Anne St. Clair Wright, Annapolis preservationist

September 20, 1993|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,Staff Writer

Anne St. Clair Wright, Annapolis' first lady of preservation who fought for four decades to keep the city's colonial charm intact, died of cancer Saturday afternoon at her home.

Mrs. Wright, the genteel yet steely founder of Historic Annapolis Inc., was widely credited with rescuing Maryland's capital from a jumble of ugly signs and false building fronts that once hid its architectural beauty.

Her vision helped transform the historic downtown into a fashionable residential area and popular vacation spot near the Chesapeake Bay.

Working from her home, first in the downtown area and later in Admiral Heights, Mrs. Wright turned her organization into a powerful citizens' lobby. She became a terror to would-be developers of Annapolis, taking on everyone who wanted to replace worn 18th century architecture with chrome and glass towers.

Annapolis Alderman Dean Johnson described Mrs. Wright as a woman of "exquisite taste" who "always, always aimed for quality." Annapolis "will be the poorer without her," he said.

Alderman John Hammond said simply, "She was Historic Annapolis."

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

"Everything she told me in my public career, I learned by it," Mr. Alton said, his voice cracking with emotion.

"She was just a gracious lady, a woman who stood by with unbelievable perseverance for the things she wanted," he said.

The daughter of an admiral and wife of Navy Capt. J. M. P. Wright, a superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy, Mrs. Wright, who was known as St. Clair, organized Historic Annapolis not long after settling in the city after World War II. At the time, the city had no historic ordinance and wanted to do away with brick sidewalks, now one of its hallmarks.

"I thought Annapolis was too good to lose then," she said in an interview in May 1992, when she was honored at a black-tie dinner.

The group's first project was to move the house of Charles Carroll the Barrister on rollers up Main Street to St. John's College.

Perhaps the centerpiece of Mrs. Wright's efforts was the preservation of the William Paca House and Gardens. About to be demolished, the mansion of one of the Maryland signers of the Declaration of Independence is now restored and a popular tourist attraction.

From the start, the group was controversial. Even as it succeeded in having Annapolis named a National Historic District Landmark in 1965, disgruntled business and civic leaders dubbed it "Hysterical Annapolis" and portrayed Mrs. Wright as an obstructionist.

But she persevered.

Indomitable to the end, she was creating a new preservation organization and pushing for a ban on neon signs in the historic district when she died.

Mrs. Wright was born of a prominent Southern Virginia family in Newport News some 80 years ago.

Her exact age was one of the best-kept secrets in Annapolis.

The daughter of Navy Adm. Arthur St. Clair Smith and Anne Sally Smith, she became used to travel at an early age. She said it cultivated her interest in art and architecture, prompting her to study design at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore and develop a lifelong interest in Oriental art.

As the leader of Historic Annapolis, she battled the builders of the Annapolis Hilton until they agreed to cut two floors from their plans. She also saved Mount Moriah, once the church of the first free black congregation in Baltimore, now a museum.

She is survived by three sons, Navy Captains J. M. Pickett Wright of Vienna, Va., and Arthur St. Clair Wright of Seattle, and Dr. Henry Tutwiler Wright of Ann Arbor, Mich.; a brother, D. Bruce Smith of Fern Park, Fla.; seven grandchildren; and a great-grandson.

Arrangements for a memorial service this week were incomplete. The family suggested donations to the St. Clair Wright Preservation Fund, P.O. Box 6399, Annapolis 21401.

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