Spirit of St. Mary's City

Legacy: Interpretive center meant to capture and tell the history of Maryland's first capital.


January 21, 2002|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

Long before Maryland had a State House in Annapolis, its leaders met on a tobacco plantation called St. John's Freehold in the original state capital, St. Mary's City.

The owner was John Lewger, a former Anglican priest who became the first provincial secretary for the Maryland colony in 1638. Representing the first Lord Baltimore, Cecil Calvert, Lewger built a manor house that was both a residence for himself and a gathering place for leaders of the fledgling colony. It later was used as the residence of a Dutch merchant, the home of a governor, and a succession of inns.

Lewger's house was destroyed in 1720, and the land was cleared and farmed for the next 200 years. But Marylanders will soon be able to learn about it and life in the 17th century by visiting a $6.2 million interpretive center that will incorporate the building's excavated stone foundation and artifacts from its grounds.

Scheduled to open by 2005, the St. John's Archaeological Site is the latest of several attractions designed to tell visitors about St. Mary's City, Maryland's capital from 1634 to 1695. It will also be a learning laboratory for archaeologists.

Although located on the north campus of St. Mary's College, the 1.7-acre site is owned and managed by Historic St. Mary's City, a state museum formed to study, preserve and interpret the site of Maryland's first city. Bohlin Cywinski Jackson of Philadelphia and Wilkes-Barre, Pa., is the architect for the interpretive center, and Maryland's General Assembly has already allocated funds for it.

"This will be a different kind of experience," said Martin Sullivan, executive director of Historic St. Mary's City. "It's about the process of discovery - learning about the past through archaeology and history. How do we know what we think we know? ... Nobody has ever done anything like this, so we're all learning as we go."

One challenge for the design team has been to create a structure that will allow visitors to view the foundation and related exhibits while ensuring long-term preservation of the archaeological treasures on the site.

Kelly Vresilovec, project manager for Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, said the firm is designing the interpretive center to evoke the shape and volume of the original manor house - a traditional English architectural form - without replicating it precisely.

She said the bulk of the house will rise above the 1,400-square foot foundation, which was excavated in the 1970s. Like the original building, she said, it will rise 1 1/2 stories and have clapboard siding and a pitched red pantile roof with dormer windows.

"What we wanted to do is build a structure that, at least from a distance, created the form of the house as people originally experienced it," she said. When people enter, "they'll get a sense of the scale and the grandeur of the house. I think it will be pretty impressive, to think that somebody built that" in the 1630s.

In addition to the structure itself, there will be smaller, attached structures representing the slaves' quarters and the kitchen. There also will be a 2,000-square-foot addition housing an exhibit gallery that will overlook the excavated foundation, and a back-of-the-house area containing rest rooms, study carrels and mechanical spaces.

Some exhibits will focus on the artifacts found on the property, and what they say about how people lived in the 17th century. Others will raise questions about life in early Maryland, such as the role of women and the relationship between landowners and slaves.

Named for Lewger's patron saint and used as a public meeting house until 1676, when a separate brick State House was completed in St. Mary's City, St. John's was the scene of several dramatic events. In 1647, a prominent citizen named Margaret Brent appeared before the assembly and made a moving but unsuccessful plea, as a woman and a landowner, for the right to vote. In the 1660s, Gov. Charles Calvert, the third Lord Baltimore, made it his residence and met with Susquehannock war chiefs there. In 1681, former Gov. Josias Fendall was tried for treason there and found guilty.

After Maryland's capital moved to Annapolis in 1695, St. Mary's City was not the governmental hub it had been, and St. John's reverted to a farmhouse before it was torn down altogether.

Vresilovic is working with project architect Gabriel Hodge, a 1993 graduate of St. Mary's College. She said the design team wants to make a clear distinction between what is authentic and what is newly constructed - even if that means letting the architecture provide a backdrop for the archaeology.

"It's pretty compelling, the remains of what was there," she said. "We're trying to evoke the past in a dignified way and allow the remains to tell their own story. As you look at the foundation, you get an incredible sense of time and what happens to the site."

Preliminary plans were presented this month to the Historic St. Mary's City Commission, St. Mary's College, the state Department of General Services and the state Architectural Review Board. The designers will consider suggestions they've received as they move to the next stage of design work. Drawings will be put out for bid in early 2003, and construction is scheduled to begin later that year.

Other consultants include Michael Vergason Landscape Architects of Arlington, Va., and Main Street Design of Cambridge, Mass., the exhibit designer. Sullivan said the museum can't create exhibits such as this for every archaeological site, but St. John's Freehold is an excellent candidate for an interpretive center because of the many layers of history associated with it.

"It's a reminder that we're never aware of the full story, but as pieces come to light, we can make a better sense of it than we can now," he said.

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