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.

Guest Blog: Historic Tiffany Window Restoration Project at Lovely Lane United Methodist Church

by: Reverend Deb Scott and Jackie Noller, Chair, Lovely Lane 21st Century Committee

After her recent visit to historic Lovely Lane United Methodist Church, Melissa Lauber, the Director of Communications for the Baltimore Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church, made the following observation: “On a pilgrimage, one crosses a threshold from the ordinary to the extraordinary. The beige and colorless overtones of everyday life are swept away by insights and experiences as the possibilities of living in full color open before you. In its simplest forms, pilgrimage is a journey toward the sacred. These journeys exist in almost every culture throughout history. Hearts are enlivened and lives are changed. But the journey doesn’t have to be gilded in lofty ideals.

Everyday adventures – when marked by intention – allow you to step outside your daily boundaries and be somehow transformed. In many ways tourists, who travel to see and marvel, resemble pilgrims. Their itineraries and destinations are often the same; but pilgrims carry with them a unique quality of curiosity. Their hearts stand wide-open and interior and exterior boundaries blend in unusual ways as they seek a sense of discovery and meaning. Pilgrims, said theologian Richard Niebuhr, are poets who create by taking journeys.’” We at Lovely Lane are so grateful to the Maryland Historical Trust for its vision to co-partner to make this capital project possible, making a historic site a destination for both tourism and pilgrimages (Photos #1 and 2).

  Photo #1 – Lovely Lane United Methodist Church         

Photo #2 – Sanctuary Interior, Lovely Lane United Methodist Church            

Lovely Lane United Methodist Church houses the Mother Church of American Methodism in Baltimore.  Our extant building was dedicated in 1887 as the centennial monument to the founding of American Methodism. Stanford White — of the New York City firm of McKim, Mead & White — designed the church under the supervision of the pastor, Rev. John F. Goucher. The church was built in the Romanesque style similar to early churches and basilicas in Italy. The church sanctuary and connected chapel occupy over 17,000 square feet, showcasing original black birch altar woodwork, Lathrop and Tiffany windows, a painted celestial ceiling and pipe organs. The square tower, patterned after a 12th century church near Ravenna, Italy, lights the night sky.  The building has been listed in the National Register of Historic Places since 1973.

In July 2020, MHT awarded a $100,000 grant from the Historic Preservation Capital Grant Program to Lovely Lane to restore 19th century Tiffany windows in the building’s chapel adjacent to the church sanctuary.  The church’s building committee applied for the grant to help finance a catalytic multi-component capital project begun in 2019 to restore and rehabilitate underused space in its building.  The larger project goal is to promote greater public use of the historic building and enhance revenue diversity by creating the Lovely Lane Arts & Neighborhood Center within the walls of this urban location. With decades of sound stewardship in place, the congregation believes our well-cared for property is best positioned with rehabilitation to serve the underserved with dignity and to share space with other organizations sustainably.

Restoration of the Tiffany windows in the chapel portion of the 1887 building helped ensure a weather-tight building fabric. With the subsequent installation of a cooling system in this space, the chapel will be able to comfortably host future public performances and exhibitions. The committee hired the restoration firm Worcester-Eisenbrandt, Inc. (WEI) to carry out the exacting work in the fall and winter of 2021. The scope of work included restoration on three floor levels of the chapel’s historic windows: 1) 12-foot archtop-stained-glass windows on the main floor; 2) eyebrow windows on the mezzanine level; and 3) exterior dormer windows on roof level that provide light into interior clerestory tri-partite stained-glass windows (Photo #3).  Each level required different restoration work and budgetary prioritization.       

Photo #3 – Exterior view of above-grade Chapel exterior with 3 levels of historic windows

Main floor windows had the sash removed and restored at WEI’s mill shop, and the frames were restored by field craftsmen. The cloudy acrylic panels were removed from the sash and either disposed or used as temporary protection for the eyebrow and dormer openings while the sashes were removed.  Larger acrylic panels were inserted into wood frames and used as protection at the first floor (Photo #4, 5 and 6). The existing glazing putty and the glass were removed and set aside.

