A panoramic view of history

A new exhibit offers a quick tour of Annapolis' points of interest - by looking out the window

April 16, 2006|By JAMIE STIEHM | JAMIE STIEHM,SUN REPORTER

The new HistoryQuest center in downtown Annapolis literally opens windows into the past of Maryland's capital city. The idea is that visitors and residents who walk into this revamped 18th-century warehouse on Main Street will see a "museum without walls" through the glass panes - the city and its points of interest.

They're all there: the State House dome, the Cathedral of the Navy and the City Dock, where a statue of Alex Haley, who wrote Roots, a saga about his slave ancestor Kunta Kinte, line the water wall.

Brief exhibits on the windowsills and a signers room are part of the illustrated city scenes. (All four Maryland signers of the Declaration of Independence lived in Annapolis during what is now referred to as the "Golden Age.")

The Historic Annapolis Foundation, a nonprofit group that helped save the city's architectural character from the winds of urban renewal 50 years ago, developed the concept of HistoryQuest. The center's building is named in honor of a founder and driving force, the late St. Clair Wright.

The grand opening of the $3 million center - which has original hardwood floors and high-definition 30-second video segments - is scheduled for April 29, but the three-story building is finished and open to the public.

"Looking at this small space, all of a sudden it occurred to us you could really tell the story and see out the window through time," Gregory A. Stiverson, the foundation president, said Wednesday during a walk- through.

Plans for the project have been on his desk since he started the job in early 2003, he said.

The foundation historian, Jean Russo, emphasized that viewing the center as a museum or as a competitor to the city's visitor center on West Street would be wrong. It is intended to give a brief, overarching view of what can be seen and found in the city, depending on one's time and interests. In other words, it's a way to plan a day trip in a friendly setting with other sightseers.

"This is the museum out here, the city," Russo said. "A museum without walls. We'll tell you how to see the town."

With tourists by the millions coming to Annapolis for sailing, historic architecture, the Chesapeake Bay or the Naval Academy, there was a need for a place to start, a few rooms with views, organizers said, to provide context for the city's 3 1/2 centuries. The center will sell tickets to other Annapolis attractions, rides and tours, including boating on the bay.

The decor behind the plain facade is dominated by bright yellow and cool green paint. Sarah Elder, the vice president of business operations, runs the first-floor gift shop.

"The doorway's open," she said.

Upstairs, Russo notes wryly, "William Paca gets a lot of press in the building." Paca, a lawyer and a signer of the Declaration who built a fashionable brick mansion and garden now owned by Historic Annapolis, is pictured along with the other three Maryland signers, though some say Samuel Chase was the most spirited, rebellious and striking of the bunch.

Tucked into a corner in the signers room is a wisp of what Russo calls "the price of the Golden Age" - slavery.

An archaeological dig at the house of Charles Carroll - he was also a state signer and a slave owner - revealed a "hoodoo cache." This was evidence of a spirit practice brought over the ocean by enslaved Africans, a way to prevent and ward off evil, a secret strategy of survival that was buried.

"African-American history is woven into the rest of the story," Russo said.

On display is a Maryland Gazette dated Sept. 29, 1767, that advertised the arrival of "a cargo of choice healthy slaves," from the slave ship that Kunte Kinte is thought to have sailed on from his homeland, Gambia.

Yet the new center's exhibits do not contain significant sequels to the post-slavery African-American experience in Annapolis.

History, even in a small town, is full of untold stories, but the center does not gloss over Civil War unrest.

Annapolis was a divided capital city in a border state - flooded with Union soldiers, but with many Confederate-leaning residents - an era the center presents evenhandedly.

Around the turn of the 20th century, everything changed in the quiet Southern town with the Beaux Arts buildings of the Naval Academy.

The era of Theodore Roosevelt's presidency was, Russo said, "the time the city expands dramatically, with new [academy] students and buildings, infrastructure, trolleys, telegraphs, the post office, telephone and electricity lines."

The presentation is in keeping with a city known for its romance with times past. "The past does resonate here," Stiverson said. "It's a place with a sense of place."

jamie.stiehm@baltsun.com

Admission to the HistoryQuest center, at Green and Main streets, is $2 for adults, $1 for children and $6 for families. It is open seven days a week, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

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