Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Brief Architectural History of the Old Senate Chamber

The jewel of the Maryland State House is the Old Senate Chamber, where the Continental Congress met while Annapolis was the capital of the United States from November 1783- August 1784. It was here that General George Washington, on December 23, 1783, came before Congress to resign his commission as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army in an emotional ceremony.  He left immediately after the ceremony to return to Mount Vernon and private life as a farmer. A bronze plaque on the floor marks the exact spot where he stood while delivering his farewell speech. Less than a month later, on January 14, 1784, the Treaty of Paris was ratified in this same room, officially ending the Revolutionary war.

18th Century
Maryland's Old Senate Chamber is not only regarded as one of the most historic and hallowed rooms in our nation's history. Designed by Annapolis architect, Joseph Horatio Anderson,  it was also considered to be one of the most architecturally elegant and refined  public spaces in Colonial America. Featuring a gallery, described as "more elegant than required," balanced on the opposite wall by an ornately carved niche, the Old Senate Chamber was the embodiment of Annapolis-style design and craftsmanship.

19th Century
For nearly a century the Old Senate Chamber retained this appearance but by the late 1870s the state hired a Baltimore architect, George A. Frederick, to supervise renovations throughout the State House. Regrettably, this resulted in a complete remodeling of the Old Senate Chamber in the contemporary Victorian style. Except for the niche, all of the 18th-century fabric was removed, including the gallery, window and door frames, as well as the pediment and columns framing the niche. The chimney breast and mantel had already been removed, in 1858, for the installation of a new heating system.

Early 20th Century
The 1877-1878 remodeling was not without criticism and just sixteen years later the Maryland Legislature appointed Colonial Revival architect,  J. Appleton Wilson,  and Annapolis historian, Frank Blackwell Mayer, to investigate the feasibility of restoring the chamber to its 18th-century appearance. By 1907, the restoration was complete and for its time Wilson's restoration was a commendable work, returning a reasonably appropriate ambiance to the space. However, it must be remembered that this was a Colonial Revival recreation, based on the available archival evidence and oral history, and did not have the benefit of modern scientific examinations procedures, research techniques, or documentation that has since surfaced. 

The 1905 restoration addressed the architectural aspect of the room, but did not include furnishing the chamber to its later 18th century appearance. In 1930, the Maryland Historical Society launched an effort to correct this deficiency under the direction of Laurence Hall Fowler, a Baltimore architect noted for his knowledge of historic American architecture. This refurnishing effort, which included replacing the draperies and supplying recreations of original furniture, eventually expanded to include plaster repairs, reconsideration of some architectural details, and a new paint scheme. In addition to several original chairs and desks, Enrico Liberti of Baltimore supplied exact reproductions of the remaining furnishings to make the total of sixteen that we know were present in 1783 at the time Washington resigned his commission.

Today, the Old Senate Chamber only offers the viewer a hint of its original design. In late 2007, historic preservation investigations were begun to determine the source of failing plaster and paint in the chamber. The result has been the removal of all of the paint and plaster, revealing the original 18th century bricks and mortar. These investigations have also uncovered "ghosts" of probable 18th century decorative plasterwork and other features of the room. Continuing scholarly research and discussions will determine how the room will be restored within the next several years.

Stay tuned! We will be posting photographic and archival evidence which has helped influence our understanding of the late-18th century appearance of the Old Senate Chamber. 

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