stripped of its original character. The 1877-78 remodeling was not without criticism. The project was so disturbing to some officials that just sixteen years later the Maryland Legislature appointed J. Appleton Wilson and Frank Blackwell Mayer to investigate the feasibility of restoring the chamber to its 18th-century appearance. Wilson was a Baltimore architect who specialized in Colonial Revival work. Mayer was an Annapolis artist with a detailed knowledge of Maryland history.

Wilson undertook a careful examination of the room and interviewed individuals who remembered it before the alterations. The legislators, however, took no action on Wilson’s findings. Finally, in1904, the newly elected Governor Edwin Warfield appointed a committee to administer a restoration of the Senate Chamber under Wilson’s direction. Governor Warfield’s action followed on the heels of the completion of a new annex for the State House. Designed by the Baltimore firm of Baldwin & Pennington, the annex contained sumptuous new legislative chambers. Since the Senate would no longer meet in its original chamber, it was deemed appropriate to restore the Old Senate Chamber to its historic appearance and maintain it as a ceremonial space and historic shrine.

Wilson carried out the restoration to high standards for the time. His gallery and dais reconstructions were based on the 1868 stereoviews as well as other early images, including the Trumbull painting. The dais restoration included revealing the covered-over niche and the repair of its detailing, the room’s only 18th-century fabric to have survived in situ. His design for the two doorways on either side of the chimneybreast followed local precedent as well as the Trumbull painting. His mantel design was based on local precedent and its installation required the reconstruction of the brick chimneybreast. No reliable image of the original window frames was available nor was there more than minimal physical evidence, so Wilson resorted to standard architraves for window trim.

Old Senate Chamber, 1925

Old Senate Chamber, 1925

The entablature skirting the chamber ceiling was basically a copy by Wilson of the entablature installed by George Frederick. As noted above, Frederick’s entablature differed from the entablature shown in the 1868 stereoviews in the spacing of its ornaments. Wilson also removed Frederick’s carpeted flooring and installed new, tongue-and-groove floor boards, which were left exposed. Wilson reused the salvaged column shafts in his gallery reconstruction. Although George Frederick had earlier noted that the gallery ends were curved, the 1868 stereoview of the gallery did not show the gallery ends. Wilson’s convex curved ends thus are conjectural. This has raised the question as to whether the curved ends were concave or convex.

For its time, Wilson’s restoration was a commendable work. Despite the limited knowledge and investigative methods of the time, the project returned a reasonably appropriate historic ambience to the space. However, it must be remembered that this was a Colonial Revival recreation, one involving more intuition than fact, and that it did not have the benefit of modern scientific examination procedures, research techniques, or the documentation that has since surfaced.

1940 Refurbishment

The 1905 restoration addressed the architectural aspect of the room, but did not include furnishing the chamber to its late 18th-century appearance. In 1930, the Maryland Historical Society launched an effort to correct this deficiency, an effort that took ten years to accomplish and eventually expanded to include plaster repairs, reconsideration of some architectural details, and a new paint scheme. The architectural changes were initiated under the direction of Lawrence Hall Fowler, a Baltimore architect noted for his knowledge of historic American architecture. The firm of George W. Tovell, Inc. was engaged to carry out their several recommended changes, under the direction of the firm’s vice-president, C. Eugene Tovell. The changes included removal of the cornices, friezes, and consoles from the door frames and installing plinth blocks under the door casings. The shelf and pulvinated frieze were removed from the mantel, leaving only a molded bolection frame around the fireplace opening. Plinth blocks were added to the mantel frame. A ceiling ornament installed by Wilson was removed. Finally, the narrow floorboards of 1905 were replaced with random-width yellow pine floorboards salvaged from another building. Although early records show that the floor had a fitted carpet in 1792, and possibly originally, the 1940 floorboards were left exposed.

Old Senate Chamber, 2003 Photo by Jay Baker

Old Senate Chamber, 2003
Photo by Jay Baker

2006-2009 Investigations

The Old Senate Chamber remained essentially as refurbished in 1940 until 2006. In November of 2006, the Annapolis restoration firm of John Greenwalt Lee, Co. undertook a detailed evaluation of the chamber wall plaster as part of an effort to solve long-standing moisture problems and resulting plaster deterioration. Assisting John Lee and his staff, and serving as the lead investigator, was Charles A. Phillips, a foremost expert in historic building analysis. Lee and Phillips determined that the moisture was the result of condensation caused by the application of incompatible modern paint coatings on the 1905 wall plaster, which in turn was applied on two sides of the room directly to the exterior masonry walls. Fortuitously, removal of test sections of deteriorated plaster exposed remnants of original plaster and revealed previously inaccessible and unrecorded evidence of the 18th-century details. Subsequent removal of the failing plaster and investigation of architectural clues, combined with intensive documentary research and analysis of historic photographs and newly discovered drawings have made it possible to develop new insights regarding the appearance of the Old Senate Chamber in George Washington’s time. Moreover, these findings demonstrate that while the 1905 restoration was commendable for its time, many of its details were based on limited evidence and do not conform with either the evidence now in hand or our understanding of contemporary architectural practice in late Colonial Annapolis and the Tidewater Chesapeake.

The latest architectural findings and documentary research have been assembled in a state-of-the-art, passcode-protected website designed and maintained by the Maryland State Archives. The investigations and analysis by John Greenwalt Lee’s team are presented in a detailed report, a 258-page document dated September 17, 2008 and updated on November 24, 2008. Following a presentation of these findings to the State House Trust in January 2009, the research effort was broadened to seek additional physical and documentary evidence in a coordinated effort that included the John Greenwalt Lee team, historians and archivists from the Maryland State Archives, and architectural historians from the Maryland Historical Trust. Their activities have extended into the new year and promising leads continue to appear, demonstrating that this concerted effort is yielding valuable results.

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