Photo #4 – Exterior window removal                      
Photo #5 – Interior after removal           
Photo #6 – Installation of temporary acrylic panels

Sash and frames were stripped of paint and repaired with epoxy or Dutchmen.  The glass was reinstalled after the repairs had cured, and then both the frames and sash were primed and painted. There was no missing stained glass, and any cracks were stabilized and sealed with Hxtal. New 1⁄4-inch acrylic was installed as storm panels on the archtop windows to restore a more luminous transparency, and all sashes were reinstalled (Photos #7 and #8).

Photo #7 – Exterior view, restored archtop windows                                 
Photo #8 – Interior view, restored archtop windows                       

Mezzanine and dormer levels restoration work included replacement of water damaged sills and hardware.  Adjustments were made to the flashing at the eyebrows and dormers to make each weather tight (Photos #9, 10 and 11).

Photo #9 – Restored mezzanine + dormer windows
Photo #10 – Restored hardware/etched glass, mezzanine window    
Photo #11 – Interior view of restored dormer window sash

One interesting feature of this work to date is its all-female leadership. From left to right in the Photo #12 below are:  Cailin McGough, Cap Ex Advisory Group, the owner’s representative or contractor project manager; Rev. Deborah Scott the church pastor in charge of contract negotiation; Katherine Good, Waldon Studio Architects, architectural project manager; and Amy Hollis from Worcester-Eisenbrandt, Inc., contractor project manager.

Photo #12 – Lovely Lane windows restoration team                                   

Lovely Lane United Methodist Church leaders believe continued fundraising success will permit the final restoration of the remaining archtop stained-glass windows on the Chapel’s main floor and South Tower.  Completion of this work will provide additional transparency so that increased daylight will illuminate the building’s interiors as the windows were so designed to do when the building was dedicated in 1887. (Photo #13).

Photo #13 – Exterior view of restored (left) vs unrestored windows (right)

To learn more about MHT’s Historic Preservation Capital Grant Program please visit the program website.

Baltimore’s Chinatown

MHT has an ongoing project to document Asian American heritage in Baltimore City and the Maryland suburbs of Washington, DC, with funding from the National Park Service’s Underrepresented Community Grant program. Check out this research update from architectural historian Nicole A. Diehlmann of RK&K who is working on this exciting project!

Large-scale immigration from China to the United States began in response to the discovery of gold in northern California in 1848. Many immigrants arrived in San Francisco from the Guangdong province in southern China, which had suffered from political instability and natural disasters. Seeking opportunity in the United States, Chinese immigrants first found employment in northern California’s gold mines and later on the Transcontinental Railroad. When the railroad was completed in 1867, some Chinese workers began to move out of California to the eastern United States.

Chinese immigration to Maryland did not accelerate until the late nineteenth century. The 1870 census indicates only two Chinese people living in the state. Ten years later, that number had only increased to five, but by 1890, there were 189 Chinese people living in Maryland. In 1900, the number had nearly tripled to 544 individuals—480 were foreign born residents, while 64 people had been born in the United States. The vast majority, 426 individuals, lived in Baltimore City. Most lived near the intersection of Marion and Liberty Streets, not far from Baltimore’s bustling port in the Inner Harbor. This area, which became known as “Chinatown,” was the residential and commercial center of the Chinese immigrant community. Some Chinese people lived outside of Chinatown, but still within the city, particularly those who operated laundries, which were found throughout Baltimore. Others lived outside of the city, such as members of the Lee family who were vegetable farmers in Lansdowne. As the number of Chinese residents in the Baltimore area grew, they established organizations and businesses to provide social, economic, and political support for the growing community.

1901 Sanborn Map indicating “Chinese Joints” and a Chinese Restaurant at the northwest corner of Park and Marion Streets in Baltimore (LOC).

