Burtis House battle

Museum advocates, preservationists debate use for old building

May 11, 2008|By Nicole Fuller | Nicole Fuller,Sun reporter

The two-story, wood-framed house on the Annapolis waterfront has seen better days. The walls are cracked, the blue carpet is worn, and floorboards creak under foot.

But in the attic, torn pieces of a poster hang on the wall promoting a "gypsy band" concert more than a century ago - just one of the intriguing signs of the rich history connected with this dwelling built by one of Annapolis' most prominent 19th-century watermen.

Advocates for building a National Sailing Hall of Fame in this Chesapeake Bay sailing mecca say the City Dock lot on which the old home sits would be an ideal location for their new $20 million museum. It is owned by the state and serves as offices for the Natural Resources Police.

But descendants of the home's original owner and other history buffs say the house should be treasured as a remnant of Annapolis' past - not demolished or moved.

"We want to preserve the history that this house represents," said William R. Powell, a great-great-great grandson of the original owner, Capt. William H. Burtis, and a leader among his descendants in opposing the use of their ancestor's home as the site of the planned museum.

Powell and others have combed dusty land records, old newspaper accounts and other archived documents to compile information about Burtis and the house where he lived until his death in 1910.

A New York native, Burtis moved to Annapolis after marrying a local woman, the former Emily Hollidayoke, in 1860. He became a waterman and member of the Oyster Navy, a precursor to the Natural Resources Police, which patrolled the bay beginning about 1870 to keep the peace among quarrelsome harvesters of oysters.

In 1870, he and 200 other oystermen, according to the Maryland State Archives, presented a petition before the General Assembly, "protesting against the present Oyster Law recognizing dredging in the waters of the Chesapeake Bay."

Photographs in the Maryland State Archives show him at a sailing party about 1890 with Gordon H. Claude, the mayor at the time.

Burtis had a streak of flamboyance in him, it would appear. One summer day in 1895, he harpooned a 900-pound shark in the bay off Annapolis, according to news reports at the time. P.T. Barnum-like, he displayed the huge ocean-going predator at Bay Ridge, a late 19th-century resort area near Annapolis, charging the curious "five cents a look."

When not showing off his fantastic catch, Burtis also ferried elite passengers in his boat to Bay Ridge, a popular destination then featuring a hotel, picnic grounds, dancing and dining.

Jane Wilson McWilliams, a local historian, said Burtis "was a heavy-set man with a beard. He wore suspenders and a white shirt and hat usually." Her 1986 book, Bay Ridge on the Chesapeake, An Illustrated Story, features on its cover a photo of Burtis ushering vacationers to Bay Ridge.

He bought a plot of land at the foot of what is now City Dock on March 15, 1882, and built the home that stands there to this day. The site was called the Warehouse Lot and offered "the best location in the city for oyster and fruit packing," according to an examination of the property's title commissioned by descendants of Burtis.

"It was built either by or for" Burtis and his wife, the title report says.

Burtis and his wife raised four children there in an area then known as Hell Point, a rough-and-tumble neighborhood of working-class people.

At the time of his death, Burtis was referred to in news accounts that ran in the local paper as "one of the best-known watermen of Maryland."

The house continued to shelter his family and descendants until 1971, when Lillie T. Burtis sold it to the state for "five dollars and other good and valuable considerations," according to a copy of the deed.

A recent inspection of the home offers hints of its history. Though the first floor was damaged by flooding during Tropical Storm Isabel in 2003, the second floor has some of its original windows.

There are cracks on the walls, revealing the old plaster underneath. The floors, covered with drab blue carpeting, creak. Some of the windows are stuck shut.

McWilliams, on a recent tour of the home, was intrigued by what appear to be posters or playbills for a "Hungarian Gypsy Band" on the walls of the home's attic.

McWilliams said she researched the band and found that two Hungarian Gypsy Bands performed at the National Theater in Washington in 1886.

"It's not impossible that [the Burtises] went to see the Hungarian Gypsy Band. ... The concert was in Washington, but they could have, I suppose," McWilliams said. "But it's also possible that [these] were posters that were passed out as handbills, and the Burtises liked them and hung them up on their walls."

Whether the historic home would be demolished, moved or incorporated into the design of the new sailing museum has not been decided - and the uncertainty worries preservationists and Burtis' descendents.

"Initially, the thought was, such a trashy old building down there on the City Dock, no one was going to care about it," said Greg Stiverson, former president of the Annapolis Historic Foundation.

"And then," he added, "you have others who say, well, wait a minute, this is the last remaining vernacular piece of architecture in the neighborhood, which makes it worth saving. I don't think we should just dismiss a clearly historic and worthwhile building from Annapolis' past."

nicole.fuller@baltsun.com

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