Annapolis steps toward fixing alleys

Capital: The city aims to spruce up its walkways, some of which predate the republic.

December 10, 2004|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

Annapolis lore has it that when victorious Gen. George Washington resigned his commission here one December day in 1783, he cut through a certain alley from the State House to Mann's, his hotel, and then marked the occasion with friends at the popular Coffee House.

Mann's and the Coffee House are long gone, but the alley that the nation's first president most likely took, Chancery Lane, is still a well-walked, sloping footpath between Annapolis' State Circle and Main Street.

Not all the dozen or so named alleys in Annapolis glow with grand moments in American history. But most of the narrow passageways, which crisscross the city center like tunnels in a giant rabbit warren, date back to before the birth of the republic, as far as town historians can tell.

Now the city is looking to spruce up some of the pathways. Mayor Ellen O. Moyer's latest city beautification project is to restore the city's alleys, one by one - preferably replacing cement with a more palatable brick - to keep them from taking on the appearance of a typical, trash-strewn urban alley.

Moyer recently was behind a project that added bricks to the first block of West Street and its sidewalks.

"Look, we've got to do this," Moyer said as she inspected Tate Alley, which extends past a grassy vacant lot on Main Street to the State House. "These [alleys] are people's walking habits, the pathway system for walking around the city."

Annapolis officials are gathering information on the city's alleys to see where the lines are drawn between public and private properties. The point, the mayor says, is to enhance the old English village-feeling of a place once called "the Athens of America."

`A walking city'

"[Alleys] have been part of the life of the city for several hundred years, even if some are in deplorable condition," Moyer said.

"This really is a walking city," she added. "They're for everybody, to peer over the garden fences."

The mayor is not alone in her affection for the byways, none of which is lighted and many of which are well-worn, with crumbling pavement. True to their purpose, they are just wide enough for a person to pass through on foot or perhaps on horseback.

Many of the alleys, such as Chancery Lane, retrace their place in the state capital's Colonial past though their English names. Named after a London street populated largely by lawyers, judges and clerks in powdered wigs, Chancery Lane remains a favorite shortcut for lawmakers looking to catch lunch, drink a cup of coffee (or something stronger) and scan the shop windows. Hands down the most handsome alley in the city, complete with a set of stairs, it looks the part it played.

The more visible alleys near the State House radiate out like bicycle spokes - marked by nondescript signs. Some, like scruffy Munroe's Alley near City Hall, aren't even marked. Some byways have graduated to street status; Pinkney Street, which doesn't allow cars and winds past rowhouses to historic Middleton's Tavern, used to be known as Carroll's Alley. And then there are dozens of private alleys that lack names but still evoke another era.

Many Annapolitans say they enjoy having their own little network to crisscross with ease among neighboring homes and the city's mix of colleges, government buildings and shops.

"I think those alleys are the greatest thing in the world," said Richard Wood Smith, a retired Marine colonel and an expert on local history.

Smith has spent hours poring over old Annapolis maps and property records to research the original alley names and help a nonprofit group post signs accordingly. One old name became a mystery, Smith noted. He and other historical sleuths never could explain Red Head Lane - now with a more staid name, Newman Street.

Some alleys bear the names of well-known Annapolis families; for example, Ridout Alley off Main Street is named for a family of large landowners. It's a favorite of lawyer-lobbyist Eric Lee Bryant, 34.

"I love this pathway as an unceremonious means of travel," he said. "During [the General Assembly] session, it helps me to clear my mind and think, since you avoid the hustle and bustle to and from the State House."

Many residents and workers in the snug downtown overlook - and overhear -the alleys from their back porches and gardens or offices.

Lisa E. Braden, 38, a legal secretary, works in an office with a window facing Ridout Alley. "It's very well-traveled," she said. "All day long, you hear people passing and chatting."

Munroe's Alley, which winds from City Hall around a parking garage to Main Street, might be named for the owner of a bootmaker's shop on Cornhill Street in Revolutionary times, Smith said. Another city beautification project is changing the drab look of Munroe's Alley, with artist Stuart White painting a maritime mural, mostly in shades of blue.

Practical reasons

Some are quick to point out practical reasons - not aesthetic ones - to get the alleys in better working order for another century or two.

Donna Hole, chief of the city's historic preservation commission, said the alleys of Annapolis are meant to connect efficiently across the city's radial streets and two main circles, Church and State circles.

"They are there so you don't have to go out of your way down to City Dock or up to Church Circle," she said.

An English Colonial governor with a flair for city planning, Francis Nicholson, created the Annapolis Baroque scheme that placed the central circles on the city's highest points. Records show Nicholson, who also designed Williamsburg, Va., intended streets, lanes and alleys to provide various ways to navigate the town.

Hole said that if Moyer achieves her vision of clean, well-lighted, bricked alleys, then it might be a first for the capital. Their beginnings were much more humble.

Said Hole: "They were probably muddy paths."

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