Historic maps and newspaper articles record the history of these early immigrants. Language in these newspaper articles reflected prevailing attitudes of Caucasians toward Asian immigrants at the time, and the articles often used derogatory terms and condescending tone, at best treating the traditions and customs of the Chinese community as novel spectacle and at worst with derision.  Many newspaper articles relate to police raids, illustrating the suspicion and over-policing suffered by Chinese residents; however, they also provide a wealth of details about the people and places associated with the Chinese community. Chinatown contained a diverse mix of businesses and residences. Many of the buildings were multipurpose, housing businesses, restaurants, and domestic and religious spaces under one roof. The 1890 Sanborn fire insurance map indicates Chinese laundries at 10 Park Avenue and 677 West Baltimore Street. The 1901 Sanborn map indicates a Chinese restaurant at 114 Park Avenue and other establishments referred to as “Chinese Joints” just west along Marion Street. Lum Bing was the proprietor of the restaurant on the second floor of 114 Park Avenue, according to an 1896 Sun article. The building also housed the San Francisco–based Chinese importing firm of Quong Hing Lung Chong Kee & Company, which was run by Lee Yat and Hop Lung, as well as residences. The family of Lee Yat lived at 311 Marion Street. An 1894 Sun article noted that the Lee’s two daughters were the first Chinese babies born in Baltimore. Mee Lim was the proprietor of the Park Avenue restaurant in 1923. Upon his death he had an estate worth over $12,000 dollars that was distributed to the School Board as he had no heirs. In addition, the 1901 Sanborn map indicates a Chinese laundry at 102 Liberty Street that was operated by Wang Sing and Su Hong in 1899 and Der Pop in 1902, all of whom also lived in the building. At 208 West Fayette Street, there was a “Joss House,” which is the English term for a Buddhist or Taoist temple or altar.

1914 Sanborn Map indicating Chinese restaurants, dwellings, and a Joss House along Marion and West Fayette Streets, west of Park Avenue (LOC).

The 1914 Sanborn map shows a three-story Joss House at 217 Marion Street, two three-story Chinese-occupied dwellings at 203 and 205 Marion Street, and a restaurant at 202 West Fayette Street. 203 Marion Street was noted in an 1894 Sun article as a store operated by Joe Kee, who operated the Chey Shing Chung & Co., a Chinese grocery, dry goods, and embroidery dealer. 217 Marion Street was called a “Chinese resort” with Ah Goo as the proprietor in a 1901 Sun article about a police raid on the property where 13 individuals were arrested for playing fan-tan, a 2,000-year-old gambling game that Chinese immigrant workers brought to the United States. The 1914 Sanborn map indicates that 217 Marion Street also housed a Joss House, which was likely installed circa 1903. That Marion Street house was also the site of a celebration recognizing the new Republic of China and the rise to leadership of Sun Yat Sen in 1912, when a flag of the new republic was hung from the second story and a picture of Sun was placed on the wall. The restaurant at 202 West Fayette was called the Empire and was operated by Der Doo. In 1919, Rector’s Chinese and American restaurant, under the management of Dr. Wu, opened along the same block at 208 West Fayette.

Articles in the Sun from this era describe various Chinese cultural traditions from the perspective of white observers. An 1895 article describes Teng Meng, a day where offerings are left on the graves of ancestors. It notes that eight wagons left from the Chinese Masonic Temple in Baltimore—three went to Cedar Hill Cemetery on what is now Ritchie Highway in Anne Arundel County and five to Mount Olivet Cemetery on Frederick Road, where there were eight Chinese graves. The article states that offerings of “boiled chicken, bananas, raisins, nuts, cigarettes, opium and whisky” were left at the gravesites. A 1903 Sun article described the Lunar New Year celebration in Chinatown, noting that the Chinese grocery and supply stores and restaurants did great business serving the growing Chinese community. The festival, which traditionally lasts two to four weeks in China, occurred over four days in Baltimore due to “the restrictions placed on the enthusiasm of the celebrants by the police.”

Feeling development pressure from the booming department stores and five-and-dime stores along North Howard and West Lexington Streets, the center of Chinatown moved northward along Park Avenue to West Mulberry Street after World War I. The buildings north of Marion Street were demolished circa 1929 to make way for an expansion of the Julius Gutman Company department store. There were many Chinese businesses and residences along the 300 and 400 blocks of Park Avenue and the 200 block of West Mulberry Street. The 1922 Polk’s Baltimore City Directory lists six Chinese goods dealers on these blocks. The Baltimore branch of the On Leong Merchant’s Association was established in 1920 and had offices at 215 West Mulberry Street, but later moved 323 Park Avenue.

The On Leong Chinese Merchant’s Association moved to this building at 323 Park Avenue in 1950. (Nicole Diehlmann 2021)

Baltimore City’s Chinese population began to decline during the Great Depression. A Sun article from 1937 noted that “Baltimore’s 400-odd Chinese are scattered about, although they once lived homogeneously in the neighborhood about Mulberry Street and Park Avenue.” The article notes that those remaining in Baltimore still engaged in trades such as restaurants and laundries, although some became noodle manufacturers such as Tom You, proprietor of the Quong Chow Noodle Company at 209 West Mulberry Street.

