Preserving cobblestone character of state capital

April 16, 1995|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,Sun Staff Writer

The historic district in Annapolis is one of the few neighborhoods in Maryland that comes with an instruction manual on tending the historic homes in the 346-year-old state capital.

The rules are designed to preserve the cobblestone character of a nationally famous neighborhood. For many in the historic district, tending to the creaky old homes, some hundreds of years old, is a labor of love.

"Why would I want to live in a drafty old house with an ancient electrical system, ancient plumbing and an outside that always needs to be repainted?" asks Hans Froelicher, who lives in an 1840s home on Market Street. "Because there's something about the ambience of these old houses that makes me feel comfortable, that makes me feel at home."

The historic district, which takes up about one square mile, is bordered by St. John's College to the north and the waterfront to the south.

Aside from being a national attraction, historic Annapolis also happens to be at the heart of the city's downtown district, at the edge of the Chesapeake Bay and at the center of state government.

Residents admit that the preservation guidelines are strict, but many say they're worthwhile.

"It keeps its scale and its antiquity," says Mr. Froelicher, 45, who has lived in the district for the past 20 years. "But it's not a museum, thank goodness. I wouldn't want to live in a museum."

The architecture is varied, including Colonial, Georgian, Federal, Gothic revival, Victorian and modern. The buildings are among the area's biggest tourist draws, and visitors can be seen wandering around the neighborhood on weekends even in the coldest winter months.

There are attached and non-attached townhouses and two- and three-story houses, which owners spend much of their time renovating. Rental properties and apartments are scarce.

The average property sold for more than $242,000 in 1994, and real estate agents say there are plenty of historic homes carrying price tags in the millions of dollars.

Commercial district

The commercial district runs through the historic neighborhood. The last downtown grocery store, Rookie's Meat Market, closed last year after 45 years in business. Many residents must drive 15 minutes to buy a quart of milk.

Because the historic district is at the center of downtown, much of the area is nonresidential. Large pieces of the neighborhood are taken up with institutional buildings, including several churches and many more county and state legislative offices.

The State House sits in the geographical center of the district, and when the legislative session begins, downtown restaurants and bars fill with scores of lawmakers, lobbyists and legislative aides.

When the lawmakers move out -- which they started doing last week -- they soon are replaced by boaters and summer vacationers, who keep second homes in the historic district and the Annapolis area.

And then there is the constant influx of tourists, vacationers and weekend visitors to the town's bed and breakfasts.

As for the residents, they, too, are diverse. While most are well-heeled professionals, they range widely in age, occupation and lifestyle.

Case in point: Mr. Froelicher's street.

Mr. Froelicher, a lawyer in the Maryland attorney general's office, shares a home with his wife and two young children. His neighbors include a builder, a musician, two tutors at St. John's College, an eye doctor, a staffer at the National Security Agency and several retirees.

And then there are the old-timers such as Margery Dowsett, whose family has passed down the same home since 1771. Ms. Dowsett and her "lunch bunch" -- a group of friends she has known since childhood -- all share memories of Annapolis and a )) love for the city.

But Ms. Dowsett also says she and her friends worry that the town is losing its sense of history, noting that "the problem is we're dying off and we don't want to see the town die off with us."

Many younger dwellers say they are not interested in giving the town a quicker tempo. Some of these residents crave the quiet setting but still work in Washington and Baltimore.

And others are willing to give up the fast-paced city life altogether.

The neighborhood is home to people such as Kathryn Dahl, a lawyer who quit life in Washington to move to Annapolis, where she can walk to her office and friends' houses.

"There's such a real sense of community here. I lived in the suburbs and I find them so isolating," says Ms. Dahl, who lives in an 1860 home on Green Street.

Defending restrictions

Most residents are staunch defenders of tougher zoning restrictions, noting that the local property values would plummet if the clapboard homes and Colonial rowhouses were crowded out or replaced by anything more modern.

After all, the old clapboard houses and red-brick townhouses are the reason some families stay in the same home for generations and scores more newcomers move here each year.

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