Transformation of Paca House

April 06, 2007|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,sun reporter

Dinner is about to be served in the kitchen in the William Paca House and Garden, apparently arrested in time.

Set up as the busy workshop for the family's lavish dinner between 1 p.m. and 3 p.m., it is not cluttered with kitschy cheer. It now looks like a period Dutch artwork.

The "clockjack" spit -- certainly a showpiece for the mistress of the house -- is no longer spinning on the hearth. Faux seabass are dressed on platters, a rabbit is stretched out ready for carving, a boar's head stares blankly at the mincemeat pies, peas, boiled onions and, yes, a pheasant, too.

The newly created 18th-century still-life dinner scene is the central element of the transformation at the national historic landmark house in Annapolis, stressing authenticity, artisanship and domesticity in presenting the Pacas' lives as they were lived.

The several period "installations" in the airy rooms completed thus far are intended to re-create the lifestyle of the wealthy and powerful, upstairs and downstairs. Suggestive details, including what it was like to "lie in" after giving birth in a bed chamber, depart from the 1976 redecoration of the Colonial house.

"You can sense that life happened here," said Alexandra Deutsch, the house curator. "The challenge is to represent the presence of people in a more private zone. We've gradually humanized them."

Little is known about the mistress of the house, Mary Chew Paca. As a young woman from Philadelphia, she married an ambitious lawyer in the Annapolis social and political world. There she presided over the Colonial capital's most elegant townhouse, where the family of four lived with servants and eight to 10 slaves -- nobody knows how many. While William Paca rose to prominence and became a signer of the Declaration of Independence, Mary Paca did not live to see that day in 1776: She had died two years earlier, at the age of 39.

On the theory that enough has been said about the signers' public lives, at least for now, Deutsch and the William Paca Society turned their energies toward conjuring, researching and funding interpretations of what everyday life was like at home behind the Revolutionary scenes.

In the elegant upstairs dining room, with a table set with gleaming glass and whimsically colored jellies refracting light, Deutsch said, "This is the first time we talk about everyone in the same space, the family as a whole in their everyday lives."

There was a certain theater in setting the stage for dining in the Georgian era, she said. The faux blancmange meringue dessert, a fashionable French dessert, was a sign the Pacas could afford a cook who knew how to make it.

"It's as if you hear the whisper of voices and the scent of food while it's cooking," said Tricia Herban, chair of the Paca Society.

In all, the 1760s are presented as a good time to be alive at a rich man's table.

Making it appear that way would have been the most important part of Mary Paca's day, especially with guests expected. Supervising the production of a gracious five-course meal was one thing. Setting a beautiful table upstairs was another. Even with servants and cooks, it was quite a job of planning, logistics and readiness for one person -- including measuring the spices and washing the fine china herself.

It is the part you don't usually see in pictures or written records. In fact, no portrait of Mary Paca survives.

"A cook would have been up before sunrise, making sure water was hauled," Deutsch said. "We read 18th-century recipes, conscious of what was available on the Chesapeake, for the food dishes."

The home is newly opened to the public daily. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. The Paca Society will put on a "Kitchens of Annapolis" tour April 28 to raise money for the new room interpretations. Tickets cost $25 until April 18 and $35 after that. Refreshments and entertainment will follow in the Banneker-Douglass Museum and HistoryQuest. For more information, call 410-267-8146.

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