Chinatown continued to shrink in the post–World War II era. The north side of the 200 block of West Mulberry Street was demolished for a parking garage by 1952, and buildings on the south side were slowly demolished over the late twentieth century. Other businesses opened outside of Chinatown, like the China Clipper at 1003 North Charles Street and the New China Inn at 2426 North Charles Street. Some growth continued to occur within Chinatown, however, as landmark restaurants, such as the White Rice Inn at 320 Park Avenue and the China Doll at 406 Park Avenue, opened in Chinatown in the 1940s. A combination of urban renewal in the late 1950s and the repeal and creation of several national laws in the 1960s led to an exodus of many Chinese Americans from Baltimore to the suburbs. By 1963, 2,188 Chinese people resided in Maryland, and of those, only 748 lived in Baltimore City. Passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968 removed barriers to race-based discrimination and allowed Chinese and other Asian Americans to freely move to suburban areas, further continuing the decline in Baltimore City’s Chinese population.

Buildings on the 300 block of Park Avenue, at the center of Chinatown, continue to house variety of Chinese businesses and organizations (Nicole Diehlmann 2021)

The changes in the Baltimore Chinese community and the decline of Baltimore’s Chinatown were noted in a 1969 Sun article. Mrs. George Tang stated that Chinese serving in World War II gained new skills that allowed them to get jobs in new industries. Their prosperity allowed their children to attend college and embark on careers far different from the laundry and restaurant jobs that were the mainstay of the earliest Chinese immigrants. She further noted that they “have a freer kind of existence. They’re accepted by the rest of society.” New businesses and a small Caucasian “Bohemian population” were changing the composition of Chinatown. In the mid-1970s, the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association attempted to acquire land at Park Avenue and Mulberry Street for a 14-story Asian Culture Center, but their effort was unsuccessful. Many buildings formerly occupied by Chinese immigrants in Chinatown are currently vacant and in poor condition; however, the vestiges of this once vital Chinese community are still apparent and worthy of preservation.

Architectural Survey on Smith Island

by Allison Luthern, Architectural Survey Administrator

Historical architectural survey describes the process of locating, identifying, and recording historic places. It is the important initial step of all historic preservation activities – we need to start by understanding what exists where. The Maryland Historical Trust has supported architectural survey since our founding in the 1960s. The results of our architectural surveys are contained within the Maryland Inventory of Historic Properties (MIHP).

MHT’s Historic Preservation Non-Capital Grant Program recently funded survey work by architectural historian Paul Touart in Somerset County, including properties on Smith Island. Smith Island is the last surviving inhabited island off the shores of Maryland in the Chesapeake Bay. Early in its history, the island was occupied by the Pocomoke and Assateague peoples, Native American tribes who also lived along the Eastern Shore streams. The first English landowner was Henry Smith (the island’s namesake) in the middle of the 17th century. Anglo-Americans continued to inhabit Smith Island through the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries.  

Smith’s Island, Lake, Griffing & Stevenson Map, 1877.

The recent survey project documented one of the oldest surviving buildings on Smith Island, known as Black Walnut Point. Its inventory number in the MIHP is S-536-6. The architectural survey provides a physical description of the house: It has a two-story, three-bay side hall/parlor plan main block supported on a stuccoed masonry foundation with an exterior sheathed in beaded weatherboards. The gable roof is covered with wood shingles. Attached to the back of the main block is a two-story, two-part service wing that dates from the third quarter of the 19th century, around 1860-70.

Black Walnut Point, photo by Paul B. Touart

The survey also details the property’s history through its ownership by two prominent Smith Island families, the Tylers and Marshalls. Today, it is the Smith Island Education Center.

Black Walnut Point, photo by Paul B. Touart

Beginning in the second half of the 19th century through the early 20th century, the Lower Shore region experienced growth and economic prosperity associated with new railway lines, agriculture, and the seafood industry – the latter being particularly important for Smith Island. During this time period, each of the three Smith Island communities (Tylerton, Ewell, and Rhodes Point) built a new Methodist church building. These three churches were also surveyed in our recent project.

