Francis Scott Key's 170-year-old will rests at St. John's

A heritage preserved

February 15, 2007|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,sun reporter

In a vault on the small St. John's College campus in Annapolis lies the personal copy of the will of its best-known graduate, Francis Scott Key.

And here it has been for the better part of 14 years, as college officials worried about how to maintain its condition.

But now, at 170 years old, the document by the man who penned "The Star-Spangled Banner" might soon get a face-lift.

St. John's is seeking to preserve and protect the 1837 document, believed to be in the handwriting of the Marylander, whose ties to the college endure beyond the auditorium that bears his name or the record of his youthful hijinks of riding a cow across campus.

Last month, college officials applied for a $1,200 grant from the Anne Arundel County Trust for Preservation toward the more than $4,000 anticipated cost of conserving Key's will.

Overall, the will is good shape. Its brownish-black ink appears in "excellent condition" and the machine-made paper, but for a rip, shows hardly any degradation, according to an assessment by the Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts, the Philadelphia nonprofit laboratory that evaluated the document and probably would do the conservation work.

But the pages spent so many years folded that despite lying flat now, they pop into a trifold shape along their creases when removed from their folder. The will needs cleaning and flattening, and the tear must be mended, but little else needs to be done before placing it in a specially made box, said Joan Irving, chief of the paper section at the center.

So delicate is the will that to prevent deterioration - even after it is cleaned, mended and protected - routine exhibition is out of the question.

Instead, plans call for keeping it in the vault, rarely disturbing it for display, said Hydee Schaller, the director of the college's art gallery. Copies would be available for exhibit.

"Paper doesn't like to be displayed long-term," Irving said. "Inks are very susceptible to fading, even in the most controlled lighting situation."

What makes the will significant isn't so much the long-known provisions as the fact that it is the product of a man whose words are part of the nation's heritage, Schaller said.

Key's descendants had kept his copy - copies were handwritten back then - since Key's death in 1843 at the age of 63. They gave it to his alma mater in 1993. Since then, college officials fretted about potential decay and have been looking into what care the document needs to maintain its condition and what that would cost.

Susan Borden, director of corporation and foundation relations, said the college probably will ask its alumni association for the remaining $2,174 cost for conservation of the original and exhibit of a digitized copy, presuming the grant money comes through.

Through the conservation lab, there is a promise of $2,000 plus matting and storage materials from Nielsen Bainbridge, a New Jersey matboard manufacturer, said Sue Losco, a Bainbridge product manager.

Born at Terra Rubra, the family's property near Frederick, Key graduated at age 17 in 1796 from St. John's, a college he once called "dull."

While a student, he had a reputation for mischief. One of his chums wrote: "Key was engaged in devising tricks against unpopular ushers [faculty], ever and anon getting into scrapes by writing pasquinades [satirical pieces] on odd characters in town, his impudences sometimes rising to the height of sending his shafts among the prim and starch ladies of Annapolis of a certain age. But - shall I tell it? - his highest point of glee was to take a gallop round the college green mounted on an unfortunate cow."

"It was Key's idea that those alumni who love St. John's should form an association to support the college," said Jon Enriquez, college registrar and a historian.

The state legislature had ended its funding of the college in 1806, plunging St. John's into fiscal distress. After seeing the college years later, Key implored fellow alumni in 1827 to help their alma mater, and he was one of three people who wrote the alumni society's constitution. That made St. John's among the first colleges to create an alumni society, Enriquez said.

A prominent Georgetown lawyer of his day, Key is best known for drafting the patriotic lyrics inspired by the successful defense of Baltimore's Fort McHenry from British shelling in 1814. The song became the national anthem in 1931.

"He argued some cases before the Supreme Court, but we only think of him in connection with `The Star-Spangled Banner,'" said Scott S. Sheads, historian for the Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine.

"Here is somebody who captures in words the love Americans have for their country," Enriquez said.

The will, in which he left most of his assets to family members, is unremarkable, though it offers a peek into practices of Key's time.

Key wrote the will shortly after the death of his son, John, providing in it support for his son's widow and children.

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