Annapolis Looks to the Past and the Future

September 11, 1994|By LIZ ATWOOD

Three hundred years ago this month, the General Assembly voted to move Maryland's colonial capital from St. Mary's City to a tiny settlement on the banks of the Severn River called Arundell Towne.

The community was little more than a cluster of wooden houses, but the representatives of King William and Queen Mary liked the site for two reasons: Its port was better situated for commerce, and it had few Catholics who could oppose the Anglican government.

In February 1695, the General Assembly held its first session in Arundell Towne, and three months later voted to change the town's name to Annapolis in honor of Queen Mary's sister, Princess Anne.

This weekend, Annapolis will begin a yearlong celebration in honor of its 300th year as Maryland's capital. The celebration provides the opportunity to reflect upon where the city has been in the past 300 years, but the anniversary also should prompt Annapolitans to consider where it is going.

Nowhere does history play a greater role in the present than in Annapolis.

Annapolis residents still live with the Baroque city plan that Francis Nicholson, the governor, designed in 1696. He placed the principal institutions -- the State House, a church and a school -- in the hubs of circles from which the city's streets radiated like spokes on a wheel.

The dome of the State House and the steeple of St. Mary's Church still dominate the Annapolis skyline, which residents guard jealously from intrusive construction.

Everywhere are reminders of the city's stature as an 18th-century Colonial capital. The Hammond-Harwood House, the William Paca House and Gardens, the Brice House look much as they did when wealthy owners built them.

Today, Annapolis' position as state capital continues to contribute to the economy of the small city. Each legislative session, the city's population swells as politicians, lobbyists and journalists move to town.

Once, the city was considered as a potential nation's capital.

After the Revolutionary War, the General Assembly voted to move the state capital to Baltimore and give Annapolis to the federal government. The offer was rejected in favor of a more southern location, and the state government remained.

Some like to say that Annapolis went to sleep in the 19th century. But the city slouched into a depression as Annapolis' powerful merchants and businessmen moved to Baltimore to take advantage of the deeper port and proximity to larger markets.

Ironically, that depression helped save historic Annapolis. The residents who stayed were too poor to tear down the old homes and build new ones, thus preserving the structures of another century.

The establishment of the U.S. Naval Academy in 1851 revived the city and created Annapolis' second identity as home of the Midshipmen.

By the 20th century, Americans had started to rediscover their Colonial heritage. As the rediscovery gained momentum, Historic Annapolis Inc. was founded in 1952 to advocate the preservation of historic properties in the city.

Then the battle began over the soul of Annapolis. Were the old buildings to be torn down to make room for new stores, offices, hotels and restaurants, or was the city going to preserve and renovate the old structures?

The residents themselves answered the question in a referendum in May 1969. The citizens voted by a ratio of 2-to-1 to establish a downtown historic district that would preserve the architecture of old Annapolis.

Preservationists saved the Paca House and the Markethouse from the bulldozer. The city tore down neon signs, buried utility lines and restored old storefronts.

Historic Annapolis was saved.

If the decisions to build a capital and the Naval Academy were the milestones of its first and second centuries, the decision to preserve Annapolis' historic buildings was the milestone of its third.

By preserving the town's historic homes, Annapolis created a tourist destination.

Downtown grocery stores and car dealerships gave way to restaurants and souvenir shops.

The landscape changed as well as the economy. Tourists brought with them cars that clogged the narrow streets and competed for parking meters.

The city that National Geographic called "the Camelot on the Bay" is straining to live with its role as a historic town and tourist destination.

Residents who live downtown clash frequently with hotel and restaurant owners.

When the last downtown grocery closed in March, residents decried the closing as yet another example of the city losing its small-town character to blocks of bars and T-shirt shops.

Some residents wanted the city government to require Markethouse merchants to sell the kinds of wares that the grocery had sold.

Markethouse merchants argued that Annapolis had lost its downtown groceries because residents preferred to travel to supermarkets on the outskirts of the city.

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