Grant assures anthem's future

Preservation: The Maryland Historical Society gets $3 million to preserve the oldest known manuscript of the `Star-Spangled Banner.'

May 20, 1999|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

The oldest known version of "The Star-Spangled Banner" -- a 175-year-old manuscript in Francis Scott Key's handwriting -- will be preserved in a new state-of-the-art, space-age encasement thanks to a $180,000 grant to the Maryland Historical Society from the White House "Save America's Treasures" program.

Hillary Rodham Clinton announced the MHS grant and 61 others for a total of $30 million as she set out on a four-day tour of national treasures in the Southwest, including the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde, Colo., and the Vail Ranch House of Sonoita, Ariz.

"A country that loses its history loses its collective memory," the first lady said. "We cannot allow that to happen."

The MHS grant, which the society will meet with matching funds, will also be used in the preservation of 56 of the 57 architectural drawings submitted in the competition to design the nation's Capitol and of watercolors by Benjamin Latrobe, showing the finished building and White House furniture from James Madison's presidency, 1809-1817.

"These documents convey important stories of our country's legacy," said Dennis Fiori, the society's executive director. "We are thrilled that their significance is being recognized at both the federal and state levels. Preserving our state's and nation's heritage is critical to the mission of the Maryland Historical Society."

Fiori is a member of the White House Millennium Council, which recommended and encouraged the preservation of "America's Treasures."

" `The Star-Spangled Banner,' " he has said, "is a metaphor for all the valuable, meaningful and irreplaceable documents in our care."

He's noted that unlike artifacts and structures, manuscripts cannot be repaired or enhanced.

"Once the ink has faded or the paper decayed, there is no way to bring it back, and a piece of history is gone forever."

Since 1954, Key's "Star-Spangled Banner" manuscript -- 32 lines in ink brown with age on an ordinary letter page -- has been sealed in a bronze and glass encasement filled with helium. An inert gas, helium replaces oxygen and therefore prevents oxidation of the ink.

The new encasement, developed with the National Archives, will be filled with argon, another, superior, inert gas, and incorporate new temperature, humidity and ultra-violet light controls.

Key scratched some notes for "The Star-Spangled Banner" on the back of an envelope at dawn on Sept. 14, 1814, when he saw the huge 15-star, 15- stripe wool flag appear out of the mists over Fort McHenry after a night of intense bombardment by the British fleet. He was aboard a truce ship off Sparrows Point.

A few days later he wrote out the full text of the future national anthem while staying at the Indian Queen Hotel at Baltimore and Hanover streets. That's the manuscript the society has.

A National Archives conservator who examined the manuscript declared it in "amazingly good shape."

"We're taking very, very good care of it," Fiori said.

The restoration and preservation of the 1814 flag that inspired Key -- now at the Smithsonian Institution -- is also on the "Save America's Treasures" grant list.

The society's 56 original drawings for the Capitol competition represent "America's first attempt to portray the republic architectural form." They include renderings by Thomas Jefferson, James Hoban, the architect of the White House, Stephen Hallett, a sophisticated French-taught architect, and one James Diamond, of Somerset County.

The 57th and winning drawing by Dr. William Thornton is in the Library of Congress. His design was considerably altered by Latrobe, who is credited with the Supreme Court and the House and Senate chambers. Latrobe later rebuilt portions of the Capitol badly burned by the British in the War of 1812.

In Baltimore, Latrobe designed the Basilica of the Assumption, which has been called the most beautiful church building in North America.

His drawings of furniture designed for the Madison White House are the only known images of the building's original interior. The British also torched the White House during the War of 1812.

"One of our greatest early visionary artists," Fiori remarked.

The grant comes at a time when the historical society is in a period of expansion that will double its size in three years, providing far greater exhibition space for its 8.5-million- piece collection, including a new gallery for Key's "Star-Spangled Banner" manuscript and a new sculpture garden on Monument Street.

"The grant from `Save America's Treasures' will allow us to display these national icons within our permanent exhibitions," Fiori said.

Pub Date: 5/20/99

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