Annapolis remembers Wright as 'national treasure' 300 attend service for preservationist

September 22, 1993|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,Staff Writer

From every corner of Annapolis, hundreds of mourners came yesterday to lament the loss of the city's first lady of preservation.

At a memorial service in her honor, more than 300 people gathered under the dome of the Naval Academy chapel to pay tribute to Anne St. Clair Wright, who devoted four decades to preserving Annapolis' historic heritage.

Mrs. Wright died of cancer Saturday afternoon at her home.

"St. Clair Wright was and is a national treasure," said Leopold Adler, a well-known preservationist and family friend from Savannah, Ga. "She was a beautiful, constructive lady in every way. And she did it all as a volunteer."

Friends, neighbors and politicians who had tangled with her over the years stood on the chapel steps after the half-hour service and remembered Mrs. Wright's work.

Hotelier Paul M. Pearson, who restored the Maryland Inn, the Governor Calvert House and Reynolds Tavern, left the chapel in tears. Others paused for a moment to bow their heads in silent prayer.

"She was a savior of the history of this town," said Mayor Alfred A. Hopkins, who interrupted his primary-day campaign to attend the service.

County Executive Robert R. Neall, who last dealt with Mrs. Wright over expanding the Circuit Courthouse on Church Circle, said, "She was a very focused and very forceful person."

Mrs. Wright, the founder and driving force behind what is now the Historic Annapolis Foundation, is widely credited with rescuing Maryland's capital from a jumble of ugly signs and false building fronts that once hid its architectural beauty.

In 1952, she acted as secretary at the first meeting of some 200 people who were angered that the city had no historic preservation ordinance.

"I thought Annapolis was too good to lose then," Mrs. Wright said 40 years later, when she was honored at a black-tie affair in May 1992.

"We remember her uncompromising devotion to the truth, to American history," said Lt. Cmdr. Johnny Poole, the Naval Academy chaplain who led mourners in singing "Amazing Grace" and the Navy hymn.

"She taught us to think for ourselves," he said.

Psalm 91 was read during the brief service. A half-dozen floral arrangements were placed at the altar.

She was buried in a private service at the academy.

Mrs. Wright served as vice president, president, chairwoman and chairwoman emeritus of the historic preservation group.

For years, she was a terror to would-be developers, taking on every one who wanted to replace worn 18th century buildings with chrome and steel towers.

From the start, Historic Annapolis was controversial. Disgruntled business and civic leaders dubbed it "Hysterical Annapolis" and portrayed Mrs. Wright as an obstructionist.

But many who scoffed at first came to admire her.

Former Mayor Roger W. "Pip" Moyer, who once called her a "little old lady in tennis shoes" later said she was "the greatest citizen in the history of Annapolis." He attended the service, as did Secretary of Transportation O. James Lighthizer, the former Anne Arundel County executive, Annapolis aldermen, businessmen and Rear Adm. Thomas C. Lynch, the academy superintendent.

The daughter of an admiral and wife of a Navy captain, Mrs. Wright was creating a new preservation group and pushing for a ban on neon signs downtown when she died.

Friends said the genteel yet steely woman, who went by the name "St. Clair," didn't look back on successes but fretted about unfinished projects.

Perhaps the centerpiece of her efforts was the careful restoration of the William Paca House and Gardens. The mansion of one of the Maryland signers of the Declaration of Independence was about to be demolished when she stepped in.

Her family was host of a reception there after the services.

Born of a prominent Southern Virginia family in Newport News, the daughter of Navy Adm. Arthur St. Clair and Anne Sally Smith, Mrs. Wright grew up at her father's duty stations around the world. Many were in the Orient.

Travel cultivated her interest in art and architecture, prompting her to study design at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore. Her early life also led her to collect Chinese and Japanese art and care for bonsai trees.

From her second house in Annapolis, a gray contemporary at the headwaters of Weems Creek in Admiral Heights, she directed campaigns to save buildings and the city's ambience.

She battled the leaders of the Annapolis Hilton until they agreed to slice two floors off their plans. And when the county threatened to tear down the old Mount Moriah A.M.E. Church, Mrs. Wright stared down the wrecking crew.

The church, once home to the first free black congregation in Maryland, is now a museum.

In 1965, when Annapolis was named a National Historic District Landmark, Mrs. Wright received a certificate of distinguished citizenship from Gov. J. Millard Tawes. Three years later, she was given the highest honor by the National Trust for Historical Preservation.

Her exact age was one of Annapolis' best-kept secrets until it was revealed at her death that she was 83.

Mrs. Wright's husband, Capt. J.M.P. Wright, died several years ago. She is survived by three sons, Navy Capts. 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.

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