Annapolis State House: Past and Present

By Dr. Brenna Spray, MHT Outreach Coordinator

Today is Inauguration Day for Maryland’s new Governor, Wes Moore, who will be sworn into office outside the Maryland State House, once used by the Continental Congress and the oldest state capitol in continuous legislative use in the country. This makes it the perfect place for such a historic moment in Maryland history, and a perfect opportunity to showcase the newly restored State House dome.

Maryland State House, 1786.
“The State House here is certainly an elegant Building. The Room we are to sit in is perhaps the prettyest in America.” From Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1783 November 28

The History of the State House and Dome

There have been no fewer than three capitol buildings on State Circle in Annapolis, with architect Joseph Horatio Anderson and builder Charles Wallace beginning work on the third State House in early 1772. The State House would have been an impressive building in Annapolis, towering above the buildings around it. In 1781, Jean-Francois-Louis de Clermont-Crèvecoeur, a lieutenant in Rochambeau’s army that fought in the American Revolution, wrote about the State House during his time in North America. He called it the “most beautiful of any in America…a beautiful colonnaded peristyle elevated above the ground.” Similarly, during his time on the eastern seaboard, French army chaplain Abbé Claude Robin wrote in 1781 that the “state-house is a very beautiful building, I think the most so of any I have seen in America. The peristyle is set off with pillars, and the edifice is topped with a dome.”

Sketch of the Maryland State House, Charles Willson Peale, July 1789.
“The most beautiful edifice…a magnificent peristyle, adorned with columns, gives an air majestueux this building surmounted by a dome done the proportions are very well-formed for optics.” Joseph Mandrillon, 1785.

The focus for many contemporary writers appears to be on the positioning of the building, its columns, and the dome that sat on the top. However, Clermont-Crèvecoeur does mention that the dome was too small “since its contour is pierced by only six windows that are too small for the space they must light.” By 1785, reports indicated that the roof of the dome had begun to leak. At this time, more people beyond Clermont-Crèvecoeur had also noticed the dome’s diminutive size, so local architect and builder Joseph Clark was hired to design and build the expanded dome we see today. He completed the exterior of the dome in 1792, which is when the carpenter’s and plasterer’s contracts were awarded for the interior of the dome. Local cabinetmaker John Shaw took over the completion of the interior of the dome in 1794, when Clark left Annapolis for a career in the newly established Washington, DC. Shaw finished the remainder of the State House dome by 1797.

Who Built the State House and Dome?

During the Revolutionary War, many skilled workers left Annapolis. This caused difficulties for builders in the city, who could not find craftsmen for their projects (and eventually contributed to Annapolis losing the prominence it once had to Baltimore). Securing workers to build both the original State House and its redesigned dome was a continuous issue. As an example, Clark was unable to find locally the 30 journeyman carpenters he initially advertised for in April 1785. Due to these shortages in Annapolis, we do know that carpenters were brought down from Baltimore, and that the state paid passage for “sundry” carpenters from Ireland and England. For instance, there is correspondence to Charles Wallace in 1771 discussing the possibility of bringing two house carpenters and joiners over from London to the United States. We also have records of free and enslaved Black carpenters, joiners, sawyers, blacksmiths, and laborers who were hired out or sold throughout Annapolis during this period. While Clark did not maintain an enslaved workforce for his building projects, he was a slaveholder and not averse to using forced labor.

Together, this suggests that a combination of skilled and unskilled free Black, enslaved Black, free white, and indentured white workers likely built the State House and new dome. Ongoing research is focusing on uncovering the identities of these artisans who helped build the State House, both enslaved and free. Through primary documents, researchers have identified some white craftsmen, such as carpenters Joshua Botts and William Gilmour and plasterer Thomas Dance. Dance took on the dome’s interior plaster contract and fell to his death while working on the project. To date, no Black craftsmen have been definitively identified. A new avenue of research will be to examine the contemporary names inscribed on the timber beams of the interior dome.

The Dome Restoration

Drone image of State House dome, 2018 (MCWB Architects)

The dome is a massive heavy-timber-framed roof system, constructed with traditional pinned joints and original wrought iron straps. The exterior is covered with slate and cypress shingles. The dome is topped with an acorn, originally crafted from cypress wood and covered with copper panels. These panels were gilded on the top and painted on the bottom. The acorn, which provides stability to the wrought iron lightning rod, utilized a common motif at the time to represent perfection (perhaps a trait that Clark hoped the State House would go on to emulate).

Remarkably intact, with mostly original materials, the dome and the State House it sits on can certainly still be considered the “most beautiful of any in America”—particularly after the year-long collaborative effort between the Maryland Department of General Services and the Maryland Historical Trust towards its restoration, the beginning of a comprehensive exterior and grounds project. The scaffolding that went up in April has now been removed, unveiling the freshly painted dome and ending this first phase of the project.

This part of the project focused on all areas of the dome: restoration of the lower lantern balcony and balustrade, restoration of window sashes and trim, replacement of slate, and repair and replacement of wood shingles. The original weathervane and lightning rod were restored, and the acorn was regilded and painted. The dome was painted with a traditional linseed oil paint, with the historic colors selected through paint analysis.

The firm of Mesick, Cohen, Wilson, Baker Architects from Albany, New York, served as project architect for this restoration and the Christman Company of Sterling, Virginia, served as the general contractor. Numerous subcontractors and consultants, highly skilled in the analysis, conservation, and buildings technologies of the 18th century, have ensured the preservation of this iconic dome for generations to come.

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