Historic Flag House gets 2-month face lift Museum: The tourist attraction has been renovated to show how the widow Mary Young Pickersgill lived in the early 1800s.

March 04, 1997|By Brenda J. Buote | Brenda J. Buote,SUN STAFF

In its bid to become one of Baltimore's most popular tourist attractions, the Flag House museum recently did what all historic landmarks eventually must.

The Flag House got a face lift.

Every room received a fresh coat of paint, and newly acquired Federal-period furnishings were strategically placed in the home of Mary Young Pickersgill to enhance its appearance.

Pickersgill was the 37-year-old widow who sewed the garrison flag that flew over Fort McHenry during the 1814 British bombardment of Baltimore. The sight of the flag inspired Francis Scott Key to write the poem that later became our national anthem.

With the precision of a surgeon, J. Prentiss Browne, 76, a retired architect, led the team that renovated the Star-Spangled Banner Flag House and 1812 Museum. His plans to update the buildings took more than a decade to develop and six years to transform into reality.

Lack of funding delayed the $64,000 project for several years, Browne said. But after two months of intense labor, the work was completed Feb. 1.

For several days in January, Browne could be found squatting in front of the kitchen fireplace as one of his assistants used a power drill to remove a large portion of the brick facade. Browne was quick to offer advice.

"Move the drill to the right. No. Wait. Go back a little. That's it."

Finally, after hours of backbreaking labor, brick and mortar fell to the floor. Behind the rubble, a beehive oven was exposed -- a remnant from the days when such an appliance was considered essential.

"This is a great find," said Browne, as he stood for a better view. "There aren't many like these left in the city."

The Flag House, built on Pratt Street in 1793, is a National Historic Landmark. It is one of the few remaining buildings in Baltimore that was standing when the city was incorporated in 1797.

Visitors to the home and adjacent 1812 Museum can catch a glimpse of what life was like in Baltimore during the early 1800s, when Pickersgill lived in the three-story house with her mother, -- daughter and three slaves.

"We've tried to depict what life was like for a widow who had to support her daughter and elderly mother in Baltimore during the first half of the 19th century," said Sally Johnston, executive director of the Flag House.

With that goal in mind, a spinning wheel dating to the Federal period was placed in Pickersgill's bedroom, and the sitting room got a new floor covering. New wallpaper and window treatments were hung in several rooms, and the kitchen was restored.

Even the gift shop got a new look, thanks to Stroh Brewing Co.

Before closing the Halethorpe brewery in Baltimore County last year, Stroh officials donated a painting of Pickersgill sewing the star-spangled banner with her elderly mother and 13-year-old daughter. The 7 1/2 -by-5 1/2 -foot mural that greets visitors to the museum is one of the few surviving works of Baltimore artist R. McGill Mackall (1889-1982).

"When we started renovating the Flag House, we had three goals in mind -- we decided to tell three stories," said Browne, who has been on the board of directors at the Flag House for the past 15 years. "We wanted to show why the flag was made, who made the flag and how it was made."

As part of the project, the 1812 Museum was updated to include six foam figures dressed in military garb. Each figure represents one of the military units that fought in the Battle of Baltimore in September of 1814.

The decision to display the uniforms was a controversial one, made by Browne over opposition from local historians.

Scott S. Sheads, a local author and War of 1812 historian, in April criticized Browne's decision to feature military objects from the War of 1812 in the museum.

In a letter sent to Cynthia Nauta, former executive director of the Flag House, Sheads wrote that such items "have no relation to the structure in which they are held nor of its celebrated owner, Mary Young Pickersgill. Military artifacts are best displayed and interpreted by other institutions "

Johnston disagrees with Sheads' assessment of the military display.

"Without the battle, without the war, Mary would have been inconsequential," said Johnston. "Everything we've done here relates to Mary Pickersgill's life," said Browne. "We hired several historians -- including Paul B. Touart, an architectural historian -- to help guide us during the renovation. Everything we've done here is in keeping with the Federal period."

Well, almost everything.

Browne had contractors install central air conditioning in the house to attract more visitors.

The Flag House, at 844 E. Pratt St., is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Docents give tours every 45 minutes, beginning at 10: 15 a.m. Information: 837-1793.

Pub Date: 3/04/97

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