A missing piece of Annapolis' past

Museum: A home once owned by freed slaves is to be preserved after years of neglect.

April 29, 2003|By Amanda J. Crawford | Amanda J. Crawford,SUN STAFF

Around Thanksgiving every year for almost a decade, Annapolis architect Jeffrey Halpern has toured the dilapidated 19th-century house at 163 Duke of Gloucester St. with a sinking heart, documenting the water damage and escalating deterioration to the historic house owned by a free black man during the era of slavery.

In annual letters to the Historic Annapolis Foundation, Halpern has written about the rotting frame, the collapsing dormers, the eroding plaster, the crumbling stairway. And he has recommended quick, pre-winter fixes to keep the city-owned Maynard-Burgess House from falling into the street in front of City Hall.

"I never want to write one of those letters about the Maynard-Burgess House again," Halpern said. "It was heart-wrenching."

Now, after a decade of fits and starts - and bureaucratic delays - work is about to begin in earnest that will turn the neglected structure into a museum home with an unusal story about African-American life in the state capital.

Fueled by a $150,000 state grant and encouragement from preservationists, construction crews are expected to begin preliminary work this week, and a ribbon-cutting ceremony to launch the restoration will be held next month.

"The African-American story is not one that is widely told, and it is an important one for this town and state," said Bill Sherman, director of conservation for the Historic Annapolis Foundation, which is managing the restoration project for the city. "The state of Maryland had one of the largest free black populations in pre-Civil War United States. This is very important."

The weathered frame house was owned by two successive African-American families, the Maynards and the Burgesses, from 1847 until 1990.

Probably a one-story out-building originally constructed elsewhere in the late 18th century, the house was expanded and moved to the site sometime between 1838 and 1847, when the property was purchased by John T. Maynard.

Born into slavery in Anne Arundel County about 1811, Maynard was freed at age 21. He soon purchased freedom for his wife, Maria Spencer Maynard, her daughter and her mother. At that time, enslaved blacks outnumbered free blacks by more than 2 1/2 to 1 in Anne Arundel County, according to The Free Negro in Maryland, 1634-1860 by James M. Wright.

Listed as a waiter in the 1860 census, Maynard probably worked at the nearby City Hotel at Main and Conduit Streets. He was prominent in the community and a member of the old Mount Moriah AME Church on Franklin Street, which now is home to the Banneker-Douglass Museum.

Maynard "was a free black who worked very hard and raised a family and was able to purchase this home," said Janice Hayes-Williams, a historian and Maynard family descendant who helped form the nonprofit group Friends of the Maynard-Burgess House last fall. "He is enterprising, he is hard-working and he is among others who are doing the same thing."

After Maynard died in 1875, the home - which Maynard had enlarged and improved, mostly with scrap material from other structures - remained in the family until his granddaughter, who had begun taking in boarders there, fell on financial straits. Willis Burgess, a former boarder who Hayes-Williams said also was related to the Maynards by marriage, purchased the home at public auction in 1914. The Burgess family owned it until 1990.

In the early 1990s, Port of Annapolis, a for-profit developer of historic properties, acquired the building in hopes of renovating it for sale as a private home. But the house was deteriorating, and after doing a considerable amount of work, the group realized renovation would cost more than it had expected.

"It just sucked up money like you wouldn't believe," said Orlando Ridout IV, a former director of the Maryland Historic Trust who served as president of the now-defunct Port of Annapolis. Ridout is now co-chairman of the Friends group. "It was a bigger undertaking than they were set up to take care of. This was beyond their ability."

So in 1993, Port of Annapolis turned the house over to the city in the hope that the city would be able to do more to save it. In 1995, some work was done to stabilize the foundation and frame and try to prevent further water and termite damage.

Then the house languished.

In 1997, the city was awarded a state bond bill for $150,000 for renovation, but bureaucratic haggling kept the funds tied up, said Donna Hole, the city's preservation chief. The money was not released until November last year, after Mayor Ellen O. Moyer said she made the project a priority and pushed the governor to put the issue before the Board of Public Works. Still, the years of delay took a heavy toll.

"We've accomplished a few things, but because the state's bond bill was not released for so long, further deterioration occurred, and the cost of rehabilitation will increase," Hole said. Some aspects of the house that could have been restored, such as the stairway, now are unsalvageable, Hole said.

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