Preservationists oppose plan to expand Annapolis church Colonial-era graves, historic landmark are opponents' concerns

January 22, 1998|By Melinda Rice | Melinda Rice,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

One of the oldest congregations in the state has riled Annapolis preservationists who see in the planned expansion of St. Anne's Episcopal Church an insult to the legacy -- and the graves -- of the city's settlers.

St. Anne's Parish's announcement last spring of a $3 million plan to double its floor space by excavating under the 137-year-old downtown church drew quick opposition.

"We took a hard look at where we are today, where God is calling us to go and how we are being called to serve the life of this community," said the pastor, the Rev. John Randolph Price. "Then we looked at whether our facilities are encouraging and supporting or discouraging and impeding the life of the parish."

The church has room for only a sanctuary, a tiny bathroom and small vestibule. By digging, it could make room for a meeting hall, a choir room, an office, bathrooms, a kitchen and a child care center.

That is not reason enough to alter a historic landmark and disturb the Colonial-era graves thought to be beneath it, opponents say. They argue that St. Anne's could add rooms to its parish house two blocks away on Duke of Gloucester Street.

Supporters counter that two blocks in historic Annapolis, with its treacherous brick sidewalks and blustery winters, is too far for the elderly and children.

"We say there are two kinds of pedestrians in Church Circle, the quick and the dead," Price said.

Established in 1692

The Church of England established St. Anne's in 1692, and it has since occupied three buildings, the latest one dating to 1859, on the Church Circle site.

St. Anne's brings out the fierce maternal instincts of Annapolis' preservationists. This is the city where a pitched legal battle is being waged over whether to save, at great expense, a tottering and charred facade on Main Street left after a fire in December burned away the century-old buildings behind it. St. Anne's is more precious, they argue.

"That is the most important building in Historic Annapolis, not counting the State House," said Ann Fligsten, president of the nonprofit Historic Annapolis Foundation, a primary opponent of the church's plans.

A compromise is unlikely.

"I think they're just fundamentally opposed to the project," said Price. "When we'd answer one set of questions, they'd come up with new concerns."

At first, protesters' objections centered on the design of the expansion, so the church submitted a new proposal.

More recently, opponents have said that hundreds of pre-Revolutionary Annapolitans are buried in the ground that would be excavated.

'Substantial burials'

"All of the evidence points to the fact that there are substantial burials there," said Orlando Ridout V, a historian for the Maryland Historic Trust and a member of the parish.

He said that at least 1,200 people are "packed shoulder to shoulder and two to three deep" under the church, including Samuel Ogle, a former governor and an ancestor of Ridout's.

Finding human remains under Church Circle is common. They surfaced and were re-interred when city workers dug utility trenches, when Church Circle was widened and when members of St. Anne's dug a hole to plant a tree. But the pastor dismisses the possibility of the numerous burials Ridout mentions.

"This is the third church on this site," the pastor said. "Anything that was there has already been churned up."

Still, the church is ready to pay for any archaeological work state or city officials ask for, Price said.

State opinion sought

The city's Historic Preservation Commission, which has final say over the project, has asked for an opinion from the state agency that employs Ridout. He has pledged to recuse himself.

A team from the state is to visit the church site today and probably will issue an opinion within a month.

"We're not going anywhere, and the city knows that," Price said. "We believe this plan meets both the need to preserve an historic landmark and provide for the life of this parish."

Pub Date: 1/22/98

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