Pillars of their community

Annapolis: Old columns get a new life at a modern courthouse, serving as a gateway to the area's past.

February 22, 2000|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

From a distance, the eight free-standing Italian marble columns may strike some observers as huge, 16-foot-tall bowling pins. Or maybe they'll bring to mind Roman ruins, mysteriously placed beside busy Rowe Boulevard in Annapolis.

Architects and state officials have a different hope: that the 200-year-old pillars, which have played supporting roles over the years in Baltimore and Annapolis, will serve as stately and visible reminders of the area's rich history and hint at what lies just down the road in the city's historic district.

Planners also hope that creative reuse of the columns will take some of the edge off the modern $11.3 million Robert F. Sweeney District Courthouse, a three-color brick and glass edifice that has been criticized since it opened in 1998 as not fitting in with the historic look of Annapolis.

The 45,000 people who daily travel on Rowe Boulevard might have something new to behold as early as next week. Installation of the columns, postponed yesterday after workers grew worried about their stability, is tentatively planned for Saturday.

For the columns, things are looking up for the first time in nearly three decades. From 1972 until the fall, they lay in a field near the state prison complex in Jessup, covered in weeds and vines that left green stains in places.

The prison grounds were a step down from the columns' previous homes. They were first used at the Baltimore Exchange and Customs House, built in 1820, where President Abraham Lincoln's body lay in state on the way to Illinois after he was assassinated in 1865.

When that building was demolished in 1902, the columns got a second chance, at the Maryland Court of Appeals building in Annapolis. It was razed in 1972. The return of the columns is being warmly welcomed.

"This gives them a noble landing position in the history of the state and the city," said retired architect Charles Lamb, a critic of the Sweeney courthouse design. "They will make a contribution."

The columns will stand at the principal northern gateway to the historic district, on a concrete sidewalk just before the State House comes into view. The scroll-top Ionic columns will form two rows of four, with enough room to stroll between the rows.

"One thing it'll do is maybe add civic character to this place," said architect Mike Murphy, whose firm, Murphy & Dittenhafer of Baltimore, worked on the $69,000 state-funded project. "It's a courthouse, and these columns were part of a previous courthouse. They establish a connection with the past."

The columns were designed by Benjamin Henry Latrobe, whose architecture credits include the U. S. Capitol. They are hardly the first columns to find a new role supporting air and are not the first Latrobe-designed columns to make such a switch. Twenty-two sandstone Corinthian columns, once part of the Capitol, stand on a gentle rise at the National Arboretum in Washington. Like the eight marble columns, they once suffered an ignominious fate, spending 25 years as sticks in the mud on banks of the Anacostia River.

The arboretum design is different in several respects from what will rise on Rowe Boulevard. The 22 columns at the arboretum are spread out, with a fountain and reflecting pool running through a T-shaped park area that is ideal for reflection and weddings.

Annapolis landscape architect Pat Faux, who helped design the arboretum site, said it has remained popular since its dedication in 1990. Not only are many weddings held there, she said, but its image has graced advertisements for everything from cars to fancy clothing.

Faux does not expect the Annapolis columns to pop up in an ad, but she does think they will enhance the approach to the city. "This becomes an interim landmark, and I'm very interested to see how you see that as one element on your arrival and how it plays off the [Sweeney courthouse] building right behind it," she said. The combination of the courthouse and columns might be pleasing to look at, she said. If not, visitors might find the columns more appealing as they head out of town with the sky as the backdrop.

Annapolis Mayor Dean L. Johnson has no doubt that the columns will be a hit. Beginning in 1994, he lobbied to have them included in the design for the courthouse. That effort failed, but a concrete foundation for them was included. He is delighted they are back, and he called the project "a prime example of recycling and reuse."

For at least a few more days, the columns will lie around as they have for almost 30 years. They were delivered to the site Saturday, but when contractors for Atlantic Refinishing and Restoration in Waldorf discovered that it took more epoxy glue to secure the bases and steel rods than expected. They decided to have architects and engineers take a closer look before standing the columns up. That hasn't been done.

"Life doesn't always go the way you think it will," said Barry German, regional construction manager for the state Department of General Services.

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