Hanging history up for the public

Plaques: Some in Annapolis hope to breathe new life into a program that puts the significance of city sites up in writing.

August 26, 2004|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

Houses tell tales in Annapolis -- and if Mayor Ellen O. Moyer has her way, they will be telling more of them on historical plaques throughout the capital city.

Moyer is seeking to recharge the city's long-dormant plaques program by urging residents and business property owners to take a good look at their street, house or building and do some digging into the past to find its historical significance.

Those who unearth something noteworthy can apply to the city's historical preservation chief for a plaque; if she agrees that a certain place is significant in the city's social history, she will write the text for a standard bronze plaque to be placed where curious passers-by can read it. Property owners pay for the 10-by-12-inch plaques, which cost as much as $200 apiece.

"Tourists come through and pass houses where Jefferson left a glove or Washington ducked in," said Richard Wood Smith, a history buff and retired Marine colonel who had a plaque installed at his Annapolis home. "There are so many houses with history like that and without these plaques, people never know."

City officials say the plaques would not only appeal to tourists, but help educate residents who would like to learn about the city's history.

"I keep getting the message back that you can feel the history here, but you don't know the stories," Moyer said. "If these houses could talk ..."

Annapolis isn't the only city trying to tell people more about its historic homes.

In Baltimore's Bolton Hill neighborhood, blue plaques are being affixed to homes where famous people, such as novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald, once lived. The project, begun late last year, is modeled after London's century-old blue plaque program.

Glimpses of the past

In Annapolis, the words on a recently installed plaque at Statehouse Circle and Cornhill Street offer a glimpse of a time when the streets below were a vineyard and a summer house for the English governor, Francis Nicholson, stood. After that Colonial period it was full of commercial bustle, with taverns, livery stables and merchants.

This is the kind of historic data Moyer says she is seeking -- not necessarily about battles or stops by famous men such as Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. She is more interested in information about the way ordinary people once lived.

The program is fairly simple and does not require historic buildings to be standing for a site to be judged significant.

"We look for the people who made our city and a site's place in the development of the city," said Donna Hole, the city's chief of historic preservation.

Moyer is taking the long view -- back to the 18th century, when Annapolis was a Colonial seaport city cultured enough to be known in some quarters as the "Athens of America." It was a destination where residents made visitors from the North or South feel welcome.

In 1776, Annapolitans backed the American Revolution, but the town leaders still sent the British governor off in style on a Royal Navy warship from City Dock -- a tale not yet told in the public space.

A recently installed plaque at a home near the State House offers a glimpse into a social trend: the use of the physiognotrace.

The handy device cut true-to-life silhouettes that were popular two centuries ago in well-to-do circles. Back then, 41 Cornhill St. was the place to go for "profile likenesses" -- it was the residence of Lloyd M. Lowe, who held the patent for it.

Smith, the retired Marine colonel who lives there, built his own version of a physiognotrace for display indoors. He and his wife, Patricia, sought a plaque on their house partly because they were intrigued by the coincidence that Beriah Maybury, a ship captain who had also lived at the address, had his portrait painted by Charles Willson Peale, the inventor of the physiognotrace.

Smith said he is all for the informal history lessons through more plaques.

A telling comparison

For Albert Hillman, 76, a trip to Charleston, S.C., was the catalyst for coming home to Annapolis and getting a plaque put on a 1903 building he owns at Main and Conduit streets.

"In Charleston, everywhere you went, there were these plaques," he said. "We don't have that in Annapolis and we have more historic buildings standing."

He said that rather than waiting for applicants, the city should devote more official time to cultivating the program, which has spurred only a handful of new ones.

Said Hillman, "We need to put Annapolis on the street."

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