The William Paca house is revising its displays with an eye toward greater authenticity of daily life

A glimpse into the home life of William Paca

April 05, 2006|By JAMIE STIEHM | JAMIE STIEHM,SUN REPORTER

What it felt like at day's end to be William Paca - the wealthy lawyer who was also a signer of the Declaration of Independence, an early governor and a slave owner - is on display in his recently restored bedroom overlooking Prince George Street in Annapolis.

In a window corner of the "best bedroom," there's a late light supper on a table set for one. A silk banyon - a kind of leisure suit for gentlemen back then - is draped on a chair for "Master Paca" to relax in after a daylong horseback ride home from a Baltimore court date. A blue-and-white pattern on the bed cover and hangings completes the cozy scene.

"It almost feels like someone has left the room," said Alexandra Deutsch, the Paca House's curator for the Historic Annapolis Foundation. "It's a bed chamber in the 18th-century manner. ... So much more than a place to sleep."

Deutsch, 35, will give a noon talk April 12 on how new displays offer a clearer glimpse into what the Colonial upper class did inside their homes. They reflect private habits, pleasures and housekeeping that did not make the news and annals of the times.

The best bedroom, for example, was a place to entertain one's closest friends. And the dining room was often used for the best social theater in town as a republic was born.

A new school of thought is afoot in this historic house and garden, open to the public as a period masterpiece of 18th-century elegance. In scholarly circles, it's known as investigating "material culture." In plainer terms, it's about zeroing in on daily details of life as it was lived to make the grand a little less so.

The result is that Revolutionary patriots like Paca - and other historical eminences - become humanized and demystified, according to Jean B. Russo, the foundation's historian. She accompanied Deutsch as they walked through the upstairs and downstairs Monday - and then to the basement hearth kitchen, which, they said, needs a lot of work.

The coming kitchen renovation is the spur for a fundraising event this month, a tour of more than a dozen contemporary kitchens in Annapolis. The April 21 benefit is sponsored by the recently founded William Paca Society, organizers said. The timetable calls for the display to be finished by Maryland Day, March 25, next year.

Founding father John Adams described Paca as a deliberator. His dress revealed a serious face and well-presented figure.

"He wore the most expensive clothes and was a bit nouveau," Deutsch said. "He was every bit the gentleman of his time."

Twice widowed at 41, he unsuccessfully courted a 19-year-old, Polly Tilghman.

For several women who run the house and society, knowing more about Paca is fine, but the real object of their curiosity is Mary Chew Paca, his rich first wife, with whom he built and moved into the mansion in 1765. The Chews were among the foremost families in the land, but she's largely lost in historic translation. Mary Paca died in her late 30s after 11 years of marriage.

Mary Paca's story is better told and understood not upstairs, but downstairs in the first-floor dining room and the ground-level kitchen, Deutsch said.

The dining room, set for the family main meal, is another new display in the house. Deutsch found faux period food such as a spit-roasted chicken, a haunch of venison and other realistic objects, imported from England. "Women would carve," she said, "even a calf's beef cheeks." A full calf's head was the centerpiece.

"No wonder they all had gout," Deutsch said. "The diet was meat, meat, meat ... also heavy on fat and sugar. Peas were a special treat."

While Mary Paca did not do her own hearth-cooking, a woman in her position had practically the equivalent of a full-time job, planning a household economy to feed her family members and seven or eight slaves - a dozen people in all.

Russo said Mary Paca's workload was eased by living in a city, where butcheries and bakeries could be found. "There was a market open two days a week," she said.

The current configuration of the quaint - even cute - kitchen was designed in 1976, during a bicentennial wave of "Colonial revival" historic exhibits. "Now that's a pejorative [phrase]," Russo added with a grin, referring to a wave that she considers less authentic.

With the new school of thought changing the way displays are created, the kitchen will soon look very different. More than any other space in the house, this was a female and slave domain, and an attempt will be made to capture that fact. "There will be a flow between preparation down here and presentation up there," Deutsch said, "which will be grounded in reality. The sheer labor involved in washtubs, dirty dishes and the drain system into the garden will be shown."

A Paca family slave named Bett will be acknowledged in the new display, she said, as well as a plate showing a slave's typical diet, consisting largely of hominy and beans, with a few greens - "healthier than the master's diet," she said.

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