Ewell United Methodist Church (S-536-1) is a single-story, gable front building on a raised, rusticated block foundation. It has a symmetrical façade and is topped by a square belfry. It was built in 1939-40 on a site that has long been associated with the practice of Methodism. Adjacent to the church is a parsonage, a tabernacle, and a cemetery.

Ewell United Methodist Church, photo by Paul B. Touart

Calvary Methodist Episcopal Church (S-536-4) is located in the center of Rhodes Point. It is a single-story, L-shaped building with a marble date stone that reads: “1921 / Calvary M.E. Church / Reverend J.L. Derrickson.” It is also surrounded by a large cemetery with both in-ground and above ground vaulted burial plots.

Calvary Methodist Episcopal Church, photo by Paul B. Touart

The third church, Union Methodist Episcopal Church (S-536-8), is in Tylerton. It was built around 1920-1930, using salvaged materials from an earlier 1896 church. It is a rectangular shaped church on a raised, rusticated block foundation with a large columned projecting pavilion flanked by towers. Like many historic Methodist churches, the sanctuary inside is on the upper level.

Union Methodist Episcopal Church, photo by Paul B. Touart

If you want to learn more, you can view all MIHP survey records, including more properties on Smith Island, on our website, https://mht.maryland.gov/secure/medusa/.

“Little Las Vegas” in Charles County 

By Nicole A. Diehlmann 

Enjoy the following guest blog by Nicole A. Diehlmann, co-author of the new MHT Press publication on the architectural history of Charles County, In the Midst of These Plains: Charles County Buildings and Landscapes

Since 1920, major changes in Charles County’s economy, demographics, and physical development shifted it from a primarily agricultural economy to a bedroom community of Washington, D.C.  The legalization of gambling was one little-known feature of this shift.

The construction of Crain Highway (US 301) in the 1920s and the Potomac River Bridge in 1940 opened a major north–south transportation corridor, which linked Charles County to the larger urban centers of Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and points south. The new road brought an increase in automobile traffic and tourism, and restaurants and hotels began to spring up along the US 301 corridor. After the end of Prohibition in 1933, small taverns opened, which became popular places to have a drink or two and play slot machines. At that time, slot machines were widely regarded as innocent amusement, even though gambling was outlawed by the State of Maryland. 

In the early 1940s, many county residents questioned the legality of slot machines, and the status of gambling became a contentious community issue. A grand jury was charged with studying the presence of illegal slot machines throughout the county. The grand jury’s report stated that there was no evidence indicating that any slot machines were in operation in Charles County, but in reality, establishment owners had successfully hidden or removed them prior to inspections. Subsequent reports concluded that the problem lay in a lack of law enforcement and argued that since gambling was so pervasive, it might as well be legalized so that the county could collect money from licensing fees. A bill was introduced in the Maryland General Assembly in 1949 for legalization as a “local option” that would affect only Charles County. The bill outlined several benefits of legalization, including how revenue generated would be used to reduce real estate taxes, pay off school bonds, and provide support for the library fund, the fire department, and the hospital. On the momentous day of June 21, 1949, gambling was legalized in Charles County by a vote of nearly 2 to 1. 

The Waldorf Motel and Restaurant featured flashy neon signs intended to attract visitors to this popular site along the US 301 strip. Image source: Historic Site Files, Charles County Government.

People from surrounding areas had been coming to the county for years to play the slots, but legalization spurred an extraordinary number of tourists to visit and thus, growth in all sectors in order to support the influx. The combination of legalized gambling, transportation improvements, and postwar mobility combined to dramatically increase the volume of traffic passing through the area and transformed Waldorf, the northernmost county town on US 301, into a tourist destination. Crain Highway was widened to four lanes to accommodate the traffic. Between 1949 and 1968, along a fourteen-mile stretch of US 301, 21 hotels with a total of 600 rooms popped up alongside restaurants, gas stations, and entertainment facilities that accommodated tourists and gamblers. This concentration of restaurants and hotels, each with its own array of slot machines, turned the once sleepy village of Waldorf into a large center of commercial activity. The largest sites for gambling in Waldorf in the late 1950s were Club Waldorf Inc. with 140 slot machines and the Waldorf Restaurant with 60 machines. Other casinos were clustered along the Potomac River, including the Reno, off the shores of Colonial Beach, Virginia, with more than 300 machines, and Marshall Hall, across from Mount Vernon, with 193 machines. At the height of the gambling era, revenue from slot machine licensing fees provided a full quarter of the county’s income.  

