Longtime preservationist to be honored Beauty of Annapolis rescued by Wright

May 03, 1992|By Joel McCord | Joel McCord,Staff writer

In 1649, they named the city for Queen Anne. Some 300 years later, another Anne came to rescue it from the jumble of ugly signs and false building fronts that hid the beauty of its architecture.

And 40 years after Anne St. Clair Wright first took on the Annapolis City Council and local businessmen who wanted to tear down the old and rebuild with new, she is to be honored at a $50-a-plate, black-tie affair at the Governor Calvert House tonight.

Former Mayor Roger W. "Pip" Moyer, who once scoffed at "the little old lady in tennis shoes," now calls her "the greatest citizen in the history of Annapolis."

Joseph W. Alton Jr., the former Anne Arundel county executive who tangled with her over the county's plans to tear down old Mount Moriah A.M.E. Church on Franklin Street, calls her "a steel magnolia."

"God knows what Annapolis would have been without her," Alton pondered. "All chrome and glass."

Wright, daughter of an admiral and wife of a Navy captain, pushes all that aside with a slightly embarrassed chuckle. "Enough's been written about me," she insisted last week in accents redolent of Tidewater Virginia. "I want to talk about preservation in Annapolis."

Quickly, she plugged in a projector and readied a tray of slides.

"Here's the wonderful capital of Maryland, it's a National Historic Landmark, the highest honor the country can give a historic place, and it deserves more attention," she argued as she focused the first slide.

The slides document the street plans and buildings of Colonial Annapolis. And they trace the changes in Queen Anne's City since the early 1950s when Wright and some 200 others, angered that the City Council had not included a historic district in its first zoning law, formed Historic Annapolis Inc.

There is Charles Carroll, the Barrister's house on rollers going up Main Street; Shiplap House in various stages of repair; McGarvey's tavern when it was a slot machine joint with a false stucco front; and etchings discovered under layers of paint and paper on the walls of the Paca House, once the home of a signer of the Declaration of Independence.

"I thought Annapolis was too good to lose then," she recalls. "You could see behind the signs and the false fronts and all the other junk, there was a beautiful city there."

Wright was born in Newport News, Va., 80-some years ago (her age is one of the best-kept secrets in Annapolis). She grew up at her father's duty stations around the world, many of them in the Orient, and dipped "in and out of Annapolis" for most of her life, she recalls.

She studied design at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, but never picked up a degree, due to World War II.

"I have enough credits," she mused. "I suppose if I wrote to them I could get the degree."

Wright and her husband, Capt. J. M. P. Wright, settled on Southgate Avenue after World War II and eventually moved to the gray contemporary on a wooded lot grown heavy with wildflowers at the headwaters of Weems Creek.

It was from that house, where Chinese and Japanese paintings dot the walls and plants crowd around windows, that she directed the campaigns to save historic buildings or stop high-rise construction downtown as chairman of Historic Annapolis.

For 40 years, she poked and prodded with a personality that Pat Barry, a former Historic Annapolis employee, described as "Vesuvian." She crossed swords with business and civic leaders and was portrayed as an obstructionist.

"I was only trying to save houses," Wright insisted. "I wasn't trying to cross swords with anybody."

Yet she battled the builders of the Annapolis Hilton until they agreed to cut two floors off their plans.

As the leader of Historic Annapolis, she fought Anne Arundel General Hospital officials to a standstill over their plans to build a parking garage downtown, then compromised to allow the building.

When Alton threatened to tear down Mount Moriah, which once belonged to the first free black congregation in Maryland, she carried the battle all the way to the Court of Appeals. And one morning when Alton sent his public works director and a wrecking crew to the leaky, old building, she stared them down.

The building now is the Banneker-Douglass museum.

"She taught me a helluva lot," Alton recalled. "I was so pro-development, and she would explain to me that the future of Annapolis was wrapped up in historic preservation."

When city officials wanted to demolish the Market House, Wright searched all over the country for descendants of the original landowners to enforce clauses in deeds that required the property to revert to them if it was used for anything other than a market.

The cinder blocks that once covered the building are gone now, and the original appearance of the open-air pavilion restored with the exception of the huge windows that were added to allow for heating and air conditioning.

"We came as close as we could," Wright said.

"She had compelling goals that were absolutely right with respect to this town," explained hotelier Paul M. Pearson II. "And she never changed those goals. She fought for them."

Pearson, who restored the Maryland Inn, the Governor Calvert House and Reynolds Tavern, is one of the few developers in town who has not run afoul of her. "I do whatever Mrs. Wright says," he joked.

But Historic Annapolis Inc. is now the Historic Annapolis Foundation, emphasizing maintenance of existing properties instead of acquiring new ones. And Wright, as chairman emeritus, "doesn't have the clout she once had," fretted Moyer, who allowed her to write letters over his signature when he was mayor.

"The town's starting to schlock up now," he worried.

Yes, Wright agreed, there are getting to be too many signs. "But we'll just have to go around and do a little explaining to people."

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