Saving a Symbol of Freedom

June 30, 1994

The Historic Annapolis Foundation has undertaken a big and costly project: It involves practically rebuilding the crumbling Maynard-Burgess House, a shingled, wood-frame structure across the street from Annapolis City Hall that is believed to be the first home in Maryland's capital owned by a free black man.

Like all restoration jobs, this one is likely to be unpredictable. As owners of old houses know, repairing one problem usually leads to the detection of others. And the Maynard-Burgess House has some very serious problems. Over the years, termites got to it, joists rotted; even the foundation has to be steadied.

"This will be a museum building to interpret the life of African-Americans in post-Civil War life," says Ann Fligsten, president of the Historic Annapolis Foundation. "It gives us a window on our past. We need to understand our past in making our decisions."

The two-story Maynard-Burgess House at 163 Duke of Gloucester St. is named after families who owned it. John T. Maynard, a free black man who bought freedom for his wife, Maria, in 1838, established his homestead on two lots he bought on the street for $400, records show. His granddaughter sold the home in 1915 to Willis Burgess, one of her boarders.

Lillian Burgess, the last of that family to live in the house, moved out in 1990 because of ill health. The house became vacant, which accelerated its deterioration.

Stabilization efforts started in 1991, after Port of Annapolis, which buys and restores homes in the city's historic district, purchased the property for $167,000 in a transaction that was controversial due to the project's potential cost. The debate continued when the city decided to team up with historical preservationists. "I think more thought needs to be given to this before we blithely enter into an arrangement where a while elephant might be placed on our front porch," then-Alderman John Hammond protested.

Historic preservation seldom comes cheap or easy. But the Historic Annapolis Foundation is to be congratulated for undertaking this task. As an African-American exhibit, the Maynard-Burgess House will be a valuable addition to the many museums the non-profit organization runs to interpret Annapolis' rich history.

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