Crisis on Main Street, that great street they love

November 06, 1994|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,Sun Staff Writer

When Annapolis' aldermen wanted to pave Main Street with '' rubble stones in 1877, at a cost of $1,800, a city commissioner told the panel he had a better idea. Turn the widest part of the street into a park.

"That would lessen the expense and beautify that part of the city which, in my opinion, is something very much needed," the commissioner wrote in a letter that is in the files of the Historic Annapolis Foundation.

Not much has changed since then. Residents still care so passionately about the thoroughfare that today they are locked in an angry controversy over the shape and direction of the street in the next century, as laid out in a $5 million reconstruction plan.

Construction is to begin in January, but the Historic District Commission (HDC) still hasn't approved the plan. And city officials worry that any delays would cause the state to reconsider part of its $2.5 million contribution.

At a special city council meeting Friday called by Mayor Alfred A. Hopkins, members warned historic preservationists not to block the plan with too many questions or objections when it comes before the HDC this month. Some aldermen even suggested that the council might try to reorganize the HDC if board members do not approve the plan quickly. But Mr. Hopkins squelched such talk.

Three times the mayor slammed the gavel for order. Historic district residents assailed the council with hisses and jeers. Ward 7 Alderman M. Theresa DeGraff called the audience "rude."

This is no impersonal affair. But then again, this is no ordinary street.

Center of city's universe

Ever since it showed up on the city's first map in 1694, Main Street has been at the center of the Annapolis universe. It has been the place people walk when they have no particular place to go.

In the 18th century, Main Street shopkeepers advertised goods ranging from new saddles to fresh wigs in the pages of the Maryland Gazette.

Johnson's store promised exotic European and East India goods straight from a merchant ship, Beverly, docked at the harbor. William Aikman established his stationery shop there.

In 1776, Shaw and Chisolms trumpeted a big sugar sale at their dry goods store. And in 1787, Stephen Clark urged gamblers to buy tickets for the lottery from his centrally located shop.

AShortly after Confederate troops fired on Fort Sumter, S.C., Main Street had gone from dirt road to paved boulevard. The customers kept coming.

Sixty-five years later, Jack's shop was advertising as "The Store of Personal Service," with plenty of Victrolas and records in stock. Next door, R. E. Strange & Sons was urging the well-to-do residents of Annapolis to patronize its interior decorating services.

Trolley cars rumbled down the middle of Main Street in the 1930s, and for a short time after World War II, traffic ran in both directions.

The street, where traffic now runs up from the water, has retained the same general look as in those early years.

The same cannot be said for storefronts. Few shops have lasted long under the same owner, from 18th-century tobacco shops to 20th-century T-shirt stores.

At odds over upkeep

More than once over those years, residents and city government have been at odds over Main Street's care and upkeep.

In 1848, the city's administrators imposed a 50-cent fine for anyone who littered any day but the first Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of each month. Manure, oyster shells and "filth" were among the more troublesome pollutants, according to a city ordinance from that year.

In 1895, Annapolis residents circulated a petition asking for street lights on the boulevard. Cows and oxen were sleeping in the middle of the roadway at night, they said, and unsuspecting pedestrians were tripping over the livestock and hurting themselves. Lights were installed.

Rich in history

For the people who have grown up on Main Street, the place is rich with history.

"I remember Main Street," said Morris "Mushie" Snyder, 76, who has sold shoes from a Main Street storefront for the past 60

years. "Everybody came to Main Street on Saturday nights, country people, local people, you name it. It was like all these people coming into town hadn't seen each other for weeks."

When Mr. Snyder was a youngster, he used to buy nickel Cokes and ice cream sodas at T. Kent Green Pharmacy, run by a bachelor who lived over the shop.

When he grew up, Mr. Snyder bought the building for $35,000. Now, he says, it's worth more than $500,000.

"There's been a lot of changes here," he said. "A lot of changes."

Holding on to memories

Despite the wave of fern bars and chain boutiques, longtime Annapolis residents hold fast to their memories of the street as it was.

"It's almost like Main Street freezes in time in your memory," said Mame Warren, who was born here and has written two books about the city.

Ms. Warren remembers the two days in October 1955 when one of the city's oldest houses crept up the street on the back of a flatbed truck. A first-grader at the time, she skipped school and watched the procession from the top of an apartment building on Main Street.

"I remember that day like it was yesterday," she said. A fast-food restaurant now is on the spot where the house once was, she added.

Mr. Hopkins, who grew up in a house between Main Street and Cornhill Street, remembers that his parents could "walk from the bottom of Main Street to the top" and buy everything they needed for their family.

While he gets nostalgic about the past, he frets over the future.

It's almost time to begin construction, and no one has agreed on a plan.

"I worry about whether we'll ever get to it," he said. "What's taking so long?"

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