Door catches cardmaker's fancy

National preservation group puts Annapolis entrance on holiday design

December 17, 2006|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,Sun reporter

Every element in the elegant mansion speaks of Colonial-era grandeur, with every brick pleasingly in place.

But it is the ornate doorway of the 1774 Hammond-Harwood House in Annapolis, with its graceful carved roses, that catches a discerning visitor's eye.

Thomas Jefferson was an early admirer. He carefully sketched the ornate street facade -- or frontispiece -- that helped inspire the design of his Virginia mountaintop mansion, Monticello.

Now the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the premier historic preservation nonprofit organization, is bringing it to a wider audience.

The Washington-based trust is featuring the distinguished entrance, with its symmetrical columns, triangular frieze, arched windows and Greek echoes in the Palladian style, on one of its 18 holiday card designs this season. It marks the first time the organization has chosen a national historic landmark outside the portfolio of properties it owns.

Offered online to its estimated membership of 270,000 and the public, the card is creamy white, with embossing defining the elements of its design. Two ribbon-adorned Christmas wreaths lend an elegant dash of color.

Richard Moe, president of the trust, said the Annapolis doorway, is one-of-a-kind on this side of the Atlantic, reflecting the finest Georgian architecture and craftsmanship.

"The Hammond-Harwood House is the only remaining Colonial American house based on a Palladian design," Moe said. "Architectural historians regard the doorway of the Hammond-Harwood House as the finest example of carved decoration from Colonial times."

The brick mansion was designed by architect William Buckland for the young planter Matthias Hammond, who selected a spacious site on Maryland Avenue. For the exterior, Buckland worked directly from a design plate by the famed Andrea Palladio, a Renaissance Italian architect.

Because Annapolis was a hub of patriotic ferment, Jefferson visited frequently, and he could hardly miss the Hammond-Harwood House, considered the city's most sophisticated townhouse.

It remained in the family's hands until the 1924 death of the reclusive Hester Harwood, who died in genteel poverty, without electricity or plumbing.

St. John's College bought the home, using it for arts classroom space, until in 1940 it fell into the hands of the private foundation that to this day runs it as a museum.

Today, it houses a collection of period art and furniture, even a ballroom right out of the pages of Pride and Prejudice.

The holiday card devoted to the house's doorway is proving popular, said Crista Gibbons, business development members for the nonprofit trust. About 800 boxes of 25 cards have sold, priced at $25. Provided everyone mails them, the cards could reach 20,000 households.

"The door card is in the top five," she said. "The card should enhance its [the landmark house's] visibility."

But the card is not for sale in the historic house's hometown. The Hammond-Harwood House's small giftshop doesn't have it on hand because, museum officials said, the National Trust didn't give them a discount that would allow the small nonprofit group to break even after factoring in shipping costs.

While the museum was recently bequeathed a 1789 portrait by Charles Willson Peale, worth $300,000, Carter C. Lively, the executive director, said that keeping up such treasures -- and essentials -- requires a tight watch. The board faces financial hurdles and a capital campaign to replace the slate roof in keeping with the "by the book preservation practices," he said.

By the time the card-sending season is done, the Hammond-Harwood House might be better known outside the state capital. Inside the city limits, many midshipmen and residents walk to and from the nearby U.S. Naval Academy, hardly giving the door a second glance.

Only once a year is it open, when the house is bathed in traditional candlelight for holiday tours.

"Not a lot of people walk in off the street," curator Lisa Mason-Chaney said. She added that it is difficult to open the door more often to invite people in. "The keys are very big," she said.

jamie.stiehm@baltsun.com

The cards may be purchased through January at www.holidaycardcenter.org/nthp or by calling 1-800-308-4287.

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