Putting the romance in civil ceremonies

Weddings: The courthouse in Annapolis' Historic District offers a charming alternative to couples.

May 16, 2004|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

Amid the businesslike comings and goings around Annapolis's historic courthouse is an increasingly common sight: newlyweds emerging from a civil ceremony with friends, family and flowers.

From formally attired couples dashing into limos to giggling jean-clad couples riding off on the city's red trolley, from starry-eyed teens to people stepping into a second marriage -- such scenes add to the charm of the courthouse in the state capital's Historic District, where about 1,200 couples a year choose to wed.

Robert P. Duckworth, clerk of the Anne Arundel County Circuit Court, said he strives to make each civil ceremony memorable for each couple, whether they come by themselves or bring 50 guests. For the pair that wants to make the occasion special, Duckworth is ready with homily-style advice.

"The size of the marriage parties has grown over the years because, I think, we offer a nice wedding room, we are near nice restaurants for a celebratory dinner and because of the historic setting," he said.

During the nearly 13 years he has been performing weddings, Duckworth has officiated at about 5,000 weddings -- more than most clergymen in the county. Four deputy clerks also perform civil ceremonies.

But these are not cookie-cutter events. Couples personalize ceremonies.

Musical accompaniment -- brought in by the couple -- has included an opera singer, guitarist, electric organ, mini-recitals, and the guests singing "Here Comes the Bride."

Some brides opt to walk down the red-carpeted aisle in the wedding room. Some don't. Some ceremonies feature readings by the couple's family. Some couples read poetry. Some pairs bring a gaggle of friends and kin to fill the three rows of benches. Others bring no witnesses.

Duckworth urges couples to schedule the civil ceremony to avoid waiting -- especially on Fridays, which often have more than a dozen ceremonies.

Weddings also take place outside under trees in the brick courtyard on warm days -- one bridegroom arrived on a horse, another ceremony featured a kilted bagpipe player. Around Christmas, clerks have performed weddings by the courthouse's Christmas tree.

And Duckworth, an elected official who always tells brides and bridegrooms about the twists and turns of marriage, performed one ceremony on an Annapolis trolley after it wound its way through the city and down to the scenic City Dock.

He went a few blocks away to the governor's mansion to perform the ceremony for then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening and Jennifer Crawford in 2002. He performed "millennium weddings" for 28 couples married around midnight just as the calendar rolled from 1999 to 2000.

And then there was the expectant couple: The bride's water broke at the end of the ceremony, and the couple hurried down the street to what was then the site of a hospital.

Duckworth married one couple that was wearing clown costumes, and he presided over a Harley Davidson-themed wedding. But he turned down admitting a dog to a courthouse ceremony.

Making it official are the license -- the office gives out Duckworth's 10-tip "The Way to a Long Married Life" with every marriage license application -- and the vows.

Michelle and Ernest Hall of Arnold were married there in May 2000, with immediate family and close friends at hand. The decision was born of convenience, but Michelle says she was pleasantly surprised.

"It was very nice, nicer than I thought it would be. They have this little arbor and all these flowers," she recalled.

Afterward, they went to one of the city's fancier restaurants and then took off for a honeymoon.

In recent years, Duckworth, who speaks some Spanish, has averaged a couple of ceremonies a week in that language.

"Our Latino-Hispanic population has grown, and with it, people find romance," he said.

"The last thing I want is to do a ceremony and not have the people understand the vows. It's also important to whom they bring into the wedding room, parents who may not understand English, grandparents. My whole intent is to make it meaningful," he said.

There have been some unusual twists. The bride whose halter top fell off. The bridegroom who fainted. The bride who waited hours until the building closed for her intended, who did not show up. The pair that arrived twice -- leaving the first time when the bridegroom couldn't make the commitment and returning a week later when he could.

There also have been some complications, including men who turned out to be bigamists and a couple that wasn't quite of two genders -- it is up applicants to be truthful on license applications. (So far, no openly gay couple has sought a license.)

A few years back, couples seeking a courthouse wedding in old Annapolis got a not-quite-romantic experience.

They went to a poorly lighted, dank basement, sometimes sharing the corridor with shackled prisoners who were shuffling to a courtroom, estranged couples waiting to see a master to hash out divorce terms and perturbed families in juvenile court.

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