Although located off the shore of Colonial Beach, Virginia, the Reno Casino was considered to be within the jurisdiction of Charles County, Maryland, because it was in the Potomac River, which is wholly in the state of Maryland. In this way, Virginians were given easy access to Maryland’s slot machines. Photo source: In the Midst of These Plains: Charles County Buildings and Landscapes

The slot machine era in Charles County was a time of extravagance, excitement, and growth. The slots were everywhere, and everyone—adults, children, residents, and tourists—played them. At first buildings intended for other commercial uses were adapted to accommodate slot machines, but eventually special structures were built as gambling and entertainment houses. The demand for construction continued to increase, so that by 1960 there were 57 restaurants along the highway, with the larger ones billing themselves as casinos. The neon lights on restaurants and hotels made the US 301 strip look like “Little Las Vegas,” as it came to be known. Many of the restaurants offered dancing and live bands, often attracting famous performers. 

The Wigwam, demolished in 2013, was one of the most notable of the casinos that lined US 301. In the later twentieth century, the building housed Walls Bakery. Image source: Historic Site Files, Charles County Government. 

In Charles County, most of the motels were constructed as fully integrated buildings under a single roof. The dominant styles were vernacular interpretations of Colonial Revival and Modernist styles, although Craftsman, Western, and Spanish Colonial Revival styles were present in motels in other jurisdictions. While they were often architecturally non-descript, motels and restaurants distinguished themselves by their roadside signage. Large neon signs dominated the grounds visually, enticing passing motorists to stop at the establishment. The Waldorf Motel, demolished in 2017, was an excellent example of the type, containing several rows of motel rooms, a large neon sign, and a two-story restaurant topped by a neon sign. One of the most notable of the casinos was the 1950 Wigwam. It included a casino building with an attached teepee, a decorative wooden totem pole, and a large Western-themed neon sign. After demolition in 2013, the neon sign was acquired by Charles County and now marks the entrance to the Indian Head Rail Trail on US 301 in White Plains. The extant Blue Jay Motel served African Americans who came to US 301 during the era of segregation. It was constructed by Arthur Farrar and featured in the Negro Traveler’s Green Book between 1959 and 1964.  

The Blue Jay Motel, constructed by Arthur Farrar, served African Americans who came to US 301 during the era of segregation. Image source: Historic Site Files, Charles County Government. 

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the pervasiveness of slot machines began to worry many residents. A 1958 issue of Man’s Conquest magazine called Crain Highway the “301 sin-strip,” Charles County “dirty, drunken and debauched,” and accused residents of profiting from “slots, sex and sin.” Another magazine, Real Adventure, described the county as a “modern Sodom with thirty gin mills to the mile and a populace of gun-carrying gangsters and sleazy dames.” By 1961, Maryland had three times as many slots as the state of Nevada and they produced an average annual revenue of $13 million. Reformers in Charles County pushed their case to end gambling, and just as legalization had been a community-wide fight, so was its demise. Due to continuing pressure from many groups, in 1962 Governor J. Millard Tawes announced the establishment of a committee charged with creating procedures to remove slots from the county with the least possible harm. Beginning in July 1965, the slots were phased out slowly over a three-year period. On June 30, 1968, store and restaurant owners watched as the last of the machines were removed from their establishments, and the slot-machine era in Charles County came to an end. 

The White House Hotel is one of the few slot-machine era motels remaining in the county. Image source: National Park Service, Historic American Buildings Survey.  

After slot machines were banned, the area’s popularity as a travel destination quickly declined. The construction of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge in 1954 offered Washingtonians ready access to Maryland’s oceanside resorts, which caused the decline of riverside resorts and further drained the tourism trade from Southern Maryland. Today, few vestiges of Charles County’s slot-machine era survive. Most of the larger hotels and restaurants along US 301 have been demolished for new commercial developments that serve the rising number of suburban residents living in the county. A few motels exist at the southern end of US 301 in the county, including the former White House Motel and the Bel Alton Hotel. 

