Restoration Project Starts For Charles Carroll House

November 15, 1990|By Angela Gambill | Angela Gambill,Staff writer

The man in plum brocade and ruffles stood in the sunlit dining room of the Charles Carroll House in Annapolis and watched the waters of Spa Creek sparkling below.

"I think papa would have approved," he mused, glancing about the torn-up room where brick walls peek through cracking beige plaster.

The speaker, an actor playing Charles Carroll of Carrollton, the last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence, referred to a $3 million restoration project of the house.

Of course, papa -- the 17th-century settler Charles Carroll -- would have worried about frugality, said son Charles.

"Be content with what is neat, clean and necessary," he wrote his son on one occasion. And on another, hearing that Charles wanted to build a sea wall of expensive stone behind his big brick home on Duke of Gloucester Street, he warned, "I'm afraid you will be pennywise and pound foolish."

Nobody was counting pennies yesterday at a press conference to announce the launching of the restoration project. So far, about half a million dollars has been raised for the first phase of restoration, which includes modernizing the heating, plumbing and ventilation systems and restoring the ground-floor kitchen and the first floor.

The committee plans to turn the brick mansion into a museum, available for dinner parties and conferences, as well as concerts, lectures and educational tours of 18th-century colonial life.

But thoughts were looking backward yesterday, too, to the days when Lafayette and his staff dined with the Carrolls, and "our beloved General Washington came for dinner after the races and before going off to the opera," reminisced young Charles, played by actor Dan Higgs.

Those were days when the Roman Catholic family built their own little chapel in the house, because the law forbid Catholics to worship publicly.

The room believed to be the chapel stands intact, windows arching like the front of a church.

During their tenure, the Carrolls often conducted big parties on the three-acre waterfront lawn and gardens, such as the one they threw to celebrate peace when the Revolutionary War ended.

"You have to think of Carroll's achievements to understand the significance of the house," says Robert Worden, president of the non-profit corporation restoring the home.

"Carroll's adherence to the Roman Catholic faith normally would have precluded his participation in politics of the day, but his political acumen and staunch defense of the right to freedom of conscience won him the favorable support of his non-Catholic colleagues."

The colonial-era Carroll family spans three generations. The most prominent member was Charles Carroll of Carrollton, grandson of Charles Carroll the settler and son of Charles Carroll of Annapolis.

Charles the settler came to Maryland from Ireland In 1688 to serve as attorney general for Lord Baltimore and to find religious freedom.

Following his father's death, Charles of Annapolis inherited the family's property in Annapolis and continued the struggle for religious and political freedom. Charles of Carrollton was born in 1737 in the house. He later married his cousin Molly and set up housekeeping at the family home.

The stately four-story mansion boasts all sorts of historic tidbits, such as the oldest staircase in the state, Worden says. Analysts drilled into the wood of the staircase, rather like a root canal, to extract samples of the tree used to build the staircase. They analyzed the samples and dated the wood to 1721.

A map of the basement kitchen helped architect James T. Wollon Jr. of Havre de Grace locate an 18th-century kitchen fireplace. One surprise that has turned up is a trap door in one of the small, first-floor rooms that connects with the ground story. "Was this for food service?" Wollon queries. "Or was there cash in a strong box in the cellar?"

The restoration project will continue to be part treasure hunt, part painstaking labor, as architects move back through nearly 300 years of history, says Worden.

The house and surrounding property stayed in the Carroll family until 1852, when the Redemptorists, a Roman Catholic congregation of priests and brothers, bought the house and grounds and took charge of the nearby St.

Mary's Church, built through the efforts of the Carrolls.

The restoration work will begin when the rest of the first $1 million is raised, Worden says. Businesses such as Nationwide Insurance and C & P Telephone have contributed to the campaign, along with individuals who've made donations ranging from a nickel to an anonymous $100,000.

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