ANNAPOLIS - Aesthetically, it's a little like putting a Pizza Hut in the Coliseum at Rome.
The Maryland State House is the oldest state capitol in continuous legislative use in the United States, and until now visitors have come and gone pretty much unhampered by undue worries about security. The Continental Congress assembled here without frisking its constituents on Dec. 23, 1783, the day George Washington resigned his commission as commander-in-chief of the victorious Colonial army.
But now, in the year 2000, legislators are thinking about installing metal detectors to scan everybody but state employees and legislators.
It's a proposal that has some around here scratching their heads. Like Luise Fiebig, a tour guide who's agreed today to show us around the place.
"I don't have a clue about that," Fiebig confides.
Veteran State House observers can't remember any security breaches more serious than an occasional protester berating legislators from the visitor galleries. What they can tell you about, though, is a building they love.
"There is a lot of beauty here," Fiebig says. "We're very proud of our State House."
Indeed, the State House is not only the country's longest-running legislative building, but easily one of its most handsome. Architectural historians call it an outstanding Georgian-style building. Which is slightly ironic, since George III, namesake of the style, was the English king Washington defeated.
On the right when you enter from the State House entrance that looks toward Annapolis harbor, the Old Senate Chamber seems much like it must have when Washington gave his admirably terse, modest and moving resignation speech. Just six paragraphs long, the speech concludes: "Having now finished the work assigned to me, I retire from the great theater of Action; and bidding an Affectionate farewell to this August body under whose orders I have so long acted, I hereby offer my Comission, and take leave of all the employments of public life." He left immediately for Christmas at Mount Vernon, accompanied to the landing on the Potomac where he would cross into Virginia by William Paca, Maryland's governor and a signer of the Declaration of Independence.
Washington thought he was retiring to the serene life of a country gentleman farmer. But just about 6 1/2 years later, he was president.
Until your eyes adjust to the dim light from the electric candelabra in the Old Senate Chamber, you could almost believe Washington stands before the classical niche that frames the John Shaw president's desk. The apparition is, in fact, a mannequin, whose head is a replica of a 1785 bust by Jean Antoine Houdon, a French sculptor who made portraits of Jefferson and Franklin as well as Washington.
The mannequin wears a replica of the Washington uniform that is in the Smithsonian Institution. Washington wears the same yellow and blue uniform in the Charles Willson Peale painting above the fireplace in the Old Senate Chamber: "Washington, Lafayette and Tilghman at Yorktown." Col. Tench Tilghman, a Marylander who was Washington's aide de camp, brought the news of the British surrender at Yorktown to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia.
John Shaw, a cabinetmaker whose works are now collected in museums, made nine of the pieces in the Old Senate Chamber. He also took over completion of the State House dome after John Clark became disillusioned with the project. His handsome green house with spindled galleries still stands across Church Circle from the State House, just beyond the vigorously heroic statue of Johann DeKalb, a German colleague of Lafayette.
Tour guide Fiebig informs us that there have been restrictions on visitors before.
The visitors' galleries on the first floor of the Old Senate Chamber, she says, were reserved for "gentlemen."
"Ladies were not allowed on the main floor in the 18th century," she says. "They had to stand on the Ladies' Balcony above. They said ladies' chatter would disrupt the meetings."
The Ladies Balcony and the pediment above the president's desk are decorated with a hand-carved tobacco leaf motif, a reminder that tobacco was Maryland's chief cash crop in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Gen. Washington was feted with a dinner two days before his resignation, which was "the most extraordinary I ever attended," said the writer of a letter in the Maryland Archives.
"Between 2 and 3 hundred Gentlemen dined together in the ballroom," the letter says. "Every man seemed to be in heaven or so absorbed in the pleasures of imagination, so as to neglect more sordid appetites, for not a soul got drunk, though there was wine in plenty and the usual number of 13 toasts drank . . ."
At dinner's end, the general proposed a toast that may have sounded better after the first 13: "Competent powers to congress for general purpose."