Learn more about Charles County’s “Little Las Vegas” in the book In the Midst of These Plains: Charles County Buildings and Landscapes, written by Cathy H. Thompson and Nicole A. Dielhmann. You can purchase a copy from the Historical Society of Charles County or from MHT press at https://mht.maryland.gov/home_mhtpress.shtml

New Book Release! In the Midst of These Plains: Charles County Buildings and Landscapes (Guest Blog)

by Cathy H. Thompson

A new publication on the architectural history of Charles County, Maryland is now available from the MHT Press. Consisting of almost 500 pages, In the Midst of These Plains documents nearly four centuries of settlement in Charles County, describing in detail its shift from a rural agricultural community to an exurb of Washington, DC.  The result of many years of historic research and survey funded by the Maryland Historical Trust, the book highlights the history of the county through its historic buildings and landscapes. From iconic tobacco barns and substantial dwellings to the buildings of everyday life, the authors paint a picture of Charles County’s built environment. Rich in detail and illustrations, the book includes a wealth of historic and modern photographs, maps, and floor plans.  

The tobacco barn at the Exchange (CH-357) is believed to have been built about 1780 and employs traditional building features of the era, including vertical riven roof sheathing and tilted false plates. The sheds are later additions. Image source: National Park Service, Historic American Buildings Survey. 

Nestled in the southwestern corner of Southern Maryland, Charles County remained rural and remote for much of its history. First inhabited by various indigenous groups, English settlers arrived in the early seventeenth century. Many were Catholics seeking religious freedom, while others were of various Protestant faiths. Jesuit priests established a commanding mission at St. Thomas Manor in 1741 and continued to be major landowners. 

Erected in 1741, St. Thomas Manor (CH-6) stands on a high bluff at the confluence of the Port Tobacco and Potomac Rivers. It remains one of the County’s most sophisticated examples of 18th century Georgian architecture. Drawn by J. Richard Rivoire. 

By the eighteenth century, the wealthiest settlers had established a level of stability that allowed for the construction of substantial brick and frame dwellings in a distinct regional vernacular style, while the majority of residents, both black and white, lived in rudimentary log and frame houses. In the early nineteenth century, a distinct planter class had evolved, fueled by tobacco profits and enslaved labor. The Civil War brought a period of economic and social instability, but the arrival of the Popes Creek Branch of the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad and establishment of the Naval Proving Ground in Indian Head at the end of the century brought a new wave of prosperity and led to the development of distinct town centers, including the future county seat of La Plata.  

Constructed in 1873, the LaPlata Train Station is the last remaining station in Charles County. Image source: Historic Site Files, Charles County Government. 

Many residents continued farming tobacco as well as crops such as wheat and corn, while others exploited the riches of the region’s abundant waterways through fishing, oystering, crabbing, and even trapping fur that was sent to Baltimore’s lucrative garment market. Construction of Crain Highway in the 1920s provided a convenient link to Baltimore and Washington, DC, but proved to be the downfall of the local steamship lines that had serviced the county rivers for nearly a century. The highway brought new residents and tourists to waterside communities such as Cobb Island and carried agricultural products to urban centers.  Passage of legalized gambling in 1949 brought a postwar wave of tourists who came to frequent the flashy casinos and hotels with neon signs that appeared along Crain Highway, earning the strip the moniker “Little Las Vegas.”  Gambling was outlawed less than twenty years later, but the county continued to grow as a bedroom community of Washington, DC, with new suburban communities constructed on former tobacco fields. By the end of the twentieth century, the previously rural county had become inextricably drawn into the Washington metropolitan area.

The Village of St. Charles was a suburban planned community outside of Waldorf. The 1969 Master Plan called for a series of five villages that provided housing and services for families of a variety of income levels. Image source: Historic Site Files, Charles County Government. 

Departing from the narrower focus of earlier survey work, In The Midst of These Plains includes chapters on Tobacco and Charles County’s Working Landscape (Chapter 4), Domestic and Agricultural Outbuildings (Chapter 5), and the Industrial Landscape (Chapter 9) as well as chapters on sacred, civic and commercial buildings. Together they broaden our understanding of the true breadth and diversity of the Charles County built environment and cultural landscapes.   

The Mulco spoon factory opened in Pomonkey in 1945. It produced coffee stirrers, Popsicle sticks, ice cream spoons, tongue depressors and plant markers. It employed 50 to 70 employees including many women. Image source: Historic Site Files, Charles County Government. 

The book, which was written by Cathy H. Thompson and Nicole A. Dielhmann, can be purchased from the Historical Society of Charles County or from MHT press at https://mht.maryland.gov/home_mhtpress.shtml.